How to use Brand Storytelling to elevate your brand

Through drawings, oral communication, and finally in writing, the storytelling and the need to consume stories has been a constant over the years. But the question is: how can we use Brand Storytelling to improve our brands?

Introduction

Let’s go back in time. 12,000 years into the past, to be more precise. Human life back then was radically different. With agriculture still centuries in the future, our ancestors lived in nomadic tribes that subsisted through hunting and gathering. In a world that didn’t even have written language, the concept of “corporate identity” couldn’t be more alien. However, if we could travel back in time, we would find a very familiar element. Our ancestors already told stories 12,000 years ago.

Through drawings, oral communication, pictograms, and finally in writing, the need to tell and consume stories has been a constant in time shared by all humans, regardless of age, sex, culture, religion or socioeconomic level.

Stories serve as entertainment, but their function goes much further. Since time immemorial, they have been used with different aims. To convey messages, ideas, concepts, opinions, experiences, emotions, advices or even rules of behaviour. In this sense, almost all stories serve a persuasive role. Both 12,000 ago and today, a story about a person being attacked by a bear is much more effective than a sign reading “beware of the bear”. 

To understand why stories are so effective and to build a solid foundation that allows us to get the most out of them for our branding initiatives, we must delve into the world of cognitive science.

Narrative Cognition: Making Sense of Reality

Until the 1960s and 1970s, psychology was dominated by behaviorism. Led by Professor B. F. Skinner of the Harvard School of Psychology, behaviorism focused on studying behaviors and their external conditioners, but not the internal mental processes of people. This had a great impact on the marketing campaigns of the time, which had as their main objective the formation of habits through association.

A clear example is the Coca-Cola campaigns. They managed to establish their drink as the favourite for meals through ads like this:

Brand Storytelling case of Coca Cola campaigns
Most of the ads of the mid-20th century focused on creating habits with simple messages, without a story.

With the technological advances of the end of the century, science gained access to internal mental processes for the first time. This “cognitive revolution” saw the birth of new theories that tried to understand how humans make sense of reality and, consequently, interact with it.

One of the most attractive theories is called Narrative Cognition and was proposed by psychologist Jerome Bruner. This theory explains that, to make sense of an impossibly complex reality, people simplify it through narrative structures. By attributing intentions and causalities to places where there are often none, we are able to reduce the complexity of the world around us. We tell stories with heroes and villains; linear causes and consequences; and sequential events, to make sense of a reality without protagonists, multi-causality and simultaneity of events.

Narrative structures are so fundamental to our understanding of reality that we use them to make sense of the nonsensical. This is demonstrated by an old experiment. That experiment showed to participants a video in which two triangles and a circle move around a rectangle. Instead of describing an objective reality, virtually all participants assigned roles, emotions and intentions to the geometric figures. Thus, they created stories of betrayal, romance, violence and passion, and imagined things like the big triangle being an aggressive father and the little one being a terrified wife.

The “Heider and Simmel illusion” evidences that narrative structures are prevalent in our cognitive processes

But narrative is not just a structure we use to make sense of reality at the level of the individual. As the historian Yuval Harari argues in his bestseller Sapiens, there are narratives that are shared by all. Therefore, these narratives have the power to persuade and unify our understanding of certain aspects of reality.

For example, Harari explains that there really is no such thing as the Peugeot company. What is Peugeot? asks the author. Is it its offices? Its employees? Its cars? No. The company could close all of its offices, replace all of its employees, and start producing scooters instead of cars, and it would still exist. Peugeot is a character in a collective history that enables us to keep society running efficiently, explains Harari. As with geometric figures, it is our narrative cognition that motivates us to consider Peugeot an existing entity and to associate intentions and emotions with it.

In his book Sapiens, Harari explains that Peugeot, like any other brand, is the result of a highly persuasive collective story or myth that we use to make sense of reality.

Narrative and Branding: The beginning of Brand Storytelling

It is here where we begin to approach the world of branding and use the brand storytelling. If narrative structures are inherent in all humans and have great persuasive power both at the level of the individual and of society, the question is: How can we use them to improve our brands? To answer this question, we will review some of the key functions of a narrative structure.

A narrative structure consists of a series of basic elements that dictate the form—but not the content—of a story. An example is the structure that says that stories must have a beginning, a conflict, and a resolution. We will shortly provide a more complex example and explain how to apply it to implement it in a brand, but first let’s review some of the advantages provided by narrative structures:

  • They bring coherence to stories and make them more digestible (and thus effective).
  • A strong coherence facilitates identification with the characters (with their evolution, desires, fears, etc.). As a result, there’s more emotional connection.
  • High emotional connection means more persuasive power: The audience is more receptive to the message.
  • Through easy-to-understand structures, they provide a simple framework to evaluate, judge, and categorise people, facts, or ideas. For example: The structure of the “good” protagonist against the “bad” antagonist is not consistent with reality but facilitates a possible interpretation of it.

Examples abound, in both fictional and non-fictional stories: From the Bible and the Odyssey, to the Ugly Duckling and Star Wars, countless works use traditional narrative structures to communicate their messages effectively.

Let’s see an example of a more complex narrative structure, and its implementation in a brand.

A Narrative Structure Example: The Hero’s Journey

Identified and popularised by Joseph Campbell, this narrative structure is one of the most common.

In summary, the Hero’s Journey consists of:

  1. The protagonist living his/her normal life.
  2. A dilemma/problem interrupts the routine and the protagonist must decide whether to act on it.
  3. After a crisis, with the help of an ally or mentor, the protagonist begins his/her journey.
  4. The journey has a goal, a purpose (to solve the problem that interrupted the routine).
  5. Antagonists and obstacles stand between the protagonist and his/her purpose.
  6. The protagonist acquires knowledge or skills that help him/her fulfill the journey’s purpose.
  7. Normal life is restored. The protagonist is a better person thanks to the experience.

To understand how to apply this structure in a branding strategy, let’s look at a possible implementation to Unilever’s Dove. As a reference for the analysis, we will use this commercial from the “real beauty” campaign.

The Hero’s Journey Adapted to Branding: Example of Brand Storytelling in Dove

Brand Storytelling case of Coca Cola campaigns
  1. The protagonist of the story is the “common woman”, or the “real woman”.
  2. The problem is that many women have a distorted image of their own beauty.
  3. In this context, Dove acts as an ally. How? Dove encourages women to embark on a journey of reflection that will help them rethink their views of themselves.
  4. The goal is for the “common woman” to understand that she is much more beautiful than she thinks.
  5. But the goal is difficult to achieve. Because the protagonist also acts as her own antagonist. As a result of social pressures, family, etc., many women believe that they are not beautiful.
  6. However, Dove offers an objective look for them. And it will help women to acquire the skill to perceive themselves as beautiful as they are in reality.
  7. Thanks to the experience that Dove facilitates, the “common woman” can live without a distorted perception. And finally, they understand that she is much more beautiful than she thinks.

The Hero’s Journey Adapted to a Long-Term Narrative: Example of Brand Storytelling in Omega’s watches

The case of Dove is an example of a narrative structure applied to a specific campaign. However, there are many cases in which a brand storytelling is communicated through narratives built throughout years and even decades. This means that the whole narrative structure will not necessarily be embodied in an ad, as in the case of Dove, but will be recognised throughout various campaigns. For example, let’s look at the case of the luxury watch brand, Omega.

An ad like the one that follows is not enough to understand the story that Omega tells. While there are distinctive elements that could fit into a particular narrative structure—for example, the vintage camera and the “Globemaster” watch model—this ad doesn’t tell a story on its own.

Brand Storytelling case of Coca Cola campaigns
Eddie Redmayne: young, adventurous, classy. He is the protagonist of a story that can only be understood by observing the big picture.

But if we look at various Omega ads across time, we will begin to elucidate the storytelling. We will even be able to identify the narrative structure behind this story.

For example, in Omega’s brand storytelling, the protagonist is the “classy” adventurer; a challenger who makes his dreams come true and makes the most of his time. The problem that Omega as an ally solves is the extreme demand that the protagonist requires to achieve his feats. In its storytelling, Omega is the one that through watches with class and quality, provides skills to different players. To olympic athletes to time their records; to presidents to make decisions under time pressure; and to international spies and astronauts to thrive under extreme conditions, and thus achieve their goals. In this way, Omega’s storytelling, like that of any other luxury good, is aspirational. It promises an experience like that of the characters in its campaigns.

Conclusion

Cognitive science shows that humans make sense of reality through narrative structures. This means that, both at the level of the individual and of society, the transmission of ideas and arguments will be much more efficient when it is done through this type of structure.

The examples from Dove and Omega demonstrate how, by identifying the key elements of a narrative structure—in this case, the “Hero’s Journey”—we can contribute to the development of a brand storytelling.

The methodology will serve to guide communication efforts and make the most of them, since it will help to maximise coherence, identification and persuasion. At the same time, the structure will serve to guide and evaluate the brand’s efforts: Is the new service we launched consistent with our brand storytelling? Does it help the protagonist to solve the problem? These and many other questions will be much easier to answer thanks to the power of narrative.

Little Buddha Brand Design Agency

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