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Why is story important to brands?

by Andy Orrick, Rattling Stick

“Everything is why.”
Frank Gehry, Architect

If you can make someone feel something then you’re half way to persuading him or her to buy something, and story is the best way to make someone feel. Social motivators, repetition and clever distribution come into play, of course, but as the old sage Bill Bernbach stated:

“You can say the right thing about a product and nobody will listen. You’ve got to say it in such a way that people will feel it in their gut. Because if they don’t feel it, nothing will happen.”

There’s a very successful book by a chap called Simon Sinek called ‘Start With Why’ which is probably a planner’s rule one, day one, but to the layman like me it’s an interesting read. His theory is simple. Most brands know WHAT they do and HOW they do it but very few know WHY. Those businesses that articulate everything they do through the lens of ‘WHY they do it’ tend to outperform others within their sector, whatever that sector is.

We might refer to these brands as ‘meaningful brands’ or ‘brands with purpose’ or ‘brands with a mission’ but another way to describe them is ‘brands with a story.’ If you know WHY you exist, which is sometimes traceable right back to the initial impetus and vision of why the brand was started in the first place, then you have a strong emotional message, a clear designing principle that can form the underlying basis of all the stories you weave about that brand irrespective of genre, form, channel or platform. If you know WHY you exist it’s much easier to show rather than tell in story and therefore, media and frequency aside, your work will probably be inherently more effective – you tell the same WHY story over and over in different guises, clarifying and reinforcing a strong simple message for different audiences – no doubt easier said than done.

I work across TV, film, music and advertising, and it’s the same principle across them all, just described differently. It’s being able to answer the question “so what’s it really about, what are you really trying to say?” A brand might call it a ‘mission’ or ‘strategy’, a movie the ‘designing principle’ or ‘underlying theme’ but at heart it’s all the same thing. It’s WHY. Consider American Beauty, arguably one of the greatest movies of recent years. It’s a multi-stranded story and although Lester might be described as the lead, it’s hard to find the film’s centre. The clever thing is that this makes you ‘look closer’ which is what the film is really about – look closer at life and you will find beauty everywhere, even in the deepest pain. This is the film’s WHY… and why it resonated so deeply with audiences and cleaned up at the Oscars!

If you consider the most successful brand on the planet, Apple, the WHY, the heart of its story, is encapsulated right there in the company’s creation. When Jobs and Wozniak set out on their mission, they were the challenger to what they saw as the boring, over-complex establishment of IBM and Microsoft. Jobs and Wozniak wanted to create era-defining products that would challenge the status quo and change the world. That’s the story of that brand and it’s inherent in everything they think, make, say and do. From the very first moment those two men thought different and through their era-defining products they enabled us to think (and express) different too; product and story in perfect harmony. The job of marketing then was to spot their WHY, encapsulate it, communicate it and protect it. This unifying simplicity of product and story is so powerful that, although perplexing, it elevated their CEO to the level of prophet and their brand to that of a cult.

And on the subject of prophets and cults, the most persuasive and powerful ‘brands’ on the planet with the clearest sense of WHY are religions and ideologies. And how do they sell their ideas to humans?

Through story.

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Brand Storytelling: How to Use Narrative to Sell

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