Strong brands have an understanding of who they are and what they stand for. They also know how to communicate this sense of self to others, expressing their unique identity with the world. This introduction to brand storytelling will explain how successful brands use stories to engage their audiences — it will also look at the difference between a ‘brand purpose’, ‘brand proposition’, ‘brand promise’ and ‘brand story’.
To understand how brand storytelling works in today’s industry, it is helpful to first learn how the practice evolved. Storytelling has been woven into our culture over generations. From grand tales to everyday anecdotes, stories help build our collective understanding of the world around us. Stories also help to unite and motivate groups of people; influential factors that have been employed — for good and bad — throughout the ages.
Storytelling differs from a purely factual account. It introduces emotion, context and vision and brings a narrative that can be easily understood and retold.
Businesses, particularly those in the UK and US, first notibly adopted brand storytelling following World War I. This change in approach came during a period of extreme economic and existential hardship. While Western society was reshaping itself, a range of common themes and aspirations started to appear in the way that brands talked about themselves and their products. Companies like Coca-Cola and Ford built their reputations by making claims and statements about how their products could change the world for the better. Cereal brands told parents that their children would grow up strong if they ate their product. Drinks companies assured customers they could be happier and have more energy. Clothes makers, jewellery and cosmetics could transform your social status. These brands achieved this by tapping into the cultural stories of the time; personal betterment, increasing self expression and social mobilty.
These stories became integral to how brands communicated. They also helped to form unique company cultures that endure to this day. Fast forward to today, and these principles are embedded as the core building blocks of brand identity. While the examples provided would struggle to be classed as a ‘brand story’ by today’s standards (they are more closely aligned to advertising), they certainly paved the way for commercial ’emotive storytelling’.
Contemporary brand storytelling looks to simply capture and express the essence of a brand. This is done by placing the brand within a wider cultural context, explaining what problem the business solves, why is important and how that will be achieved. This ‘story’ may be made up of various components including;
Brand storytelling is therefore a much larger narrative that encapsulates some — or all — of the above. Every brand story is different, just as every individual is different. To compound this, every strategist, studio and agency also has their own approach to defining a brand narrative. There is no right or wrong way of defining a narrative, but at LBD Studio we believe that a strong brand story will include a unique purpose, proposition and vision.
A brand narrative is used by companies as their guiding light — setting purpose and defining how they look, speak and act. Successful brands such as Nike, Google, Spotify, Sonos and Microsoft all implement their stories at board level. This means that they live and breathe their narrative, promoting it throughout the business and creating a culture that cannot be replicated elsewhere. Many brand narratives fail because they are seen as a quick fix or a marketing exercise. This is because brand storytelling is not about selling, advertising or generating sales.
A good brand narrative will link all aspects of a business, from leadership, through the various departments, staff, partners, customers and beyond. It should be seen as perennial, omi-channel and appropriate for both internal and external audiences. Unlike advertising and marketing campaigns, brand building exercises are aimed much more generally. This story therefore provides context for your business goals and vision — it helps employees align their work with the greater mission and gives customers insight into who you are. The more clearly defined this message, the easier marketing becomes because there is less guesswork involved in deciding how best to reach out to potential customers.
As specialists in developing clear brand narratives, we have recently completed brand story work with clients such as Halley Stevensons, Back Onside and the National Trust for Scotland.
Every brand strategist, agency and consultant has a different take on how to best categorise and describe a brand story, brand purpose or brand proposition. In our experience, these terms can be used interchangeably or they can hold very defined meanings in their own right. In our practice, we find the best explanation to be that a ‘brand purpose’ is a short statement that captures a distilled version of a brands reason to exist (beyond making a profit). Successful brand purpose statements use empathy and emotional connections to help interact with and unify internal and external audiences around a single goal. As a rule of thumb, a brand purpose tries to address important questions such as, ‘why do we get out of bed in the morning?’. If a business can succinctly answer this, they are well on their way to uncovering their brand purpose.
The brand story is a fundamental starting point for any brand strategy. It can be used to inspire the proposition and mission, as well as bring those ideas alive in a way that helps employees understand what it means to work for that company or organisation.
A brand proposition is a more functional term that we use to describe the unique traits of a brand. This can also work as a brand purpose, however, we have seen many examples of successful brand propositions that do not extend beyond the internal audience, instead of focusing on the key stakeholders and staff within an organisation. We do not consider a brand proposition to be the same as a brand purpose, but it can be a starting point for developing one.
A brand proposition can be more difficult to communicate externally if it does not take the brand’s ‘true purpose’ into account. By focusing on ‘what we do’ rather than ‘why we do it’, much can be lost in the way of momentum, making the final statement less compelling and harder to buy into.
A brand story is a much more general term used to communicate a brand purpose and occasionally a brand proposition. A strong brand story will be a compelling narrative that tells the brand’s reason for existence, what it is aiming to achieve as well as its backstory and personality.
When explaining to students the difference between brand development work vs brand advertising, we plot out an axis with brand development on one side and advertising on the other. The two must work hand in hand, however, they serve different purposes.
Brand story, proposition and purpose statements are all effective brand-building tools created to better inform internal and external audiences about that brand. They should not be confused with traditional advertising techniques such as straplines or slogans, as both were primarily created to sell products or drive awareness. This makes brand building much more difficult to quantify, however, several detailed reports over the last decade have conclusively proven that brand development work generates around 50% extra return on investment when measured against traditional advertising. Harvard Business Review produced a ground-breaking report that introduced this topic back in the ’90s, with Forbes and many others following up more recently.
Strap-lines are a traditional advertising technique used to communicate specific brand values and aspirations to generate income. They are often less than a sentence in length, to be memorable to customers and quickly communicate brand messages. Slogans are similar but tend to be a little longer and are often used in brand campaigns. Both strap lines and slogans have a defined shelf-life, usually spanning many years. This contrasts with a brand purpose as they are written as a reflection of a brand and aim to last decades without much need for refinement.
There are many examples of brilliant brand stories that have stood the test of time, directing how brands look, speak and act for multiple decades. Examples such as Nike, Google and Virgin all bring clarity to their operations and brand positioning.
Nike’s brand story: ‘To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world. If you have a body, you are an athlete.’
Virgin’s brand story: ‘Don’t just play the game, change it for good.’
Google’s brand story: ‘To organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.’
There are many ‘internal’ benefits experienced when creating and communicating a well-defined brand story. These include greater staff alignment, consistent decision-making, behavioural unity and empathy, efficiency gains and a stronger team spirit. By uniting people under one common purpose, staff and partners can better understand the direction that the brand is pursuing (and why!). This can help to forge stronger relationships and understanding between roles — a common issue in the workplace. A brand story provides a clear framework to work within that will help a team stay on track and deliver against objectives while providing the necessary autonomy to do so in their own way. A strong brand can provide a sense of belonging, which is often lacking in the workplace.
It is not just staff that benefit from a clear direction of travel, it is also customers, partners, collaborators and other external audiences. Recognition of a brands intention is often a ‘reason to believe’ and can help to create stronger partnerships with suppliers, sponsors or collaborators. By defining a brand story, a brand will carve out a unique niche that can attract customers and generate loyalty among them. Distinctiveness is an important consideration for consumers, with many citing brand purpose as a key reason for brand loyalty.
If your business would benefit from a new approach to strategic development, please get in touch and we will be happy to advise on the best route forward. We recommend that a strategic audit is undertaken before starting new strategic work to ensure it uses a solid evidence base.