Why a brand should be like a book you can’t put down (or the art of story planning)

You know when an idea makes you stop in your tracks? Usually in my case I just forget where I’m going, and said idea resigns itself to the land of the abandoned along with the brilliant novel I’ll never write about Coke-o-nomics or Bird Theory. But sometimes it sticks, and subsequently every conversation or meeting seems to point back to it. Well, recently I haven’t been able to move for references to stories and storytelling within the context of advertising. And so I thought I’d commit this little idea to paper, and see where it went (you will be the judge of where it goes).

It happened whilst walking to West Kensington station on a dreary Tuesday morning. In one of those quasi-spiritual moments of intuition (probably espresso-inspired) people walking past had more contrast, the world appeared clearer. It suddenly became obvious that everyone was carrying around their own story. Some of them showed it in the cut of their jeans. Others in their so-big-it-makes-me-look-tiny handbag and brisk stroll. Others with a hung head and gunnel bum at the bus stop.

‘Why do we tell ourselves stories?’ ‘and what role do they play?’ thought I. A story is an ancient device – a thread that can hold together a disparate collection of events and weave them into cohesion and meaning – helping us to communicate ideas and make sense of them. Stories give shape to our lives’ accumulated experiences, relationships and events.

We often define consumer segments in the manner of a character portrait or pen profile, illustrating their daily lives, brand usage and core behaviour drivers – but what if we were to consider this from the frame of reference of consumers’ stories instead? It’s our stories we refer to when making decisions about which car to buy (‘I always knew I’d drive a BMW’), where to shop (‘I’m going to make a positive impact on the world’), which mobile phone to own (‘My iPhone will connect me to exciting experiences’). For high investment purchases the story becomes even more important – the inarticulate tears and arguments in TV home buying shows demonstrate this: ‘It just isn’t right’, ‘I had imagined somewhere different’. There is huge emotional value in stories. Brands looking for emotional dialogue with consumers have to understand this.

In an APG session at JWT recently, David Bain (of BMB) used Freytag’s Pyramid to explain why a strong pitch should follow the rules of a good story – from setting the scene, to a climax and final denouement. Another David (Hackworthy, from The Red Brick Road) described how each of Shakespeare’s 7 plots can be useful platforms for exploring facets of brands, as idea-generating ways-in to communications problems. Two brilliant planners, both very aware of the importance of stories.

I then stumbled upon Paul Isakson’s presentation from Planningness, which, taking it’s cue from Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, explores the idea of personal stories compellingly (look at life as a story, he tells us – and write a better one!)

This brought to light an interesting dichotomy: the gap between the ‘real’ personal story and the desired self-story. The ‘real’ story is your current identity – name, title, background, relationships and goals – and how you use this to relate experiences to others (‘I am a drummer to escape my parents’ arguments’ – Orange’s ‘I am’ campaign built on this insight). The desired story, however, is the one you imagine might be written in your biography (full of intrigue, rebellion and romance if you’re anything like me). Pub-talk such as ‘what would your epitaph be?’ reveals a deep need to be remembered for something ‘more’ than one’s everyday identity. The chart below shows how these two stories might interweave through life (no values ascribed intentionally). They overlap at points, are miles apart at others:






Of course, the ‘real’ story is not necessarily any more ‘real’ than the desired one, and the ‘distance’ between them is all a matter of perception. They’re both stories after all – they leave out some bits, highlight others – providing a satisfying ‘shape’ to our lives. But by understanding these two underlying stories, brands can begin to appeal to consumers more intelligently – insights can be grounded in a deeper context.

Luxury brands have always known that positioning their product as the ‘key’ to a desired identity or social scene is effective (for example, champagne used as a tool to elevate ‘real life’ to a desired life story). ‘Story planning’ (if I may coin yet another planning oriented term) works on the same principle, but on a myriad of levels. An estate agent, for example, might use the insight that ‘a home will never be quite as you imagined it’ to establish a more pragmatic, honest and helpful service that helps buyers deconstruct their dream house and create a list of ‘emotional must haves’ to complement the usual location, budget and parking requirements – thereby bridging the gap between the ‘desired story’ and reality. What’s important is first understanding that these stories exist, and then taking decisions as to how, and whether, to act on them.

Stories have always been central to planning communications. Ideas are framed by stories (the who, the why, the what-happens-next) and we tell them to clients so they buy the idea and to the consumer so they buy into the brand or product. But why are stories so relevant now?

It seems that every brief over the last two years has started with the words ‘in these uncertain times…’ Consumers are apparently poorer, fatter, probably shorter, deeply disillusioned and more anxious than their mothers. They seek out stories as a way out of what by all indicators is a disturbing reality. We can see this manifest in sales of hardback fiction titles which have soared by 90%, while the top 10 non-fiction books were down 52% year on year (source: The Bookseller, 2009). It is often said that there are only four stories in existence. But I believe that the more stories people need, the more stories there will be.

As such, brands that tell the most captivating stories will win consumers’ hearts. John Simmons, in his book The Invisible Grail, advocates the use of stories to illuminate brand meaning, interchanging the traditional brand model with a storytelling model, and explains how it was used to define Guinness’ brand story of ‘inner strength’ through the story of its rebellious founder, Arthur Guinness. Nike Grid is a brilliant example of creating individual stories through participation – each checkpoint achieved is a personal tale of achievement/challenge/determination. Queensland’s ‘Best Job In The World’ gave people a story they could tell to others.

At this point I should come clean. I’m a writer, and I confess to a natural bias towards a good story. But in an era of content strategy and two-way conversations, surely the biggest opportunity for brands is to emulate a good book you just can’t put down: engaging, with a plot that is constantly moving forward, providing the reader with something new and relevant at every contact point. Or perhaps a more appropriate metaphor would be an Adventure Quest book where the reader is an active participant in how the story unfolds.

In this way the story becomes a social object that not only aids cohesion within brand communities but can act as a platform for campaign ideas which give consumers something to hold on to, in these uncertain times…



Add yours →

  1. Lovely post, Marie. I’m a big fan of using storytelling in both pitching and creating brand ideas—as you can probably guess. I especially liked your last two paragraphs.

    If you haven’t come across these books, you may want to dig into them:

    “Story” by Robert McKee – Donald Miller talks about this in “A Million MIles…” as well as talks about going to McKee’s workshop. I hope to go to the same workshop this year if I can track down where/when they are:


    “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell. I was introduced to this by Jelly Helm, who sees story as being very important to what we do:


    Jelly’s blog is here: http://studiojelly.blogspot.com/

    A post of his about the importance of story:

    “Resonate” by Nancy Duarte. Sometime ago, I was telling someone how I try to structure presentations like a story. They immediately asked me if I had ever read/seen this book. I hadn’t and I kind of forgot about it until this week when one of the planners at my new agency told me the same thing when I was telling her about how I approach pitches/presentations:


    If you ever want to talk more about this, we can trade emails or find some time for Skype…

    Keep looking for stories.

  2. Thanks so much for these recommendations. I have Story but I confess to only being about 1/3rd of the way through and I must make time to read it. Interestingly a lot of my passion for stories stems from screenwriting/playwriting, as well as the advertising context – which is another thing I never seem to have enough time for. I would love to attend the workshop, although as far as I know they tend to be in your neck of the woods – if I can ever escape London and get to one I will let you know!

    ‘The Hero’ sounds fascinating; I’m also doing some research into archetypes as a branding metaphor (but also generally how they influence characterisation) and mythology of course plays a big role in that.

    ‘Resonate’ sounds interesting too. Both on my shopping list.

    Would definitely like to have a deeper discussion on this sometime. I’ll DM you my email address and let’s keep in touch.

    Happy storytelling.

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