Brand and comms

Creating authentic brand stories

Who are you?

The reason I ask is that, in the 15–20 years that the term has been around, ‘storytelling’ has become all things to all brands. Google ‘brand narrative’ and everyone will tell you a different tale. To some, it’s long-copy Jack Daniel’s ads that come to mind; to others, it means an entire system of brand communications, from a passage of prose to a string of emojis.

What seems to be common to most brands that are seeking a ‘brand narrative’ is the desire for some kind of inspirational raison d’être. They’re finding it a challenge to articulate what they’re really about with the branding basics of vision, mission, values and elevator pitch. Many find it hard to even put their finger on what these things are, or should be. Vision and mission typically blur into one, and values morph from beliefs into a list of desirable character traits (Honest, Approachable, Passionate etc), which end up sounding just a yawn away from everyone else’s.

The brand narrative is a chance to give employees, brand guardians, agencies and customers something a little more substantial: a bold, succinct, inspirational statement that stakes out the brand’s unique place and purpose in the world, pulling together the narrative thread from its early history to the present day. It’s more than the simple what-we-do of an elevator pitch. It’s a thing of spirit and substance that can define, encourage and embolden, and drive all of a brand’s communications.

So how should clients go about developing their own brand narrative? As a copywriter who’s been through the process a few times for major brands, I’ve gathered a few dos and don’ts that might be useful.

Find your purpose

Warning: Commissioning a brand narrative can open a Pandora’s box of board-level soul-searching and hand-wringing. Make sure you’re agreed on what the purpose of your brand is in the world before trying to frame it in an enduring, meaningful brand narrative.

Do your homework

It’s surprising how corporate memory fades. Every narrative needs a starting point and while not every brand has a Steve Jobs or a eureka moment in its locker, the far-reaching actions of a founder or key figure from back in the day can provide a telling template for the modern brand.

Be authentic

Don’t stretch things too far. No one is going to believe that (insert founder’s name) started the business because he was passionate about changing tyres or canning sweetcorn, even if he was. Keep your claims credible and tangible.

The big idea

If the brand is newish or lacking historical colour, there may be a big idea or cause in the zeitgeist that you can legitimately hitch your purpose to, directly or indirectly: truth, risk, uncertainty, democracy, ageing, the climate… or even Ed Sheeran’s hair.

Keep it short and sweet

No one wants a life story. If you need more than a few sentences to tell the world why you matter, then this might not be the way to do it. Brevity will allow your narrative to translate to different media and environments. Keep the tone high-level, keep sentences punchy, and don’t get dragged into detail.

Leave your audience wanting more

Stories have an ending, narratives don’t. Your narrative is all about the long term, the big picture: the brand’s origins, present and future, its beliefs and point of view. You’re not presenting products or services, you’re presenting a state of mind.

Don’t rush it

These things take time. Don’t expect the finished article after one or two drafts. Edit, hone, polish. Get buy-in. Reduce and refine. And reward your copywriter handsomely for his or her patience.

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