Brand Storytelling – It’s Not What You Think It Is

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UK Birthday

I once asked my Facebook friends for some advice: “Looking for a higher-end digital camera to buy that will make my pictures look nearly professional with minimal-to-no effort.” The question was tongue-in-cheek, since I know that the tool doesn’t make a craftsman, and my photographer friends replied in kind. “Make sure you buy one that’s bundled with a box of photography knowledge,” quipped one of them.

He was right. Whether I spent $2,000 or $20,000, simply owning a camera doesn’t mean I am a photographer, just like owning golf clubs doesn’t mean I am teeing off first at the next PGA Championship. The same is true of brand storytellers.

Common definitions of brand storytellers are often as misguided as my question about photography. Most people think “brand storytelling” is a synonym for “marketing.” So if you’re a marketer you’re also a brand storyteller, right? That’s simply not true.

Brand storytellers are a different species. They’re passionate about their brand but they LOVE their audience. They understand brand archetypes and ensure that their brand always communicates in the appropriate tone and voice. They truly listen to and honestly engage with their audience.

One of my favorite brand storytelling quotes comes from Michael Margolis, founder of Get Storied, a storytelling university of sorts: “Once an audience can see themselves in your story, the need to persuade disappears.” It gets right to the point: Brand storytelling isn’t about your product, your price points or even your value proposition; it’s about the audience.

Effective brand storytelling isn’t about telling stories about your brand. Instead, it’s about bringing your audience on a journey in the context of your brand where your audience is the hero (not your brand). It gives the audience an opportunity to see what they can accomplish with your brand, whether it’s catching the eye of that girl at the bar or ending world hunger.

This isn’t a cutting edge idea that will take years to actually put into action like 3D printed eco-cars. Brands like Red Bull and Dominos dove head first into brand storytelling to attract massive audiences (in Red Bull’s case) and redefine their brand (in Dominos’ case). Here are wildly different brands doing storytelling right in 2014:

Newcastle Brown Ale: No Bollocks

There may not be a better example of honest, innovative, transmedia storytelling than Newcastle Brown Ale’s “No Bollocks” campaign. Newcastle promised its customers good beer, no bollocks, by avoiding common brand hyperbole and instead taking a brutally honest look at the hyper-connected world its target audience was living in. The brand told its story primarily through Facebook but also shared content on Twitter and YouTube. It armed its audience with a constant barrage of witty, shareable content including cover photos proclaiming, “I sold out my cover photo to a beer brand,” photos of their factory with copy that read, “Newcastle. Carefully crafted by very big machines. #nobollocks,” and an app called the Subtexter that allowed Newcastle fans to add prewritten subtext to a photo (either uploaded by the user or provided by the brand) and share it across their social networks. The effort in honest brand storytelling has made Newcastle the fastest growing beer brand on Facebook and led to the brand’s “If we made it” campaign that won Facebook’s most prestigious Studio Award.

Expedia: Find Your Closure (Ty’s List)

Online vacation booking is an extremely crowded space, so it’s great to see Expedia creating content not about it’s ability to find the lowest fares and bundle reservations for you (since we can do that on countless sites), but instead about what it means to travel and what we find along the way. The video (and the resulting documentary) have little-to-nothing to do with booking online, but the next time I book a vacation with friends, maybe Expedia will be top-of-mind.

Most Shocking Second a Day Video: Save the Children UK

It’s not quite fair to put a PSA campaign here since they have much fodder for content that tugs at your heartstrings and inspires action (hopefully), but this one was special. The problem with getting people to act on issues that don’t necessarily hit home, like the crises in Syria, Nigeria and Russia, is that it’s hard to put in perspective. In other words, we (the audience) can’t see ourselves in those stories as we read the news on our smartphones from the comfort of our 3 bedroom homes on a half-acre of manicured land. This video puts the Syrian conflict in the perspective of a UK family, specifically their young child. By the way, you can help save child refugees here.

Great brand storytellers commit to creating valuable and entertaining content across a variety of channels, specifically those that their audience frequents (not just the shiny and new ones). Done right, brand storytelling can define (or redefine) your brand in a way that telling stories about your products never will.

Jon Thomas is a senior digital Strategist at TracyLocke and frequent contributor to Say Daily. Follow him on Twitter @Story_Jon.