What is a brand story (and why you care)

A brand story is a story you tell about your customers that shows how they transform as a result of working with you. Building a brand story is a powerful way to attract customers. It is the backbone of your brand and the essence of your marketing strategy expressed in a way that connects on a human level and inspires your audience, your prospects, to action. 

In the form of a story, that engages and inspires.

Why the brand story matters

Think back, have you ever been to a movie? Has a move ever made you laugh, cry, feel anxious or feel fear?

Even while you felt these things… didn’t you know that the actors were pretending?

I had one person in our workshop say to me that no he didn’t know they were actors while he was watching the movie. And that is the point. That is the power of story.

Stories engage. They draw people in. They inspire us to believe and they are fundamental to how we do things as human beings:

“Storytelling is an integrative process, It not only weaves together all the details of an experience when it’s being encoded but enhances the network of nodes through which all those details can be retrieved and recalled. Research shows that we remember details of things much more effectively when they are embedded in a story. Telling and being moved to action by them is in our DNA.”

Daniel Siegel Clincal professor of psychiatry at UCLA

The story is why some people can sell the same product for 3,125% more than other people selling exactly the same product.

So What Is A Brand Story?

To understand a brand story, start by defining story itself. A story starts with a character who is incomplete in some way and a villain stands in the way of completion. A mentor appears with a magical solution and calls the character to action so that they transform and become a hero.

And that is pretty much it, the short version anyway. The part that you need to build your brand story and marketing strategy.

There are more complexities to a lot of stories but you will find this simple structure over and over. It is key to the success of the most interesting man in the world and not following it is the disaster that brought down Pepsi.

This structure comes from the work of Joseph Campbell who identified it in stories and mythologies throughout time and across cultures and geographies.

Campbell codified this framework for communication that is biologically built into our brains.  He didn’t create the framework he discovered it reflected over and over again in the stories humans tell. 

In the stories that ALL HUMANS TELL.  

We use the hero’s journey because of its power. Our brains are tuned to specific messages and narratives when we encounter a story that connects with us our brain releases hormones in our bodies that make us pay attention. This structure allows you to tap into that.  The simple hero’s journey based off of Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces and the Mono-myth.

The simple hero’s journey based off of Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces and the Mono-myth.

A story starts with a character in the normal world. 

The character is living his or her life with hopes and dreams and desires.  They live in the world that they know and understand.  Think of Cinderella living with her step mother, Bilbo Baggins in Bag End, or Luke Skywalker living with his aunt and uncle on Tatooine.

Something is always missing for the character. If they were complete in every way there would be no story to tell, just a boring vignette of a happy character.

The missing piece is was keeps the audience engaged. As Christopher Vogler puts it audiences:

“abhor the vacuum created by a missing piece in a character”.

Christopher Vogler

And that is what draws their attention and propels the story forward.

In your marketing story, the character is your customer.  You ultimately make them complete. So that thing they are missing, is the thing that you will bring to them.

It is this connection to

The character faces a villain

There is always something standing in the way. Campbell calls this a villain, Vogler a “shadow”… I use both.

They mean the same thing. The villain is whatever stands in the way of the character being complete.

The villain can take many forms and often the real villain isn’t what we think the villain is. Cinderella’s step mother is ostensibly the villain, but she also faces a deeper internal villain that keeps her from moving forward in life.

The villain doesn’t have to be evil, in the Dos Equis example, happy people at the bar who are unintentionally intimidating the lonely beer drinker are the villain. From a marketing perspective the villain is whomever is keeping your character from being complete.

You make the character complete by overcoming the villain.

The character meets a mentor

The meeting of the mentor is a crucial point in the story because this opens up access to an entirely new world, the special world where the character can achieve his or her goals.

I like to think of the character being in one world and the mentor being in another. The best cinematic expression of the two worlds is Dorothy leaving Kansas and entering Oz.

Everything is black and white until the moment she opens the door and the scene burst with color.

The experience of audiences who had never seen color film before would have been an impactful journey to a completely new world.

That is what you want your world to be like. You are the mentor in your brand story, you exist in your world and you want to show people how amazing your world is and the possibilities that exist there.

This is the point in the story where you show them what you have and impress them with your abilities qualifications, testimonials and abilities.

The mentor brings tools or a plan

Or both.  

The mentor brings something to the character that provides a way out of their normal world and into a special world where the impossible is possible. 

Obi-wan gives Luke a lightsaber and a plan to leave Tatooine, Gandalf provides a contract, a group of dwarfs and the promise of magical support.  These are all magic tools that will transform the main characters.

When you build your brand story you show your prospects how you will overcome the villain and make them complete. You show them your tools, your plan, or your process.

This feel like magic to your character. It feels like magic because your solution is not possible in their world, they don’t know how to do it.

So when you can show them how you solve their problem… it is truly magical.

And the mentor calls the character to adventure

There is always a call to adventure in a hero’s journey; this is the call to move out of the normal world and into the special world to become a hero.  The hero can often refuses the call and there is tension here because this is the point where the character begins the journey to transform.

The call to adventure can move around in a story, but in a brand story, your call to adventure is your call to action. This is a clear opportunity for your audience to step into the special world where you make things work for them.  

How you word your call to action is important. Your call to action should motivate and inspire, it should do the work of drawing your character into your world.

I think the all time greatest cinematic call to action is Morpheus offering Neo the blue-pill , red-pill choice. Watch it here (skip to minute 1:45 if you are in a hurry).

The character takes action and receives a reward

Next the character takes action and embarks on the journey to overcome the villain and become complete.

Luke destroys the Deathstar and earns a medal, Bilbo slays a dragon (well, causes it to be slain anyway) and receives friendship, gold, and status.  They also become complete: Luke grows up and becomes a man, Bilbo honors his family legacy.

In a brand story your character becomes complete here.

There is another element that we bring in to make this part of the story more impactful and it is the element of the stakes.

Your character doesn’t just gain hero status, her or she also avoids the alternative… the disaster that could be. That is what is at stake.

This is an essential part of the brand story because attaining the reward is what motivates your audience to take action and work with you or buy your product. 

In the brand story, your character emerges transformed.

In the end, the character emerges transformed, they are different for having gone on the adventure. 

They come back to their life with their reward, and the rest of their life may continue to exist as it was, but they are transformed.  They are bigger, or better, or stronger, or more informed. 

Luke is forever a Rebel and a Jedi, Bilbo returns an adventurer who is no longer entirely in sync with the hobbit world. 

Your customers will end up smarter, better, stronger and more confident in their world as a result of working with you. 

They become the hero in their world.

The hero’s journey is a compelling narrative that we can see continuously in movies, stories, and advertisements.  Humans have been using it to communicate and connect for thousands of years.  It works because it is a reflection of how our brains work, it is encoded in our DNA. 

By applying it to marketing, we can tie into this biological predisposition to create an inspiring connection that motivates our audience to take the adventure we offer. 

Ready for transformative messaging? Check out our brand story course here.

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