Why do brands need narratives?

(And how do you give a tangible narrative to an intangible product?)

Put simply, brands need narratives because the human brain is wired to look for them. Human beings were able to evolve from a chaos of noises, opportunities, over-stimulation and predators only because we could spot patterns among the chaos. When you can spot and understand a recurring pattern, you can make decisions which will nourish you, protect you, and build your family.

But in a world where a brand can have no physical product, or its ‘superior offering’ is often way more than anyone needs to survive, the narrative might need to reach higher to engage people.

What is a brand narrative?

Brand narrative isn’t ‘brand strategy by telling stories’. Instead, it’s a consistent plotting out of the brand’s purpose and offerings into an intuitively understood pattern, in a way that acknowledges (explicitly or implicitly) the consumer’s interests.

More than a one-dimensional statement, the narrative is a complex description that aligns the brand’s and the consumer’s Need, Objective and Opposition.

So classic storytelling, in which there’s a conscious conquering hero, can be the vehicle which is used to plot out the brand narrative, but it’s not essential. What’s important is that, whenever the brand communicates with the consumer, the three elements and their interaction are clear.

When a brand’s narrative needs re-writing, go carefully.

It may or may not be true that there are only 6 basic stories, but here at Verbal Identity we’ve identified 6 distinct narrative models used by brands. Each is rooted in a particular Psychological Need. Consequently, each has a different Objective and its own type of Opposing Entity.

The 6 models are:
1. The Challenger
(eliminating the opposition)
2. The Foundation Model
(explaining why the brand had to be invented)
3. The Historical Model
(explaining how the brand was involved in the invention of the ‘world’)
4. The Rebirth Model
(often used to bring us back to a once mighty empire)
5. The Creation Model
(letting us believe we are entering a new world or era)
6. The Comedy Model
(where we are helped to see the ridiculousness of our situation).

Problems arise when one of the key elements in a brand’s narrative needs to change — perhaps the world has changed, or perhaps the category has been disrupted. Either way, if the brand wants to remain coherent, its narrative model has to change at the same time.

The signs that a brand’s narrative needs updating are: a discrepancy between share of market and share of mind; a new entrant taking share in the category; or a lack of traction from a new ad campaign.

By using linguistic theory with brand insight and creative writing, we develop brand narratives which once again unify the brand’s purpose with the consumer’s need and its product category.

How the smartest brands of the late 20th Century recognised the need for a higher-reaching narrative.

In the late 20th Century, a product’s ‘What?’ and ‘How?’ could be quickly copied. Suddenly, a brand’s ‘Why?’ became its distinguishing truth. If the ‘Why?’ is clear, anything is possible (just look at Ryanair’s early success).

But civilisation ascends Maslow’s Pyramid, increasingly craving life’s intangibles. The smartest brands now strive for a higher-reaching ‘Why?’.

IBM acknowledges the chaos that surrounds us and now sells us the need for A Smarter Planet, not smarter computers. Google gives staff 20% of their week to develop new ideas because they’re on a mission to master the world’s information. Apple, the world’s most valuable brand, venerates our need for craft and creativity.

Brand Narrative is essential inside the company as well.

Skilled workers in the 21st century can choose a company similarly to how a consumer would choose a product. They have more choices of the work they can do, where they can do it, and they can expect to have more money than they need to survive… so how do they choose where to work?

British Airways wasn’t the ‘world’s favourite airline’ when they first started using that phrase, but it soon became apparent what the relationship with their customer should be, and what kind of people would do well there.

So a coherent brand narrative helps potential employees to understand why they might want to work for a company. More than that, a company’s narrative, linking emotion to logic, clearly stated and often repeated, soon becomes reality for the people inside and outside the company.

How do you build a brand narrative?

1. Define the Psychological Need at the heart of your category. Why was the category invented? What higher need does it fulfil?

2. Analyse your category narrative: which narrative model is driving brands’ behaviour within your category?

3. List out the possible Opposing Entities for your consumers and your category. (Knowing your narrative models helps here.)

4. Can you re-position your brand’s Objective? There’s normally more than one (or at least more than one way of expressing it.)

5. Test your new narrative by writing about it — do you break category conventions? Does that matter?

About Verbal Identity

Verbal Identity is a brand strategy consultancy specialising in brand language. Writers work alongside linguistic analysts and strategists, pursuing the magic and mechanics of language. www.verbalidentity.com

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