Storytelling is flavour of the year. And of last year. All over the marketing world, brands are being urged to get their stories straight – I mean, get their stories out there, because every great brand needs a great story.
It's true, humans love stories. It's a huge leap to say they will therefore love brands that tell stories.
The most popular stories frequently feature conflict, violence and death, and the struggle between good and evil. Even comedies of the most saccharin kind will have some kind of conflict at the core, or some disruption of normality.
The first written story in western literature – The Iliad – is a catalogue of violent death, graphically described. The majority of Shakespeare’s plays feature either violent death or cross-dressing, or both. And what about the TV shows everyone talks about – like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones? Not exactly the teddy bears’ picnic.
How are brands supposed to compete with all this? To put it in the simplest terms, when a brand tells a story, who are the baddies? It can't be good news all the way, or even an uninterrupted rise from rags to riches. It needs some grit in the oyster.
That's why charities have always done well with stories. They deal with violence, death and destruction all the time, and they also often have heroes who do battle with the forces of darkness, without always winning. Compelling stuff.
If you don't have the drama, or are unwilling to talk about it, you end up with stories that may lead the audience quite skillfully to the conclusion, and keep their attention, but then leave them feeling conned.
I had this feeling after watching a frothy rom-com movie a while ago, which deployed every device in the cinematic box of tricks to keep me interested up to the final frame. I woke up the following morning in a rage at the way I'd been exploited, and swore never to watch another movie from that director. A promise I have kept. The last thing any brand would want.
A great story needs a plot, and some memorable characters, at the very least. According to Christopher Booker, there are seven basic plots: overcoming the monster; rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy; and rebirth. I think this may be an oversimplification, but you can look at some of the strongest brands in the market and see how well their stories fit.
Virgin started out by overcoming the monster – the major record labels to begin with, then British Airways. Then the story seemed to turn into rags to riches, as the hero spent more time talking about his ordinary origins and his vast new wealth.
Apple is a quest story, where the hero and his companions set out to find an important object – or invent it, in their case. Early Apple users also saw Bill Gates as a monster needing to be slain, but I think his own story of rebirth as a massive philanthropist has probably put paid to that angle.
Both brands illustrate the importance of memorable characters, too. Richard Branson has so far enjoyed an almost unblemished career as a very British, modern, rock and roll hero. His antics in balloons and other exciting forms of transport all help feed the myth – he’s not all about money, he’s about fun, and he’s a kind of friendly pirate. A recent book has started to try to prise some of his gold-plating off, but I suspect he will survive it.
Steve Jobs is an even better example, as he was well-known to be a difficult, demanding man, and his career had ups and downs, all of which made him a thoroughly interesting hero for Apple’s story. His appearances at product launches, always saying the same thing, always wearing the same clothes added to the myth. And of course, best of all, he was rejected, and then rode to the rescue when Apple fell apart without him.
But to return to the original point – what about the baddies? This I think is where attempts to manufacture brand stories are most likely to fail. Great stories have great villains. Lucifer in Paradise Lost. Macbeth. The Joker, The Penguin and all the rest in Batman. Your brand may make cola, but your stories can't just be sweet. You need some added Voldemort to stick in the audience's mind.
Where will you find him? Virgin had BA. Apple had not Gates, but conformity, which they showed being smashed in 1984 in their launch commercial. It takes courage to create a villain, but without one, who will your brand hero fight?
Only with all these ingredients – a strong plot, a compelling hero, and a powerful enemy – can your brand reach storytelling nirvana. The point where everyone says, ‘What happens next?’