It’s easy to see what a ‘story’ can mean in a traditional advertising context—when content and form combine to create communications that on TV have an introduction, a complication and a resolution. But what about when it comes to experiences, where brands themselves should fade into the background and invisibility of their interaction with consumers becomes key? Where’s the room for a story there?
Some experiential agencies have even said that the products and services of today will not be underpinned by ‘big idea’ thinking, nor the kind of copy-writing that produced many an iconic tagline in the past. So, is the ‘brand story’ over, shelved never to be touched again?
I believe that the power of a good story only comes to the fore when we keep two things in mind: pragmatism and architecture. Pragmatism is to realise that there’s no one story or narrative structure to rule them all, only many helpful models depending on what we want to achieve. Meanwhile, architecture is to realise that different story forms can be useful in different parts of the organisation and stack up to a much bigger story that characterises what a brand really is about.
It all begins with being more precise about what kind of story each situation really requires. Here are some typical brand narratives, still relevant in the age of experience, none of which are mutually exclusive but leverage elements of each other.
Strategic or change narrative: a galvanising leadership tool to champion change
There are times when a business has to drastically change its course to survive, or simply continue to lead. In these instances, a narrative might be needed to create vivid and exciting pastiches of the future, and provide a high-level indication of the present context, challenges, obstacles or key shifts necessary on the way to get from present to future. It’s the visionary end state, with a trailer for what’s to come in the medium to short-term that leaders can use to engage their people and to give others an inkling of what’s to come.
This year, Toyota celebrates an eight-year partnership with the Olympics and seems to be going a step further with its ‘Start Your Impossible’ campaign. It stresses ‘Mobility for all’, championing Paralympic athletes from skiers to BMX racers. With statements like ‘Mobility is a human right’, it’s clear that this narrative isn’t just a communications campaign. Toyota is putting its words into R&D: from people movers and taxis to accessible transport for the disabled and home robots to perform household tasks. It’s a strategic commitment that anyone working at Toyota can proudly stand behind.
Customer narrative: a description of sensory experience and human impact
A customer narrative creates clarity by telling people what to expect from their interaction with the brand, showing how its products/services can help solve problems a customer might face and how they can play a meaningful role in their lives on a day-to-day basis. A customer narrative is told chronologically from the user’s perspective and tries to set an ideal for the desired physical, emotional and cognitive impact of a service and how this is effected through engagement of the five senses. This is useful when guiding, you guessed it—the design of a holistic brand experience—whether it’s physical, digital or in-person.
These experience narratives can be read loud and clear in brands that position themselves as lifestyle brands that contribute to multiple aspects of your life, guiding everything from store-fitouts to new product development. As competition in the audio equipment market intensifies, Bose promises ‘Audio for Life’—whether it’s athletic performance, style or helping you to focus as you paint, it has the right audio product to elevate that particular life experience—including glasses with integrated speakers.
Product narrative: a feature- and benefit-based statement of value
A product narrative can be useful in articulating a value proposition in long-form. A fusion of a product’s positioning, benefits and the features that bring it to life, it’s this kind of narrative that can be best described as the very well sought-after elevator pitch. This narrative comes to the fore when moving customers across the sales or marketing funnel. It’s not temporal or chronological in nature—it zooms in and out, big picture and detail, is informative yet still connects to the broader context of a brand’s purpose.
These product narratives are often seen in new tech launches when they communicate the impact, or if explorative, potential impact of their product. You can see many examples of this as the lines between phone, PC and tablet continue to blur. Lenovo recently released what some say is the first truly foldable tablet PC in the Lenovo X1 Fold, starting the launch narrative off with a simple logic, ‘The book paradigm is millennia old’—and people are looking for something more useful in an age where they’re constantly flicking between devices.
Communications or content narratives: content that elicits brand engagement or builds brand perception
There's huge diversity in this group, including editorial content sourced to reinforce a brand’s positioning and advertising campaigns that can be witty and whimsical. These stories don’t necessarily have to be told from the brand’s point of view. They might be told from the perspective of a fictional character, be anecdotal or just be a little glimpse of situational humour. They can also be the stories of people who use the brand or live a life that a brand wants to be associated with. What’s important is that these stories are deliberately written and curated by the brand to help shape perceptions of it.
Suntory’s Boss brand is available on every corner, in ubiquitous vending machines throughout Japan's cities and countryside. Its advertising, though, is tied together by a red thread woven over decades: Tommy Lee Jones. He plays the role of an expat salaryman who stoically navigates various situations in typical Japanese workplaces (and at times reprises roles that are more akin to Agent K in Men in Black than an office worker). Boss has just debuted in Australia and is now beginning to weave its own story with the campaign—‘How Japan Can’.
Employee narrative: a codification of culture, expectation and reward
An organisation is only as effective, engaging, interactive and productive as the people that it’s composed of. Employee narratives boost morale while giving an indication of what a company’s people can expect in terms of collaboration, communication, career pathways and reward. It’s usually written in a similar tone to a strategic/change narrative and is a vehicle for creating a common sense of identity, driving ideal behaviours and cultivating pride in being part of the group.
Whether created for financial-services organisations or tech companies, narratives are used to attract the right sort of people to an organisation, keep them and motivate them. Certain brands are seen to have more inquisitive people—let’s say Google, while others might build a perception of being technical specialists seeking perfection—Lexus, or finding fulfilment in customer centricity—Honda’s Three Joys philosophy is emblematic of this.
As you can see, narrative still drives a lot of what we do in the age of experience: from the behaviours required to transform a company to a description of the experience of using a potential product in the research pipeline all the way to how you might communicate its value. The ‘brand story' is certainly not behind us. In fact, get cosy beside the campfire, because the real story begins here. And you’re holding the pen. Happy writing.
John Corleto is senior strategist at FutureBrand Australia