BRAND: THE ORIGIN OF THE TERM
The term “brand” comes from the Old Norse “brandr,” translatable as “to burn,” and it refers to the practice of livestock branding. Semantically speaking, therefore, “to brand” means placing a permanent identification mark and proof of ownership on someone/something. Therefore, the sole action of “owning” a product or a service implies that your company already HAS a brand, whether you want it or not. And this is where things too often become problematic for companies; because, if you’re not building a story around your brand, stay assured that somebody else (namely: your customers) is. Brand identity expert David Brier once stated that “if you don’t give the market the story to talk about, they’ll define your brand’s story for you.” I feel it’s the best definition of what, in marketing, it’s commonly referred to as brand storytelling.
WRITING IS (MAINLY) A HUMAN’S BUSINESS
In an enlightening piece on the topic published by Forbes, Celinne Da Costa, wrote that, especially “in today’s fast-paced, overly-automated, and digitally-driven society, humanity is becoming the new premium” and that, in order “to survive, businesses need to connect with audiences, pull at their heartstrings, and engage with them on a much deeper level than seen before.” This is especially true now, with the rise of NLG (Natural Language Generation), AI copywriting tools that can write autonomously. Think of companies such as AI Writer, WordAI, Writesonic, Article Forge, or Copy.ai. All these systems can already create content for ads, email, social networks, landing pages, etc., at a fraction of the cost of a human copywriter. What these systems still lack (at least for now), however, is that almost esoterical concept that we usually define as “the human touch.” The relationship between the writer and the reader is sacred. It requires empathy, self-awareness, spiritual curiosity, and that spark of creativity that divides Barreast Wolf (an artificial writer, author of “The Imperfect in the Disaster”) and, let’s say, Fëdor Dostoevskij.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND… THE BABY?
A memorable copy is always a combination of art, craftwork, genius, and science. And, often, brevity. The rumor goes that Ernest Hemingway, to win a bet, wrote the shortest novel ever. The six-word story, known as “Baby Shoes,” is a perfect example of human creativity at its peak. In corporate branding, a fitting example comes from Apple: Craig Tanimoto’s name will probably not ring any bell to the casual reader, but he’s the art director behind the slogan “Think different.” Consider the influence these two simple words had on pop culture and the mental images they keep evoking. That’s the power of (good) brand storytelling. And… of bad one as well. Think of Gerber, the famous producer of baby food and baby products. Following its success in the US, the company started expanding (it is currently distributed in over 80 countries) overseas. When Gerber tried to enter the African market, it launched its baby food with a picture of an actual baby on the label. Unfortunately, Gerber didn’t consider that, due to the lower literacy rate (compared to Western countries), it is common practice in Africa to feature a picture of what is contained in the product directly on the packaging. This “incident” led some African consumers to think that Gerber products contained, well… actual baby parts!
HOW TO EFFECTIVELY WRITE A GOOD BRAND STORY IN 5 STEPS
So how can you write a good story for your brand without falling into the trap(s) of cliché-writing or being misunderstood? Here are five suggestions I’ve learned along the way.
- Educate yourself. There are hundreds of books on brand storytelling out there. Some good, some not so much. A great place to start is Donald Miller’s “Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen,” and Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.” Consider taking a few writing courses as well. At the cost of two Starbucks Lattes a month, you can sign up to Masterclass.com and learn from the best of the best. If the names of Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein mean nothing to you, just remember they’re the minds behind the “Got Milk?” campaign, and they have 18 lessons on how to create brand stories effectively. In my career as a writer, journalist, and ghostwriter, subscribing to Masterclass has been the best investment I’ve ever made;
- Create an emotional connection between your brand and your customers. Remember: it doesn’t have to necessarily be all about you, you, YOU. Quite the contrary! Nike rarely uses a direct narrative around its company and prefers to tell stories about athletes’ accomplishments. In our industry, a perfect example is Airbnb: the P2P marketplace does not market itself as the OTA with the most granular filters to find the best accommodation; rather, it talks about the experiences guests can live in the chosen destination;
- Ask yourself: why does my company exist? What are its values? Sure, making money and being profitable is the ultimate goal of any healthy company, but there must be something more profound to it. Buying a Tesla or an iPhone is not just a purchase, it’s a personal statement. What motivated you to start your business? What is that make you want to jump out of bed in the morning? Remember: your customers are not only buying your products and services, but they are also buying your story, your vision, and your dreams;
- Your story affects how your customers perceive themselves and how others perceive them. “98% of people that buy a Mercedes or BMW like what it makes other people think of them, not that they like it,” entrepreneur, author, speaker, and Internet personality Gary Vaynerchuk often repeats. You may want to keep this in mind when telling your brand story;
- Remember that you can write only one chapter of your brand story. Your customers will fill the blanks: on social media, review sites, word of mouth, etc. Brand storytelling is always collaborative, and it can go to places you weren’t really expecting… An example? As a kid, you probably played with Play-Dough, haven’t you? But did you know that the famous modeling clay’s original purpose was to clean wallpaper? Or that Coca-Cola was created to fight morphine addiction? It’s 100% true, look it up!
CONCLUSIONS: THE NEVER-ENDING STORY
People love stories. Think of myths: American writer Joseph John Campbell wrote a classic work on comparative mythology titled “The Hero with a Thousand Faces:” “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Sounds familiar? That’s because this is the story of Odysseus, Aeneas, Siddharta, and, well… even Luke Skywalker. Writing a brand story that resonates with your customers can be challenging. You have to establish an emotional connection with your audience, but in a way so that the narrative stays true to your company’s culture, values, mission, and selling proposition. You have to be consistent and coherent: once your story is defined, you have to repeatedly reinforce it with every marketing message you deliver. Stay focused, honest, and always remember that you’re not only talking about your products and services, but you are triggering specific feelings and emotions in your customers. Because, as J.K. Rowling beautifully explained: “there’s always room for a story that can transport people to another place.”