By on July 29, 2014

Stories are one of the most powerful tools in our communication arsenal. Since the beginning of language, they continue to teach, inspire, motivate, and engage us like no other form of communication can. I’ve yet to see an audience give a standing O to a pie chart or go to the movies to watch a presentation of random, disconnected facts. Many of the answers to why stories work the way they do are revealed to us by studying how storytellers of all kinds commonly go about their craft. It just so happens that a number of parallels exist between what storytellers do and what marketers can do to build magnetic brand identities. Here are five of my favorites:

1. Storytellers clothe facts with Big-M Meaning
All stories have meaning or some reason for being told. Consider this story: The young athlete who trained by doing one hundred leg squats every day ended up first among one thousand runners. In effect, this is a story about the functional benefit of leg squats for runners. Now, consider this revision: The young athlete, who trained by doing one hundred leg squats every day, ended up first among one thousand runners. He has a prosthetic leg. The first story has what I call small-m meaning. It provides information that may be useful to its runner targets. However, the second story is more than just useful. It’s inspirational. By contrast, it has Big-M Meaning. The additional five-word sentence makes the second story about the same runner far more significant. Brand marketers need to ask how their brand can be made more inspiring or aspiring. Facts about unique features and benefits won’t get you there. For Big-M Meaning to occur, your brand needs to be readily associated with a bigger personal value, e.g., exploration, perseverance, hard work, creativity. And that Big-M Meaning has to be expressed in an engaging way.

2. To engage their audiences, storytellers leave the thinking to us
Andrew Stanton, the creator of Toy Story and Wall-E, refers to his “unifying theory of 2+2” as our desire to come to our own conclusions. We do not want to be told the answer is 4. We’d rather figure it out for ourselves. This is one of the principles of story that attracts us to them as a communication device. Movies, novels, poems, or songs do not explain the meaning behind their messages. Meaning is left to the audience’s interpretation. This is very unlike advertising for brands that often gets in its own way. By telling us what meanings to associate with brands, we often resist or put up our protective BS shields. Consumers don’t need or want to be told your brand is the one that cares most, works hardest, or thinks best.

Taking a lesson from the storyteller, it is far more engaging and believable to pull from the mind of the consumer than to push from the voice of the brand. Notice that in the second story above was no mention of what to think or feel. If you thought or felt anything about the runner with the prosthetic leg, it was because of your interpretation, not mine. Storytellers cause you to see what you see, but do little to cause the way you think or feel about what you see. Doing so would be like the comedian who explained the punch line of his joke. He doesn’t get to do that twice.

3. Storytellers define their themes before developing their plots
Before a storyteller develops a story, he or she either consciously or unconsciously decides the story’s reason for being or the point that needs to be made. Storytellers don’t start creating the action within a plot and hope that it will somehow result in a meaningful story. In addition to providing clear direction for their writing, a theme-first approach gives storytellers the freedom to include twists and turns or to develop subplots that keep us engaged along the pathway to their main point.

Oftentimes brands will put plots before themes. For brands, the main point, or their overarching theme, is often an afterthought or very shallow. Brand meanings are often made up of well-recognized product features and unique functional benefits. This sets up a major stumbling block, as it is tantamount to writing the plot before arriving at an important theme. Because the brand’s direction becomes too closely aligned with its current product, the brand’s identity often needs to be changed in order to survive. Burger King built its brand around what was once the unique benefit of flame broiling. Today, it struggles to remain a viable contender within a very dynamic category where flame broiling is no longer a big deal. Midas Mufflers positioned itself as the muffler replacement expert. But then original equipment manufacturers discovered that stainless steel lasts longer, causing Midas to rethink its “Where we goin’?” Kodak became the first name in photographic film. Happy with achieving that goal, they didn’t look long and hard enough to see the digital buzzkill in their future. Now contrast those brands with brands like Nike, Harley, Southwest Airlines, Apple, Disney, and Google. Brands like these are free to think more about growth than survival because their identities are not limited to a close association with a single product or functional benefit, or plot. Risk is spread over the rich meaning they built and one that can be made manifest through many new and related product and service initiatives.

4. Storytellers don’t use focus groups to decide what their point-of-view
is Storytellers don’t manufacture meaning on the basis of what will sell to the greatest number of people. Rather, they start with an authentically held core belief that needs expression. Lack of authenticity is one of the many reasons why consumers have become cynical about advertising. Today’s consumer is just too smart to fall for disingenuous claims designed solely for the purpose of winning more favor. They want and need brands to be in touch with their own truth first before attempting to be what research tells them they should be. And for them, the brand’s truth will always be revealed more through actions than anything a brand says about itself. Trustable people don’t tell you they are trustable. If brands are to test anything, they should test ways to better communicate what they stand for, not what they should stand for.

5. Great storytellers always give us something to look forward to
If you go to any bestseller list of books, you’ll often find that it consists of books written by authors with whom we are already familiar. This is largely due to the fact that we expect their new book to be a story told through their unique perspective and expressed in their unique way. We are not only drawn to messages authors want us to read, but also to the way they consistently write them.

The reason some people will camp out in front of the Apple store the night before a new product is made available is simple: It’s from Apple. I would hazard to guess that many, if not most, of these same people know very little about what is new and different. They have come to expect that if it’s from Apple, it’s got to be great. Each new product Apple produces is similarly linked to the one before, in design and function. The new offering may provide functional improvements, but more importantly, it remains an expression of Apple’s Big-M Meaning. Apple, no doubt, takes great pains before introducing a new product to make sure that it deserves a place within the Apple family, just as the storyteller’s voice is consistent story after story. Hemingway would never have written like Shakespeare, no matter how big the opportunity to
sell a new Shakespearean play.


About Jim Signorelli

Advertising JIM SIGNORELLI has always had a passionate interest in advertising. As a paperboy, he would build his subscriber base by market testing inserts he composed. “If you buy from me, I promise not to throw your paper in the bushes,” won out over, “You need the news, I need the money.” That passion led to a career in advertising that spanned more than thirty years. Learn more about Jim Signorelli at Story Branding