6 Characteristics of Great Brand Storytelling

January 19, 2016

Supreme Court judges have interesting responsibilities, to say the least.

In 1964, the Supreme Court heard the case Jacobellis v. Ohio. The case was about a manager of a motion picture theater who had been convicted under a state obscenity law of possessing and exhibiting an allegedly obscene film and asked to have the lower rulings overturned. The Supreme Court did in fact overturn the ruling saying that the film was not obscene and therefore was protected as freedom of speech under the U.S. Constitution.

During the opinions expressed by the judges, Justice Potter Stewart stated, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [of hard-core pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” (emphasis added)

This came to mind as I was talking to the head of the digital center of excellence for a Fortune 100 brand a few weeks ago. There were all sorts of things they wanted their team trained on when it came to storytelling, and frankly, I was impressed that they wanted to go to these depths. Most companies don’t.

But along the way I realized something. They definitely wanted the outcomes of remarkable storytelling but the problem was, they wouldn’t know a story even if they saw it.

Just in case you’re not sure yourself, here are six characteristics that are foundational to every brand story:

  1. They are genuine and authentic to the brand. True brand stories come from the heart of a company. They aren’t created in response to something customers want to hear. They serve as a North Star for companies, helping them make decisions across the board from who they hire and how the operate to what audience they target for customers, and what products and service they choose to sell. It’s what Aristotle meant when he said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.
  2. They’re aspirational. Brand stories don’t talk about the products and services that a company sells. It talks about the difference we make in the lives of our customers. And if you’re not there yet, this is what every person can aspire to every day they come to work.
  3. They’re believable. Rob Walker was New York Times columnist who wrote a book called Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are. Harvard Business Review article described an experiment that Walked conducted in selling essentially worthless items on eBay by telling amazing stories. He bought small things at flea markets – a plastic banana, an old-style key to a hotel room – for a couple of dollars and wrote great stories about them to see how it affected their sale price. And did they ever…on average, the items sold for 2700% more than what he paid for them. People don’t don’t part with their money for things in which they don’t believe.
  4. They’re memorable. If people don’t remember what you say, then it’s probably a not a story. Stories are why people remember information; it gives context, helps the brain relate to Author Brené  Brown says it beautifully, “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.”
  5. They inspire people to share them. This rides on the coattails of being memorable…people share stories because they remember them. And not only can people remember them, they have such deep meaning, humor or emotion that people want to share them. Check out this commercial from Extra gum…and it’s OK if you brush away a tear, I haven’t seen anyone yet who hasn’t.
  6. They evolve but they don’t end. Marketers love, love campaigns…but audiences don’t. Campaigns are something that companies created to make it easier for them to manage talking to audiences. They aren’t something that audiences seek out. Stories, on the other hand, capture and enrapture people because there’s characters, a hook, conflict, challenges and obstacles to overcome, a climax with tension and resolution….and then they start over again. For over 27,000 years humans have communicated through stories because they add meaning to information. Campaigns? Well, I think you can figure that one out.

Tell me, what do you need to see to recognize a great brand story when you see it?

About Carla Johnson

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Carla Johnson is a world-renowned storyteller, an entertaining speaker, and a prolific author.

Over the last two decades, Carla has helped architects and actuaries, executives and volunteers, innovators and visionaries leverage the art of storytelling to inspire action. Her work with Fortune 500 brands has served as the foundation for many of her books.

In her latest project, Fast Forward Files, she contributes to a larger collection of thoughts by some of the world’s greatest minds -  Shazam co-founder Dhiraj Mukherjee, activist and entrepreneur Heather Mills and behavioral designer, technologist and mental-health champion Peter Trainor. Consistently named one of the top influencers in B2B, digital and content marketing, Carla regularly challenges conventional thinking. 

Today, she travels the world teaching anyone (and everyone) how to cultivate idea-driven teams that breed unstoppable creativity and game-changing innovation.