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The Ten Commandments Of Brand Storytelling

It can be said that there are no rules to storytelling, but you break them at your peril.

Some great brand stories have a “magic to the tale” that cannot be easily dissected and applied methodically. If there were a guaranteed formula for successful storytelling, there would only be best-selling books, blockbuster movies and hit television shows. That being said, we have learned at my agency to apply what have come to be known as The Ten Commandments Of Brand Storytelling to help guide us through our journey.

I. Tell the truth

It goes without saying that the story you tell about your brand should be truthful. Of course your story must make no attempt to mislead or misinform your audience about the attributes or benefits of your product. However, it is equally important that you craft a story that meets the promise of your brand. The greatest brandstories stem from the reason a brand exists. They must be compelling AND plausible.

II. Make your story unique

Look for the opportunity to stand out, maybe even reinvent your brand, with a story that disrupts your product category. According to the Brand Register or Brand Ladder (a tool developed and taught to me by Jean-Marie Dru, author of several books on the topic of overturning conventions in advertising, which he calls “Disruption”), there are six categories from which to build a vision for your brand. They are: top of mind, attribute, benefit, territory, value and role. You must decide if your story will strengthen top of mind awareness of your brand name; highlight a product attribute (fastest, smallest); emphasize a real or perceived benefit (a cleaner home, more attractive to the opposite sex); promote a territory (jeans from America, watches from Switzerland); embody a value (“Just do it!”); or assume a role (“The choice of a new generation.”) Where do your competitors sit on the Brand Ladder? Your story should be more commanding or adopt a different position than other brands in your category.

III. Make your story compelling

Once you settle on the core premise for your story, you should make it compelling by employing the time-tested devices of all great storytelling. In “The Elements of Persuasion”, authors Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman define a story as “a fact, wrapped in an emotion that compels us to take an action that transforms our world.” According to Maxwell and Dickman, all successful stories have five basic components: the passion with which a story is told; a hero (your brand or company) who leads us through the story and allows us to see his world through his eyes, an antagonist or obstacle (competition, market, technology, etc.) that the hero must overcome, a moment of awareness (what makes your brand or company superior) that allows the hero to prevail, and the transformation in the hero and in the world around them (why the world is a better place with your brand in it). Your story must incorporate these components to be effective.

IV. Adopt a Whole Brain approach to your story

Everyone has two brains. The left brain is responsible for logical thinking. The right brain is responsible for emotional and creative processes. In order for your customer to reach a decision to purchase your brand, he will employ both sides of the brain to a greater or lesser degree. Therefore your story should adopt a whole brain approach (more about Whole Brain Branding in the future) and use pictures, sounds and words that provoke rational thought as well as tug at the heart strings.

V. Make your story enduring

All great stories withstand the test of time. Your story should reflect your brand’s unique selling proposition, or USP (maybe that should be Unique Story Proposition). Therefore it should be a story that conveys an absolute truth about your brand in such a manner that it cannot be easily abandoned. Of course, brand stories evolve to maintain their relevance over the years. But the core story must be one that can endure.

VI. Make your story accessible and social

You may own your trademark, but a brand is born from a love affair between the consumer and the company. Therefore, a brand can never be truly owned, only shared. The same is true about your brandstory. Encourage your customers, partners and employees to reinterpret your story and tell it in their own way with their own embellishments. That’s how stories become legends. So don’t limit your story to ads and commercials. Blog it, You Tube it, Twitter it, Facebook it. When your story takes on a life of its own, and goes “viral” via social networking, its success is virtually assured.

VII. Amplify your story

Then take the best of those stories, those You Tube clips, those forum references and amplify them. Demonstrate that you recognize that your story is one of shared experience with your brand and reintroduce them into your more conventional communications channels. This will make your story more of a reflection of your consumers and their ideals. And people purchase products with which they can best identify.

VIII. Make your story part of your company or brand’s DNA

To be really effective, stories cannot be simply a figment of the marketing or public relations department’s imagination. They must be absorbed and integrated in such a way as to make the company and the story inseparable. The brand is the story, and the story is the brand.

IX. Connect your story to the bottom line

At the end of the day, your story must also inspire customers to purchase your brand or service. That’s why your stories must also contain one of the seven behavioral triggers that press the “buy” button in the customer’s brain. Give them a reason to purchase, present facts, peak their curiosity, play upon the customers fear of what they may lose by not purchasing (often a stronger trigger than what they have to gain), use questions to provoke interest and interaction, present a testimonial about others who have benefited from your product, focus on the problem your product can solve. Find the right trigger(s) that best fits your brandstory and people will respond.

X. Keep your story fresh

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of brand storytelling is to keep the story fresh and relevant to current and new customers. Think of your core story like a successful movie franchise. There are opportunities for sequels, spin-offs and a multitude of story lines that may be communicated through a variety of media. Use your brandstory as a prelude or epilogue to the actual experience of using your product or service.