No brand’s a hero

For various reasons, the whole narrative branding thing has popped back into my head lately. As someone who’s been intimately involved with brands, worked in feature film development, and written much fiction, it’s something I’ve thought about quite a lot, over the years.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that people tend to want to make the brand they’re working on the hero of its own story. On one level, that’s entirely reasonable. Whether you’re agency side or client side, you’re paid to become unusually obsessed with one particular brand. Because of that, it’s at the centre of your own personal narrative. It’s not surprising that you then want to put it at the centre of the stories people tell themselves about their own lives, too.

But, on another level it’s a complete nonsense. Since when has anyone who isn’t professionally involved with a brand put it at the centre of their own life? Rather, we are ourselves always the heroes of the stories we create about our own lives.

At best, brands are present in those stories as sidekicks, supporting each one of us in clearly defined ways as we go about the complex business of living. At worst, we (quite rightly) scarcely notice or remember them. What brand of washing powder had you used to wash the shirt you were wearing when you asked your beloved to marry you? Who knows? Who cares?

So, I’ve always been much more interested in personal narratives than brand narratives. And I use the term personal very deliberately. That’s because even the word consumer privileges the branded over the personal, defining an individual not by what he or she wants to achieve in life, but by what they consume; by how they interact with brands.

The best way of using narrative techniques to understand brands is to forget about brands entirely. Think about people; think about what they want to achieve in life; think about what motivates them, and what frustrates them. Understand them fully as individuals in their own right.

Only then will you be in a position to ask yourself how your particular brand – the brand that’s at the heart of your working life, that you spend your working days being professionally obsessed by – can help them, or is hindering them. And remember, when you do that, be humble. You’re not dealing with a consumer, who’s defined by brands; you’re dealing with a person, who isn’t.

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