What Makes a Great Brand Story?

Companies have internal documents, like mission, vision and positioning statements, that often are ineffective. Maybe they were hastily or poorly written, or there’s no strategy for executing them, or they’re too vague and open to multiple interpretations. This creates a gulf between your internal world and everybody else out yonder; what you want to stand for doesn’t match what you actually say and do.

A brand story serves as a bridge between the internal vision and the external reality. It matches both sides so everyone inside and outside knows exactly what you’re about. A good brand story also becomes a template for your advertising and marketing messages from now on and forevermore. And it serves as a guide for your staff, so they can continue to write your story every day.

Just as we each have our own fingerprints, every brand has a story. What you want is a great story. It’s an ephemeral thing, difficult to measure or define. But we believe great brand stories share certain qualities. Among them:

A great brand story is rooted in a bold choice to be different.

You can’t tell a great story about the status quo. Cirque du Soleil created a great brand story by taking a category traditionally marketed to children, replacing the animals with acrobats, hip music and abstract storylines, and selling it to grownups with expense accounts.

A great brand story embodies values that are human, authentic and desirable.

You can’t market-research your way into a great story – it has to come from within. A great brand story is created not by the masses, but by individuals with vision. The vision behind Jungle Jim’s in Fairfield, OH – to create a foodie paradise with a roadside market feel – draws loyal customers from as far as 200 miles away. Says “Jungle” Jim Bonaminio: “We want to take something as crappy as grocery shopping and make it something fun.”  What Jungle Jim has created would never have come out of a focus group.

A great story may or may not have a functional component, but it must have an emotional component.

Dyson vacuum cleaners are quite functional, but the cleaning experience is an emotional high – that universal sense of accomplishment that comes from a job well done. On the other hand, Jones Soda has absolutely no function whatsoever, but people love it, because of the genuine emotional connection they create.

A great brand story is not usually a chronological history.

Instead, it’s re-written and re-told every day, reinforcing the values and emotions that create the experience. Brand storytelling captures this constellation of values and emotions so that it can be faithfully replicated, again and again, every day. Starbucks does this beautifully, to the point that it spends nary a dime advertising its coffee shops.

A great brand story makes no apologies for not being all-inclusive.

You’re either in the club, or you’re not. As a result, it inspires big-time loyalty. Harley-Davidson built a great brand story around a renegade yet undeniably American take on freedom. A great brand story conjures pride in having real values – so that its values reflect our own. And our values forever outweigh our purchase preferences.

What’s your brand story? Does it qualify as great?

A version of this post appeared in the Cincinnati Business Courier on June 1, 2007, in the column “That Branding Thing.” Originally co-written with D. Wecker.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2007 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.

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