Your brand stories really need to convey what your brand is all about, what you care about, why you care, how you are making people’s lives easier.

Our MO sodas are associated with the biggest football team in Tanzania, a team called SIMBA. Since I strive to make my customers feel special, create a spark and give them a memorable experience, I decided to take three SIMBA players and surprise our unsuspecting customers at the beach. 

The players interacted with people, we handed them free jerseys, drinks and provided entertainment. People started calling their friends and within 20 minutes the beach was filled with over 1,000 people. 

We got some wonderful coverage out of this happy moment, so we created a win-win-win situation, happy customers, great brand image building and spreading the brand message.

A lot of the people who were on the beach tagged themselves and shared the videos online, their friends commented and liked and so the message was spread far and wide. We got around a million views on the video across our own and Simba’s social media channels. 

As I run past that beach every day, I still see the smiles on people’s faces; they always wave because we as a company made an impact on them. We provided them with an experience they will never forget. 

In his book ‘Unleash the Power of Storytelling’ Rob Biesenbach writes: “Just as there are many ways to define and structure a story, there are countless approaches to creating a story. This is not like building a house, where the foundation must be laid before the walls are constructed and the walls must go up before the roof is added. Storytelling can be approached from multiple angles. Maybe you’ve got a particular problem you want to illustrate; or a specific goal in mind. Perhaps you come across an irresistible character that is a veritable fount of great stories. If you’re very lucky, a story will just land in your lap and it will come at just the right time when you need it. More often than not, you’ll have to find and create one.”

The story I told you about taking the SIMBA players to the beach was a story about a surprise that made people happy, it falls roughly in the ‘a crazy, unexpected or amazing incident’ theme category. A good place to start thinking about your brand story is to think about the story theme. Here are the most common story themes to get you started: 

  • The quest – seeking for something unique and special
  • Rags to riches
  • Good triumphs over evil
  • Revenge
  • Love
  • A new start
  • Underdog against “the establishment”
  • A random act of kindness or love
  • A crazy, unexpected or amazing incident

When considering which theme you would like to choose, think about your brand image and your target audience. Who do you want to reach with your story? What makes you the best person to convey this message? What relevant experience and expertise do you have that sets you apart from others in your field? 

Make sure you can communicate all of the above in your story and reach the right people with it. 

For example: For a brand like Apple appealing brand stories might be the underdog succeeding against “the establishment” theme, especially in the computer market. This was used in the Mac vs PC adverts that showed Mac as the cool guy and PC as the nerd. 

The Mac vs PC campaign really focuses on highlighting the USPs of a Mac; what makes the Mac special, what kind of features it has that set it apart. There is a lot of emphasis on the creative suite, the resilience to viruses and the intuitive user interface in the ads. This helps potential customers decide whether this computer is a good fit for their needs.  

Apple’s famous ‘Think Different’ campaign also touches on the underdog theme, closing with the line “Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” 

What ‘Think Different’ really emphasizes is the ‘Why’, the deeper purpose of Apple. It answers the questions you should also ask yourself: 

  • Why are you in business?
  • How are you making the world a better place?
  • What do you believe in?  

Finally, you need to think about what would intrigue and engage people to listen to you. Why should they care about your story? What will get them hooked? What will pull them in to the story? 

Again, the ‘Think Different’ campaign does this well by using the images of icons, of role models that are recognized the world over and a very compelling voice-over read by actor Richard Dreyfuss. It has been referred to as a ‘manifesto’. In any case, it is an extremely compelling text that really touches people who want to make the world a better place in their own way. It touches people on the emotional level. Many of us have a little rebellious voice inside of us, a change maker that wants to come out, millennials even more so than older generations. 

Your brand stories really need to convey what your brand is all about, what you care about, why you care, how you are making people’s lives easier, making the world a better place or creating some other value through your brand. The more authentic your story, the better people will be able to connect to it. Avoid platitudes, be real, be yourself. Don’t ever try to appeal to everyone; it just waters down your message to something wishy-washy and unclear. 

  • Take a stance!
  • Make a statement!
  • Allow your target audience to find you because you are clearly speaking to them! 

The traits of an impactful story

Nike took a risk when they made Colin Kaepernick the face of their 30th anniversary campaign. The former footballer had been banned from the NFL for kneeling during the American anthem in protest against the violence and police brutality against young black men in the US. This campaign caused a lot of controversy, which meant that everyone was talking about Nike for a few weeks. As a brand, they had taken a stance. Instead of trying to please everyone, they had chosen their target audience and made an advertisement that spoke to the target. 

Aside from the face of the ad, the message was a very inspirational one. Similar to Apple’s “Think Different” campaign, it encourages people to stand out, to be the one in a million, to be that extraordinary person who does more than just dream about a great life, to be the one to realize their dreams. 

Though some have criticized the campaign for confusing young people with the message “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”, we can also take another perspective. Yes, not everyone is born to be a world-class athlete. However, if a non-athletic person sees the ad, they might be inspired to pursue one of their other dreams against the odds, like becoming a lawyer even though they are dyslexic; or helping others even though they can barely feed themselves at the time. 

Back to the marketing perspective: The campaign caused a lot of controversy at first but in the long run it helped Nike grow. Nike may have alienated a few people with the campaign but they also gained a lot of new customers and made it clear and explicit who their target audience really is. 

And let’s not forget that a large percentage of consumers do not even follow these kind of stories. They just buy Nike because they love the quality and the fit. The brand stories we create never replace the necessity for quality, they just help to get the message out there. 

The Nike campaign was definitely memorable. This is one of the five non-negotiable traits that make for an impactful story. 

To make a story impactful, it should be entertaining, educational, universal, organized and memorable according to Hubspot Academy’s “The Power of Storytelling” online course. 

Nike made their story memorable by conveying a strong emotional message and choosing to make it controversial. Some ways to make a story memorable are to make it inspiring or motivating, to take a stance, to appeal to emotions or to make people laugh. 

The structure of the story is also important. It needs to be organized to clearly convey your core message. Everything in the story needs to lead towards that message and it must be clearly stated at some point; often the last line is the message line. Although some stories choose to convey the message in a more indirect manner. 

We need to make the story universal, so that everyone can understand it. Rather than talking about Colin Kaepernick’s story directly, the campaign takes a wider angle; it talks about standing up for your beliefs, fighting for your dreams, even if you have to make sacrifices. This is a theme that everyone can relate to, no matter where they are from, how educated they are, how much money they have. Most of us have a few unfulfilled dreams, so we can feel this message tugging at us. 

Ideally, the story is also educational or inspiring, prompting the reader/listener to take action, to learn something new, to grow personally. 

Finally, an impactful story is entertaining. If the story doesn’t engage the audience, it doesn’t get seen or heard, so it can’t have an impact. Entertaining doesn’t necessarily mean funny – although it can do – it could be full of suspense, exciting, visually engaging or compelling the audience in other ways to read/watch on. 

What we can learn from superheroes

While controversial figures can incite a lot of emotion in the moment, many superheroes have been around for decades and are still popular. From Batman to Superman and Wonder Woman we love superheroes. Why is that? What makes them so popular?  

We can relate to them

The superhero character is basically just an exaggeration of the ‘strong person’ within each of us. We all have the power to do remarkable things at times. We know this at some level, so we relate to superheroes or real-life icons, who are already living their biggest life.

Superman illustrates that point particularly well: when he is Clark Kent, he is shy and a little awkward, when he turns into Superman, he can do anything. Since we all have a Clark Kent and a Superman inside of us, we can relate to both characters. 

We like to be reminded that we can be strong, that we can make a difference and that we can make the world a better place for those we care about in some small way. 

You can leverage this human desire to do something meaningful in your brand story. Could your customer be the superhero – and your product is their secret weapon? Say you are selling luxury ready-made meals, your hero could be a person who wants to impress their date and they do it by serving one of your dishes. 

Another reason we can relate to superheroes is because they share our values and some of our dreams and pains. Superman wants to win Lois Lane’s heart, Batman lost his parents; we understand the longing and pain behind these stories.  Additionally, of course, they are always out to right every wrong they come across. Most of us would love to do so many meaningful things with our lives. 

Emotions are an important part of every brand story. Think about the emotions that are probably going to come up in your audience as they see/hear/read your story. Can they identify with your hero? Can they see themselves in a similar situation? 

Maybe your superhero is a dad who needs to get to his son’s football game. He leaves his office at the last minute and then his car breaks down. Oh no! He nearly doesn’t make it but thanks to your fabulous taxi service app, he can just pull out his phone, locate the nearest driver and jump in with them to get a lift to his son’s game. When we see the son’s shining eyes as his dad arrives, we have no doubt that this dad is a superhero. 

A worthy opponent

Superheroes usually have a worthy opponent. Someone who is smart and devious, it takes a lot to defeat this force of evil. This can be really valuable in a brand story. Having a common ‘enemy’ brings us closer. Obviously we are not talking about a person or a group of people here but a concept. The enemy of a detergent manufacturer and their customers is dirt. The enemy of a soft drinks manufacturer and their customers is thirst.

If you make your ‘enemy’ a worthy opponent in your story, then the sense of victory when they are vanquished is amplified.

Moreover, the hero doesn’t just fight this opponent once, but has to overcome their evil again and again. This is what it often feels like to us. Our life is full of challenges that just keep coming back. No matter how many times we have managed to overcome the challenge, here it is again. 

So another way to reach your customer is to show them a way to solve the problem once and for all. No more fruitless battles. Now you have the only solution you’ll ever need because it works! 

Say a business person always forgets their business cards or never has them printed on time. When they finally do get printed, they usually need to be changed before the whole stack has run out. We spoke about pain points of the customer before. If this was an advert for an app that allows you to create a stylish virtual business card in minutes and to then share it and update it easily at any time, then that would provide the optimal solution to all of the customer’s many battles (i.e. pain points) right there. 

A worthy goal

Aside from the worthy opponent, superheroes also have a worthy goal – it is usually a variation on the theme of freeing the world from evil. 

As we saw in the example of the “Think Different” campaign, integrating your purpose and greater goals into your brand story makes them very engaging for your target audience. 

If your target audience are eco-warriors and your product is much better for the environment than comparable products in the market, then this purpose should feature strongly in your brand story. Your goal of making the world a greener place, of preserving the planet for the next generation, of helping your customer to live their values and live an eco-friendly life are really important messages to include in your brand story.

Use it yourself: creating your brand story 

In order to create an impactful brand story, it is helpful to follow a process. Here is a suggestion what that process might look like: 

  1.  Identify your audience
  2. So who exactly is your target audience?
  3. Who are you writing your story for? 
  4. What would appeal most to this audience? 
  5. What and who can they identify with? 
  6. What are their challenges and pain points in life?
  7. What do they admire and aspire to?
  8. What is their preferred communication style? 
  9. What kind of language do they use?

Do your research on these points. Be careful not to make assumptions but to actually and actively engage with your target audience to get the answers to all those questions. Even if you have worked with and for this target audience for a while – check in again, make sure that you have your finger on the pulse of your customers’ preferences. 

  •  Decide on your core message
  • What is your story going to tell the audience? 
  • Is it your brand slogan, your campaign tagline, the benefit of using your product or service? 
  • If your audience only remembered one thing from your whole story, what should it be? 
  • Will it be a direct message or an indirect message?
  • (Your core message might be “We are hip and cool” but to say that directly wouldn’t work very well with most people, so you would convey it in an indirect manner.)
  •  Choose your objective 
  • What is the desired outcome of your story? 
  • Would you like your audience to take action or to better understand your values and/or who you are? 
  • Would you like to create a sense of belonging through your story, to build a community of like-minded people? Or is this a story that is meant to educate the audience? 

Depending on your desired outcome, you would tell a different story. For example, if your main aim is to get people to act, then the story needs to be simple and the call to action needs to be clear. If you would like to educate people, then you would add more detail and give many links, so your audience can learn more if they so desire. 

  •  Now start crafting your story
  • Build on the work you did at the end of chapter 3. Use that information and then decide whether you are telling a larger story (brand story or campaign) or whether you are going for an individual story (single advert or blogpost). 
  • If you are working on a larger story, remember that there should be a theme that ties the whole campaign together. The Mac vs PC adverts were all about that comparison, every one of them was individually different but the whole campaign always starred the two main characters – Mac and PC – and always compared the features of the two. 

There are many different ways to create the ‘thread’ through your various stories; you can have a subject theme, like ‘freedom’, or a lead character that appears in all adverts to name just a couple. 

Which main character will be most relatable to your target audience? Which lends itself best to conveying your core message? Go back to the main character you decided on at the end of chapter 3 and tweak it further if necessary. 

The main character could be the personification of your target audience or a role model, someone they aspire to be like. Or, as discussed in the previous chapter, the main character could be more abstract, representing a pain point your target audience is experiencing or your brand or product.

In the Mac vs PC ads, for example, the Mac character is relatable because he is easy-going and friendly, casual in his appearance; he represents the Mac user more than the actual product. Because of that resemblance, it is also subtly implied in these adverts that the typical PC user is a bit boring, lacks creativity and tends to be conservative. 

Which plot will best convey your core message? How can you tell a short story that says so much more than what you are telling? What is the message between the lines? What are you conveying through the atmosphere you create, the surroundings you choose, the colors you use? How can you simplify the plot down to something straightforward? 

In stories, less is more. Keep it simple, keep it clear. Don’t confuse your audience by trying to incorporate too much at once. 

What is the challenge or struggle that your story revolves around? How easily can your target audience relate to that? What does it have to do with their everyday life and experience? Does it tap into their needs, worries or insecurities? Does it touch on a pain point? 

How can this challenge be overcome, what is the solution? How can you offer a clear solution to the problem you have illustrated? 

Finally, what is the moral of the story or the message? How is it communicated – directly or indirectly? Is it clear for everyone to see?