How to create impossibly imaginative brand stories

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You probably already tell very realistic tales about your brand. Telling much more imaginative brand stories about it – science fiction, fantasy, even horror ones – can unlock very important truths about it too.

That’s because those kinds of stories reveal different kinds of truths in different ways. Let’s start by understanding what those truths are.

What does each kind of story do?

Science fiction stories think about the present from the point of view of the future. We use them to think about what might happen next and how we could respond to it. They help us practice being surprised by tomorrow.

  • SF stories are about things that could happen.

Fantasy stories are about the impossible. They describe worlds and people that play by their own rules. They help us understand which parts of ourselves will never change, even if everything else does.

  • Fantasy stories are about things that never happen.

Horror tells stories we want to turn our eyes away from. They help us explore all the different ways our lives can go horribly, irrevocably wrong, then show us how we might live through all that awful pain and loss.

  • Horror stories are things that shouldn’t happen.

And finally, there are the realistic stories you’re already telling. They help us look directly at the world of today, understanding either how it works or how it came into being. They explain the world as it already is.

  • Realistic stories are about things that do happen.

New worlds for your customers

Telling customer stories in different genres helps you think through all the different things they might need from you and you can do for them.

A few years back, I did some work with a big DIY supplier. When we discussed how people already used their products, we told realistic stories. That helped us understand problems customers actually had and improve their day-to-day product experience.

They liked making up fantasy stories about their customers too. That’s how they ended up staging gigs in people’s gardens as part of a big promotional campaign (‘What’s something that will never, ever happen?’ ‘Your favourite comedian playing your garden shed!’).

Telling SF stories helped them understand how the DIY world could change, and what they could do about it. And when they thought about how it could all go wrong, so they could make absolutely sure that everything went right, they told horror stories.

New ways of imagining your business

Telling different kinds of stories about your own company helps you understand who you really are and plan for whatever’s coming next. Imagine that Brexit’s going to have a big impact on your business, for example.

It might have come onto your radar years as ago as a fantasy story: ‘It’ll never happen, but let’s think through what it could mean anyway.’ Exploring the impact of impossible changes will throw up surprising insights into your business and your customer relationships.

Then Brexit would have turned into an SF story. ‘Well, it could happen, so let’s look at how it might pan out and see what that’d mean for us.’ With greater realism comes more precise speculation and planning, making sure you’re never surprised by whatever’s next.

Right now, the chaos and uncertainty it’s created is something that shouldn’t happen. Telling Brexit as a horror story will help you understand what you need to preserve and what you might be forced to let go of as it goes forward.

And one day, it’ll be a story about something that actually did happen. You’ll know exactly how it all turned out, and you’ll be able to tell the tale of what you, your business and your customers learned from it.

What’s next?

So those are some ideas about new kinds of stories you can imagine. But they’re only starting points – the world of storytelling is limitless. So now, it’s over to you.

Think about all the fantastical, surprising, terrifying stories that have blown your mind over the years, then work out how you can tell stories like that about your business. You’re sure to find out some wonderful – and very useful, and hopefully not too scary – things…

Talking brand storytelling

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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:

How dark archetypes can help you fix your brand

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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.

No brand’s a hero

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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.