Story as execution vs. Story as strategy

The brilliance of BBDO over the years had been the power of their story telling in the advertising executions.  Phil Dusenberry was a natural born storyteller.  He was also a screenwriter, most famously for The Natural.  Ted Sann was the creative force behind the agency for many years.  Is it a coincidence that he earned a Master of  Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the fabulous Iowa Writer’s Workshop?  (Full disclosure, I worked at BBDO and also have an MFA in Creative Writing.)

BBDO were masters of storytelling as execution.

What is new is storytelling as strategy.

What is most powerful is when the storytelling combines the strategic with the executional.

That means elevating storytelling up to the highest level of defining the brand itself.  What is the story of the brand?  That is a bigger question than what is the story of the advertisement.

The story of a brand will include a number of elements:

1. The founding of the brand, which some people refer to as the “brand myth”.  That is a slightly misleading term since the creation of the brand is based in fact.

Brands have a past (except, of course, for a completely new brand) and people have a set of associations with the brand that have formed over time.  By recognizing this past and emphasizing the relevant threads of the past, it is possible to increase the relevance of the brand today and to set the trajectory for tomorrow.

2. The persona of the brand.  This is a fleshed out description of the brand, including the brand’s relationship to the various audience.  This relationship between the brand and the audience hinges on understanding the role of the brand in the life of the audience — professional life for b2b brands, personal or family life for consumer brands.

Often companies will overestimate the role of the brand in the life of their customer, which may create a sense of arrogance in the branding.

On the other side of the coin, underestimating the role of the brand can lead to missing opportunities for elevating the brand’s image.  It is easy to imaging the executives at Intel saying, “We are just a computer chip and consumers are buying the computer brand.”  In that situation there never would have been an “Intel inside.”

3. The verbal story of the brand.  Capturing the brand story in writing is important for an internal understanding of the brand and for having the right language to connect with customers.  The language of the brand must fit the persona.  It needs to be language that resonates with the audiences.  It is most powerful when it has strong, coherent, metaphors.

It is most unique when it has its own vocabulary, provided that the vocabulary is intuitive, not insular.  Intuitive language allows us to recall our own memories, combine them with the brand story and co-create a much richer set of associations.

Apple has built a unique vocabulary around animal metaphors — Safari, Leopard, Tiger.

Starbucks has its own language of Frappucino, Tazo, Vivanno.

A verbal story is far more than a name and a tagline, but those are included in the brand’s vocabulary.  Be careful about defining the brand in abstract language and then waiting for the advertising agency, the PR agency, the digital agency to all create the actual language used in the marketplace.  That demotes the brand story to the level of execution instead of integrating the brand story with the executional story.

4. The visual story of a brand.  Not all communication is verbal.  Psychologists have estimated that up to 80% of communication is non-verbal.  So the visual story, the visual metaphors, of a brand need to be carefully developed at a strategic level.  What are the strong visual metaphors of the brand?  When we see a rich and robust metaphor, we begin to co-create powerful associations in our minds and memories.  These strong metaphors shape our memories more profoundly than factual information.

For Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes it is Tony the Tiger (the voice of Tony the Tiger is another way of communicating through the senses).

Burton has a very high energy visual style, extreme and frenetic.  Apple has a very high energy visual style but it is smoother, rounder, more sophisticated.  Both appeal to young adults.  Both are unique visual vocabularies for their brands.  This visual language needs to be robust, influencing every aspect of the brand from product design to online design to advertising to retail design to business forms, invoices and so forth.

Burton snowboards: high energy

High energy design

High energy design

5. The experience people have with the brand.  The brand story is told through other sensory methods in addition to the verbal and visual.  Using storytelling at the strategic level means defining those experiences at the very beginning and not leaving it until the website is being developed.

The brand strategy should provide a strong guiding hand to the actual execution.  The more places that a customer can experience a brand, the stronger that strategic guidance needs to be in order to present a coherent face to the world. In a digital world the user experience has the potential be among the strong branding elements.  There is a fine balance between creating an easily accessible, functional online experience and one that is strongly branded.  We have seen examples where the branding is only considered as a skin or paint on top of a functionally defined user experience.  The brand experience should define the functionality and not the other way around.

It is not limited to digital experiences or retail experiences.  Consider for a moment how the Ritz-Carlton brand is defined by the service experience.  That experience has been codified and turned into a rigorous training program.  The same for Disneyland.  There is no reason that it cannot be done for any brand which has a strong service element.

By defining the brand story at a strategic level, the executional storytelling will add more dimensions and create a coherent whole.  The days when a few television commercials and lots of media spending could create a brand are quickly coming to an end.  The ways people come into contact with brands, both B2B and consumer, are proliferating.  In this world, the need for strong, robust strategic storytelling is growing.

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