Peer through the animal fur and body paint and we can see how
such needs remain fundamental today. Especially in the world of
corporate branding and communications, where people need to know
who you are, what makes you special, how you do things and what
you've achieved. Investors, clients, business partners, analysts
and commentators are still human beings, which is to say simply the
scrubbed-up and be-suited descendents of that spell-bound circle
sitting round the tribal fire. If stories help humans make sense of
our world, brand stories help us make sense of and negotiate the
world of business and commerce.
So what makes a great story, and what does this have to do with
branding? The most powerful stories have a single strong idea (boy
meets girl; hero overcomes his humble beginnings to eventually
triumph, etc). They are coherent, with a beginning, middle and an
end. And they are consistent, with characters staying true to
themselves and developing plausibly in response to circumstances.
These things allow them to grab the attention and hold it. They
live vividly in the imagination and reside in the memory. And, if
they touch the emotions and manage to treat universal themes in
original ways, they endure and become classics.
It might seem quite a stretch to compare branding with Romeo
and Juliet or A Tale of Two Cities or Raiders of
the Lost Ark. But brands, successful brands, push the same
buttons and obey the same rules employed by the most successful
storytellers from Homer to J.K. Rowling. Brands also have clarity
and focus: you know what they're about and what they offer. Brands
are compelling: appealing to you both rationally and emotionally.
They are consistent: you know what to expect from them, based on a
relationship developed over time and across diverse points of
contact. Brand and story were made for each other.
If brands help people understand you, remember you and do
business with you, their stories help to make this happen. Stories
define brands and bring them powerfully to life. We're used to this
idea being associated with consumer brands, with the likes of Innocent, Google or Dyson encouraging the belief that behind every
great product is a great brand story. These are often foundation
myths, like that of Innocent's charming conception:
Three friends, working in corporate jobs have a burning desire
to make all fruit smoothies. In 1998 they sell a batch from a stall
at the Notting Hill Carnival, and whilst ancient heroes consulted
the Delphic Oracle to determine their destinies, their modern
equivalents do a bit of market testing. They ask their customers to
vote on whether they thought the three innocents should give up
their day jobs to make these smoothies full time. The answer is a
resounding yes, and the rest is very successful corporate history.
Innocent by name, packaging, tone of voice, attitude and founding
Such yarns can be truly inspiring if you're a loyal consumer, or
somewhat depressing if you're a competitor lacking a similarly
captivating tale. Attempt to follow suit without substance and
there's a risk your story might be about as compelling as someone
else's dreams or holiday snaps. And unless where you've come from
defines what you're about and where you're going, and there's a
direct benefit in this to your stakeholders, then such foundation
myths do not add up to a compelling and coherent brand story.
Yet every brand can and should b e able to tell a story. This
holds true as much for corporate brands as their more seductive B2C
counter parts. Even more so. Without a product to touch the lives
of the people you need to reach you have to work even harder to get
your story across.
Putting it together
Communication is the lifeblood of a corporate brand, which exists
largely in the telling of its story: clearly, compellingly and
coherently across all channels. But it's truly amazing how often
this is lost sight of in the corporate world, where a devotion to
facts and an addiction to jargon prevents many people applying
lessons learnt at their mother's knee and reinforced everywhere
they turn. A child doesn't say 'readme a list daddy.' Nor does your
audience. At the very least it demands (probably unconsciously)a
thread that binds together what you have to say in a way that makes
sense logically, and engages emotionally. These things have been
turned into a precise art, if not a science, by the likes of Steven
Spielberg, Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling. But how do you apply this to
the realms of corporate communications, where spellbinding
entertainment is generally low on the list of priorities?
Let's stick with Hollywood, a machine that turns stories into
dollars. A movie needs to grab the attention and sustain it just
long enough to deliver satisfaction. It must make sense in terms of
human psychology. It must obey rules defined by the genre, but have
something new to say. And whilst it must reach completion, it
should leave the audience desiring more. But before it has
convinced these audiences, it had to convince an even more
demanding studio audience it was worth investing in.
The big idea had to be summed up in a sentence, sketched out
succinctly in about a paragraph, and brought to life evocatively by
touching the emotions that are going to turn it into a hit and
repay the studio's investment.
All of this is directly transferable to the hardly less
demanding challenge of business communications. Define the big
idea. Find that one sentence that expresses it succinctly, and you
have the makings of a strap line and the basis for your brand.
Agree on that paragraph and you have the short-form version of your
story to use as an 'elevator pitch' or your Twitter profile. The
longer version can be told across each and every channel you
employ, holding the attention and sustaining your relationship with
your audience. In short, do like the best movies and their
marketing. Get to the point. Stick to the plot.
(Our publication "What's the story?" explores the role of
storytelling in business and takes an in-depth look at how the FTSE
100 tell their corporate stories - who is doing well and who could
* Thank you to Robert Mighall for all his words in this