By Jim Signorelli, Founder and CEO, ESW Partners
Since the beginning of language, stories have helped us understand human nature. By helping us identify with characters during their quests to achieve certain goals, stories teach us important lessons about who we are and what lies within our own potential. But this teaching is done through implication, not explanation. Stories don't tell us how to think or what to value. Rather, they provide a welcomed freedom to self-select the truths we read into them. This is why they can be immensely powerful.
In many ways, stories provide a great example for brands to follow. Brands, like stories, also contain truths. But whose truth is it, the brand's or ours? It is one thing for brands to push their meanings on us, and quite another to help us to our own conclusions. Too much advertising tells us how to see things or what we should believe is important. As a result, we are often inundated with facts that can be argued, and opinions that are self-serving. It is hard to form a willing relationship with anyone, let alone a brand, that tries too hard to convince us of its own importance.
What is a story? In simplest terms, a story is made up of a character (or characters) dealing with obstacles to achieve certain goals. The extent to which stories help us connect with our own truths is a function of how well we can identify with the values, beliefs and feelings experienced by its character.
To help brands become more story-like, the StoryBranding process provides a template to aid communications planning. The brand is substituted for the main character who is described as having functional capabilities and is additionally infused with values and beliefs that resonate with audiences. In all cases, the brand's ultimate goal, apart from increasing sales and profits, is to influence a relationship with the prospect. It is assumed that sales and profit growth are a function of this relationship. Attempts to force a relationship impede progress. Once the relationship is formed, it becomes the foundation for an enduring loyalty that the customer proudly subscribes to. Achieving this goal is sometimes evidenced by customers who proudly display the brand's logo on apparel, car bumper stickers or, in extreme cases, body tattoos.
As is the case with stories, there are obstacles in the brand's path towards its goal. These must be identified and dealt with before the desired relationship is achieved.
Working with this model, there are six steps that should be taken to apply its usefulness to a particular brand. They are called the 6 C's. Following is a brief explanation of each step and how to apply it to your own brand.
Step 1: Collect the Back Story
We start by digging up the back story. In traditional marketing parlance, this is often referred to as the situation analysis. This provides the background necessary to explain the problem that must be solved for the brand. Every back story is different but usually consists of any and all information relevant to the story about to be written. This includes an assessment of the brand's culture as well as problems and opportunities it faces in the marketplace.
Step 2: Characterize the Brand
One of the key challenges of the StoryBranding planning process is to identify the brand's persona. Traditional planning methods start by focusing on the prospect. In contrast, the StoryBranding process starts with an investigation of the brand first and with the help of management. Specifically, it starts with a thorough understanding of the brand's value and belief system. Since this is sometimes difficult for management to articulate, we use a number of techniques, including archetypal analysis, to help everyone see the brand more as a person than a thing. While looking for belief markers, it is equally important to determine if the brand is evidencing what it stands for. Is there proof that what the brand wants to stand for is authentic and not just lip service?
Besides trying to understand the brand's strengths, it is equally important to understand the brand's limitations. Too often, we see brands trying to take advantage of opportunities that are far outside the realm of what is believable and consistent with consumer expectations. At other times, we see brands upholding values that their products and/or operational behaviors can't possibly support. Imagine for example, White Castle suddenly adopting a position around healthful eating or Motel 6 trying to associate tiself with the value of luxury. These are extreme examples of reaching outside the realm of the prospect's expectations. But the point is that brand identities, once formed, have certain guard rails. Go outside these guard rails and the risk of failure increases.
Step 3: Characterize the Prospect
Once the brand is fully explored, we then characterize the most likely prospects. Specifically, we look to see what functional and emotional needs are being left unfulfilled. Then we set out to discover the extent to which any of these needs present an opportunity for the brand in question. In story parlance, this is referred to as the dramatic issue. It consists of the problem that propels the main character's journey. That issue might be about finding redemption, love, or a life purpose. While constructing the brand story, we are similarly looking for something that would propel the prospect's movement toward a fulfilled relationship with the brand. More often than not, fulfillment results from a belief that is shared with the brand and one that the prospect feels is important to his or her identity.
Step 4: Connect the Characters
At this stage, we start to play matchmaker. Now that we understand our two story characters, the brand and the prospect, we look for the fit between them. Short term, we are interested in knowing how the brand satisfies a functional need through its product features and benefits. Additionally however, we need to know that there is something that can spark a long-term relationship, one that is founded on shared values and beliefs.
Step 5: Confront the Obstacles
Our model requires a definition of the communication obstacles standing in the way of the brand/prospect relationship. Typically these fall into four categories: awareness, comprehension, confidence and affinity. The extent to which any of these obstacles must be overcome sets up the plot. Besides identifying the big rocks that are in the way, we prioritize them in order of which have to be moved first to achieve the brand's ultimate relationship goal.
Step 6: Complete the Story Brief
Unlike the traditional creative brief, the StoryBrief outlines the entire brand story in ways that further an empathetic understanding of the brand and prospect personas. One of the main functions of the StoryBrief is to identify what we call the outer and inner layers of both the brand and the prospect. Outer layers have to do with functions performed by the brand and desired by the prospect. Inner layers have to do with values and beliefs that are subscribed to by both of the characters. To help, we craft what we refer to as I AM statements for each character. These take the form of first-person autobiographical sketches as opposed to factual descriptions that are common to most traditional briefs. These stimulate empathy and identification — which is something we believe is missing from most traditional creative input documents.
Additionally, the StoryBrief provides a summary and prioritization of the the communication obstacles that the brand must overcome to establish a relationship with the prospect.
Whether the brand is sold B2B or B2C, the StoryBranding process can move a brand closer to connecting with its prospects on an emotional level. In all cases, the principle of implication over explanation if relevant and applicable.
Jim Signorelli is the founder and CEO of ESW Partners, a Chicago-based marketing firm and author of the new book, StoryBranding: Creating Stand-Out Brands Through the Power of Story. Signorelli's agency has been cited as one of the fastest growing independent companies in the U.S. by Inc. Magazine for three years running and, in 2010, he was the recipient of the "Smart Leader" award given by Smart Business Magazine and U.S. Bank.