Talking brand storytelling

Brand personality, Brand storytelling, Branding, Content strategy, Narrative branding, Tone of Voice

So I’ve been podcasted – many thanks to Andy from SiteVisibility, who had me on their Internet Marketing Podcast to chat about brand storytelling.

Once you start talking about brand storytelling, it’s hard to stop. We discussed how to give your brand a compelling personality, tell it as a gripping story and show your customers how it can play a crucial role in their own adventures. Oh, and we touched on tone of voice and content strategy too.

So here’s our chat – I hope you enjoy it:

Dungeons, dragons and brand guidelines

Brand definition, Brand personality, Reality

Back in the day I used to play a lot of role playing games – Dungeons & Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, all of the classics. You’d get together with your friends, then head out into a whole new world and start exploring it, inventing and living its stories rather than just reading them. It was literally fantastic.

Creating your character was a big part of the fun. You’d roll the dice, see who and what you  could be, then fill out the character sheet that described your new self. Character generation began every game, because you can’t start adventuring until you know what sort of adventurer you want to be.

Brands are characters too

Brand guidelines always remind me of character sheets. Both describe who you’d like to be and how you’d like to move through the world:

A wizard might be very intelligent but not very strong. She’ll be a natural when it comes to casting spells, but she’ll never going to pick up the nearest battle axe and charge headlong into the fray.

A DIY brand might be very useful and durable but not very stylish. It’ll be perfect for priming and painting the garden shed, but it’ll never try to step into your front room and make it look spiffy.

The limits of description

The problem is, both character sheets and brand guidelines are really just aspirations – they’re not the actual achievement of those aspirations. I was very strongly reminded of that by a great little rant from games designer and narrative media consultant James Wallis.

It comes in the character generation section of his influential game ‘The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen’. Writing as the Baron, Wallis takes issue with how abstract the whole process is:

‘For character is not generated but forged on the anvil of life. It is only when the blows of experience ring in our ears that we move another step on life’s path… Our souls are formed first by doing then recollecting the experience of those deeds so that we and others might learn from the experience.’

We judge both people and brands not on how they talk the talk, but on how they walk the walk. Character only lives through action. We are what we do, not what we’d like to be.

You are what you do

That’s a tremendously important thing to remember when you’re building your own brand. Having a clear set of brand guidelines – a clear character sheet –  is very important. They help you understand and communicate who you’d like to be. But only action can define who your brand actually is.

So, once you’ve done all the thinking, make it practical. Test your brand aspirations out against your brand’s actual behaviour. If they match up, that’s great; but if they don’t, then you’ve got some work to do. It’s never enough to just tell people who you are – you have to show them too.

How dark archetypes can help you fix your brand

Archetypes, Brand personality, Narrative branding, Tone of Voice

Image by nrkbeta

People often use archetypes when they’re talking about brand personality or pinning down a tone of voice. They can be very helpful indeed – but, like everything, they have a dark side. Every heroic brand archetype is balanced by its villainous opposite.

Those dark archetypes are just as useful when you’re thinking about your brand. They can help you understand how it might be going wrong and help you tell a clear, simple, relatable story about fixing it.

So, let’s take a close look at a dark archetype. I’m going to focus on one that appears in pretty much every story ever told – the Shadow.

Enter… the Shadow!

The Shadow is the hero’s lead opponent – the absolute opposite of everything they stand for. And the conflict between them and the hero drives the story they both appear in.

Darth Vader – Luke Skywalker’s opposite in every way – is a classic Shadow. ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ is all about the good doctor’s Shadow taking over. Disney does great Shadows – look at Cruella DeVille or Snow White’s Wicked Stepmother. The Terminator is another example – an inhuman machine trying to destroy humanity. They can be very obvious in comedy – look at ‘Bridesmaids’, whose hero Annie is almost broken by her own absolute opposite, Helen.

If a brand’s making its customers feel it’s doing the direct opposite of what they want or need, then it’s a Shadow brand. Big Silicon Valley entities like Google and Facebook are great examples of Shadow brands. They want people to love how they’re creating a great new era of openness and community. But they’re very often seen as profoundly controlling and deeply divisive.

‘We’ve gone a bit Darth Vader on this one’

If you think your brand’s acting like a Shadow – that is, standing against rather than for what your customers want or need – it can be quite depressing. But the thing about Shadows is that their stories are about reconciliation and forgiveness as much as opposition and fracture.

Luke’s faith in his father finally pays off. The Terminator ends up protecting John Connor and saving humanity. Helen and Annie celebrate their friend’s wedding together, then Helen helps Annie find true love. And so on, in so many stories.

That gives you a really strong story to tell as you help your brand step out of the shadows. It’s a story about what your customers genuinely value, why and how your brand needs to change to deliver it, and how productive and profitable that change will be.

Beyond the Shadow

And that’s only one archetype. Perhaps some current or potential customers see you as a slippery Trickster, an obstructive Gatekeeper, a confusing Shapeshifter, or something else entirely.

Once you’ve understood the problem, and once you’ve settled on the dark archetype that best represents it, you’ve got a great way of telling the story of how you can fix it and why that’ll bring existing customers back onside and help you attract new ones.