Beyond Story: Crafting a Brand Narrative That Works

If someone asked you to describe your "brand narrative" on the spot, could you do it?

You might say, "We are a software company that creates a mobile accounting app for businesses. Our goal is to help startups and entrepreneurs simplify their finances and save time."

This is a solid start. After all, you need to understand how your company and its products or services interface with the market. This statement shows an understanding of the hypothetical company's target customers (startups) and their pain points (struggling with complicated, time-consuming accounting tasks). It might be a good way to describe their brand to fellow professionals at a networking event, but it's not quite enough to make a deep connection with a potential customer. Let alone stand out in a crowded market.

In previous blog posts, we've discussed how to create a value proposition statement and a positioning and marketing framework for your brand's marketing materials. These two items focus heavily on your target persona's individual context, their struggles, and how your brand's product or service provides a solution to those challenges.

But customers are more than their pains – they have morals and have values. They have common cultural experiences that help them feel like they belong to the world at large. Brand narratives enable you to find that common ground with customers by telling them the right stories.

As humans, we use stories as a way of making sense of and understanding the world. The act of creating a brand narrative helps your company to identify what aspects of their own story can be leveraged as currency in engagement with customers, and ultimately strengthen the mutual understanding that a company and its customers have with each other.

Story versus narrative

Like a story, a brand narrative can exist at a number of different altitudes. It could be for your entire company or brand. It could be for a single division within a large enterprise corporation. Or it could be for a specific product or service that you offer.

While a narrative and its structure share a lot in common with the structure of story, there are some fundamental differences. The similarities of what, how, and importantly, why, are all there – in both, there are people, characters, struggle, transformation, actions taken, and ultimately, outcomes. But a narrative goes beyond story. Where a story can be centered around a specific event unit, narrative exists at a higher, almost meta-level.

There are two primary ways a narrative develops. It can emerge organically – from the bottom up, if you will – as it is defined by the stories that accrue and make the narrative what it is. Alternatively, it can be crafted intentionally in a way that enables you to use it as a filter in your brand storytelling. A well-developed narrative helps you select the right stories to use, because the "right story" is any story that makes your defined narrative real.

Going beneath the surface

To capture what you need to develop your brand narrative, you're going to need to dig into the minds and hearts of the people who are driving your business and your product to market. That might be you, or it might be your CEO, the founders, board members, inventors, or anyone else who is setting the tone direction and strategy of your company. No matter who those individuals are, it's important that they help you reveal your "brand DNA," as Shift Thinking CEO Mark Bonchek describes it.

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"When [businesses] are founded, a kind of DNA is created that persists for the life of the company," Bonchek wrote in Harvard Business Review. "A strategic narrative must align with this brand DNA or it will be perceived as inauthentic."

Bonchek says finding your brand DNA is about going back to the founders' ethos and original vision – their shared purpose that connects them to their customers and stakeholders. To do this, we recommend interviewing your chosen individuals in a way that gets under the surface of why they do what they do. You probably already have a good initial understanding of the what and how of your product and company. Take this opportunity to go deeper. Ask these people directly about how the product came to be, and more importantly, why. Why did they invent it? Why did the company bet on this strategy? Why is this something they believe in?

The best way to get these answers is to ask open-ended questions. Don't be shy – you want to understand the inception, the inciting incidents that led to this product being brought into existence. If it inspired the founding team (or whomever you're interviewing), it is highly likely that it will inspire others. Remember, you need to connect with both the individuals creating content in the marketing campaigns that you're going to craft and ultimately, your customers.

Step 1: Conducting your narrative interview

This initial step of brand narrative development should be treated like a journalistic interview. You're looking for the "scoop" – the nugget of the story that will most resonate with your stakeholders. Here are a few questions to help you plan your conversation:

  • How do you approach your job?

  • How do you seek inspiration?

  • How do you tackle the big challenges of inventing, building, and shipping our product?

  • What makes you get out of bed and stop hitting the snooze button in the morning?

  • What is it that wakes you up at 2 in the morning and won't let you fall back to sleep?

Step 2: Writing a brand narrative

Once you have all these inputs, it's time to write the brand narrative. If you've been following our series on building a strategic messaging foundation ("brand narrative" is the third essential element of this foundation, by the way), you should have plenty of inspiration on how to structure your story. As a quick recap, however, consider the following when crafting your narrative.

  • Who is the hero? All stories have a hero. In this case, it is someone within your company, such as the inventor or leader who decided to bring this product to market. While you’ll frequently hear us talk about the fact your customer is the hero, you are the guide, in this case it’s OK to be bold and proud. We are, after all, exploring how your company into being. Take every opportunity to include an outside in element of how your brands hero plays the guide role in the broader world.

  • What obstacles and challenges are present? Stories have obstacles and challenges. Sometimes these manifest themselves in an inciting incident that inspired somebody to create something. In other cases, it was an outcome of other decisions previously made, or a reaction to an understanding of customers, the market, and their needs.

  • How did the hero transform? Stories are about transformation. How did your character change because of this process of discovering the idea, and inventing and building the product? They came from somewhere and ultimately ended up at creating your company. It’s from there that they are positioned to help customers with their own transformation.

All of this can be distilled into a clearly structured beginning, middle, and end of a story. Market research expert Peter Minnium sums this up nicely: "Stories are instruction manuals that explain how we get from Point A to Point B; the key here is movement from one state of being to another ... guiding us from a difficult present to a better future — from beginning to end."

We like to describe the stages of storytelling as establishing three points: the context, the action that happens, and the ultimate results. We can also describe it in terms of the three Ds. In a prior post, we shared how customers have a desire to achieve or do something, a difficulty in achieving that goal, and a denouement – a conclusion of how they overcame it: the three Ds.

Whether you use the three Ds or "context, action, results," these elements help you map out the distinct parts of your story.

Step 3: Supporting your brand narrative.

Once you have written and edited your brand narrative, you're ready to identify the other narrative forces that exist in the world that can support your own and how you talk about your brand.

Much like how stories are a subset of narrative, narrative itself also accrues up to something bigger. If the brand narrative you're creating is for a product or division within a company, then that narrative accrues up to a master narrative for your overall corporation or company. Going further still, a master narrative can map up to a metanarrative.

Metanarratives are the commonly understood narratives of the culture and world that we live in. There are metanarratives shaped around success and failure; cultural and technological shifts; individuals and communities. These metanarratives always have a moral lesson associated with them: What's right, or wrong about the world?

Use your brand narrative as your compass to seek out a metanarrative that makes sense for your company or product to align with. You can look to history, culture, pop culture, and art as sources of inspiration for your chosen metanarrative.

When you have selected an appropriate metanarrative, turn around and go back to your brand narrative. Flavor it with the metanarrative, peppering ideas and concepts throughout to enhance your brand narrative and to connect it up to a theme and lesson that people will instantly identify, understand, and easily associate with.

An excellent example of this is the "parenting" metanarrative used by Bounty to sell its paper towels. In an interview with Forbes, business professor and 20-year marketing veteran Kimberly A. Whitler says the "quicker picker-upper" brand is adept at making the mundane memorable and relatable.

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"Bounty ... has consistently told stories about how a better paper towel enables [people] to be better parents," Whitler explained. "The stories show a mom unafraid to let her kids be kids, because she knows she can save the day should spills or surprises occur."

You can take a similar approach with your own brand narrative by finding a small handful of stories that bring the metanarrative to life. You can use these stories and the quotes from the characters within to spice up your master narrative. What you're doing here is hacking people's brains to make the delivery of your message easier, thereby reducing the required amount of energy by the recipient – your customer – to absorb it (no pun intended, Bounty).

Ultimately, this integration of stories allows you to provide inspiration and clarity of understanding of your narrative to your entire team.

How narrative fits into the bigger picture

When you craft a narrative, be it brand, master, or meta, you're thinking in a downward and upward direction. You're spelling out how your brand resonates with customers within the context of your specific product or service, as well as how it resonates with the larger culture your customers belong to.

Your job in writing this narrative is to connect the dots for customers and make it relevant to them. Show them how they are connected with your brand and/or company, and by extension, connected with the larger moral or lesson of your chosen metanarrative.

But narratives aren't just for your customers. You will use this asset to bring alignment across the organization. In particular, these narratives can be used by the executive and leadership team to create a sense of unity of purpose, direction, intent.

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It's critical not to conflate "narrative" with "strategy." During my time at enterprise organizations, one of the biggest failures I've seen is when executives ask, "what's our story?" when they really mean, "what's our strategy?" That's certainly important – strategy, planning, execution, etc. – but you also need to know what you stand for, and be able to consistently communicate that to anyone connected to your business. All valid. All different tools.

In a startup, where the founder is working in the business and hand-picks their team and clients, it's easy to maintain a consistent narrative because you live and breathe it every day. This gets trickier as your company grows and evolves to the point where you can no longer keep up with each individual team members and customers.

This is why developing a highly relevant and consistent brand narrative is such a critical exercise. Although you may not have a direct one-to-one connection with every employee and customer you work with, you can offer them a brand touchpoint that captures their attention and helps them feel that connection, deeply and intrinsically.

When you use your brand narrative in combination with facts from your value proposition and positioning and messaging framework, you'll start bringing out the heart and soul of your business, which is ultimately how you engage people. Arguments and rationality alone aren't enough. You need to figure out how to bring that narrative to life for your target market, so that when you get down to writing a case study or ad campaign, they will all accrue up to your brand.

If you want to begin building a brand narrative that will help you select the right marketing stories to tell, let's chat.

Go Narrative is a marketing consultancy that assists business leaders in technology firms to build and implement advanced marketing strategies.

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