We talk a lot of ‘brand stories’ these days, but what do we mean by that? Is a brand story just a USP? A glorified product advantage? A romanced reassurance of quality? A way of offering us a deeper way of connecting with brands? A jumping off point for design and communication, a reason for being? The substance behind the style, just in case anyone asks? Probably all these things and more, but that’s a bigger question for another day.
In the meantime a more flippant thought. There’s a brilliant book by Christopher Booker called The 7 Basic Plots that offers great material for sounding smug at dinner parties. Its basic premise is that every narrative ever written boils down to 1 of 7 basic plots. A few examples are: ‘Overcoming the Monster’ (Dr No, Beowulf, Frankenstein, Jaws, Jack and the Beanstalk); Rags to Riches (Aladdin, Cinderella), The Quest (everything from Lord of the Rings to Indiana Jones), Voyage & Return (The Odyssey, Alice in Wonderland, Goldilocks). You get the picture.
So I wondered if we could identify the typical themes for the equivalent in ‘brand story’ terms? Here’s my five basic brand stories, can you think what the other two might be?
1. Product Superiority
Crafted by artisans, hand stitched, hand blown, hand picked, quadruple distilled, made with only the freshest, made with 8 different herbs and botanicals… A unique and sustainable angle or claim makes a product story resonate.
Provenance can be about reassurance (by confirming the product is from a place you’d expect it to be) or about uniqueness – this brand is from X, which makes it more interesting and unique than brand Y. I’d expect Prada to be from a capital of Italian fashion, so its sign off provides reassurance (as well as attractive visual detail), but I might be attracted to the romance of the French Countryside promised by L’Occitane, or intrigued by the exotic source (and questionable carbon footprint) of Fiji Water.
The heritage brand story is about providing a brand or manufacturers reassurance about product or service quality by virtue of sheer length of existence. ‘I’ve been here since the year dot, so clearly I must be good at this’ kind of thing. It’s part of the visual furniture of luxury fashion brands.
4. Principles or Cause
To give your brand wider or deeper meaning, a story of principles, or alignment with a cause can help forge saliency (as well as just being a good thing to do). Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, The Body Shop and Aveda are all examples.
5. The Pioneer
Brands that were founded by a visionary or charismatic entrepreneur are able to capitalise on the spirit of innovation that such pioneers represent. Coco Chanel is an obvious innovator in her field, and her personality is inextricably linked with the Chanel brand, whilst Johnnie Walker’s striding man has increasingly become a real human being and not just a symbol of progress – John Walker, son of a farmer, and canny Scottish entrepreneur.
Unlike real stories though, brands don’t adhere to just a single basic framework. Many brands (particularly those in the luxury sector) skillfully weave together multiple stories, creating depth and nuance for their brand personality and therefore a variety of sources of creative inspiration for design and communication. And of course story isn’t everything – it’s just one element of a brand’s genetic make up. Bombay Sapphire’s iconic blue bottle redefined the gin category when it first launched and its unique product story just gave it added depth (and provided gin snobs with some bar bragging rights).
Lastly, just because a ‘type’ of brand story has been done before, doesn’t make it any less valid. The real opportunity for brands is to identify the narratives that they can authentically lay claim to and make them engaging and ownable to themselves. Brand stories are I suppose, the equivalent of category conventions in design – they can help by communicating something about your product, but if you own them, you can say something unique about your brand.
By Katie Ewer, strategic planner, jkr Singapore