What Digital Marketers Can Learn About Branding From Successful Novelists
From gripping plots to authentic emotion, storytelling is at the heart of good branding
What makes a good novel? A gripping plot, forward momentum, relatable characters, and authentic emotion.
What makes a good brand? Funnily enough, a lot of the same things.
The best novelists — think Neil Gaiman, J.K Rowling, Terry Pratchett — have mastered the art of storytelling, captivating people worldwide and igniting their imaginations.
Holding the attention of large swathes of the population for the length of time it takes to finish a novel is no easy feat, especially with the information overload and constant distractions we all experience in our everyday lives. To do so requires an in-depth understanding of the human psyche.
And here’s where us marketers come in. To create brilliant brands, we must also ignite imaginations and captivate our audiences. We must follow the lead of great novelists and tell engaging stories.
Philip Pullman once said:
After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.
As humans, we tell stories all the time. We tell ourselves stories about the people in our lives, about who we are, about our political beliefs, and the decisions we make. Stories ground us; whether or not they’re true, they build up our sense of reality and help us make sense of things.
As much as we might like to pretend otherwise, we’re not a very rational species, and we’re much more likely to engage with emotion than statistics.
Novelists have known this for a long time, and now marketers are in on the secret too.
A Gripping Plot
I used to love reading bad summaries of famous books. Some of the most hilarious ones I came across were boys return lost jewelry to describe The Lord of the Rings and man vs. whale, whale wins to describe Moby Dick.
You could make the plot of pretty much any famous book sound boring if you wanted to by generalizing like this because the interesting parts lie in the details. What makes a plot gripping is the setting, the context, the who, what, when, and where. It’s the unique challenges and emotional journeys the characters undertake.
There may be hundreds of children’s adventure books out there about evil wizards, but Harry Potter trumped them all because it was a new take on an unoriginal story. Readers fell in love with Hogwarts, with Harry’s relationships with his friends, with the little quirks of living in a magical school. They fell in love with the world of Harry Potter and everything that made it different from all the fantasy adventure books that came before it.
It’s no different for brands. There will always be other companies out there doing what your company does. Unless you’re pioneering something completely revolutionary, you’ll face competition from brands who are offering the same things as you to the same people.
The only way to differentiate yourself from them is in the details.
This goes further than just picking a USP and telling your customers about it. Your brand needs a story that weaves through every part of the business and holds it together. A coherent plot with a beginning, middle, and end. The core values and mission statement that everything else is founded on. Doing so will bring consistency to your branding, tying everything together into a cohesive whole.
So don’t just tell another generic fantasy story about evil wizards. Tell a story that no one will forget.
To get you started, answer some of these questions about your brand and see how they form the beginnings of a plot.
Beginning: what challenge is your customer trying to overcome?
Middle: how does your company help them solve that challenge?
End: what benefits does the customer experience as a result of this?
Character development is probably the most important skill a writer will ever learn and also the hardest. For people to invest in a story they must be able to relate to the protagonist, or at least care enough about them to follow their journey.
To write a compelling character, you need to give them things like goals, pasts, quirks, fears, motivations, personality traits, emotional depth.
To create a compelling brand, you need quite a few of those things too. Because people don’t invest their time and money in faceless corporations, they invest in other people.
So give your brand character. Write a personable copy that reflects what you and your team are about. Personable doesn’t have to mean unprofessional it just means that you’re appealing to the human behind the computer screen. This very much goes for B2B marketing too.
Be authentic in your interactions with customers, and you will gain their trust quicker. If you’ve already got your brand story straightened out, and you know it inside out, this part should come easily. It’s just about communicating it to your audience in a way that feels humanistic and relatable.
The emotional heart of a story is what separates good books from great books. Emotion is incredibly powerful; it allows us to emphasize with others, even fictional characters. It allows us to immerse ourselves in the story so that we care about what happens next. Books that tug at our heartstrings are the ones that stay with us long after we’ve read them.
But it’s not just books that do this. Advertisers have used emotion to craft engaging adverts for a long time. Who doesn’t get a little teary-eyed at the annual John Lewis Christmas advert? Who doesn’t perk up a bit at the sight of the familiar black horses of Lloyds bank on TV?
Advertisers who have succeeded in creating iconic adverts have done so by leveraging emotion. They humanize their brands by associating them with the warm gooey feelings you get watching family reunions or the awe and wonder you feel watching majestic black horses gallop across scenic landscapes.
So what’s the emotional heart of your brand story? What drives your team and your business forwards? What does your company contribute to the world? Whether it’s a desire to tackle climate change by planting a tree for every product sold, or a genuine commitment to creating better workplaces through a healthy work/life balance, it’s a good idea to work out what kind of story you’re trying to tell, and then write it down in the form of a brand briefing document.
Once you have the story set in stone, you have a starting point for everything else. Just remember to tie everything back to your story because it’s the thing that will make your brand memorable.