I define brand as “the meaning people attach to you and your offer”. Branding is the “management of meaning”. But how can we best do this? It sounds hard doesn’t it? Until we realise that the way we, as humans, create meaning in our minds is through stories.
As Phycologist Steven Pinker once said: “the mind best understands facts when they are woven into a conceptual fabric, such as a narrative…”
So to manage meaning we need to get to grips with narratives and stories. Because our brains are wired to connect with information when it is presented in this way.
The Monomyth or Hero’s journey
Thats where the work of Joseph Campbell comes into play. In his work “The Hero with a thousand faces” he studied stories from all over the world, across time and across cultures. He discovered what he called “the monomyth” - a common plot line which nearly all famous stories and myths follow. It’s also known as ‘The Hero’s journey’.
It goes a little like this: the hero character has to leave their ’status quo’ and venture out into the unknown. They have to retrieve or find something. As they do so they come across various conflicts and trials. They meet characters who help and hinder them. Eventually they face a major crisis which they ultimately triumph over. After this they then return home. But something has changed. They have been transformed and improved by the experience - and we, the audience have too.
The story flows through 3 basic Acts:
Beginning: The Departure Act (Act 1): the Hero leaves the Ordinary World.
Middle: The Initiation Act (Act 2): the Hero heads out into the unknown
End: The Return Act (Act 3): the Hero returns in triumph.
You probably recognise this. It’s used in the majority of Hollywood blockbusters and best selling novels. Think ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘The Hunger Games’, ‘Dune’, ‘Harry Potter’, ‘The Matrix’, ‘The Lion King’. Perhaps most famously there is the example of ‘Star Wars’ - and that is really of note because in a 1985 speech, George Lucas himself declared that he had drawn on the work of Joseph Campbell.
Why are stories so powerful?
The psychologists tell us that we all think in stories. Humans are defined by the stories they tell, that are told about them and the stories they tell themselves. In fact, we see ourselves as the hero of our own story. We mentally write a ‘life story’ this in our adolescence. If things in life align to it we are satisfied and happy. But if an area of our life does not fit with our self-written story we look around for things to help get the story back on track. And of course life is full of challenges. We are mortal. Unexpected things happen. Change, challenge and conflict is a part of life - even if we try and pretend it’s not! And thats where stories come in.
Because through them they:
Teach us lessons
Help us deal with change
Inspire us to overcome
Create our identities
Help us make sense of the world
Stories help us to understand why something is important and why we should care. They are all about the challenge of change. The three Acts could be broken down into something like this:
• Act 1: Before the change
• Act 2: During the change
• Act 3: After the change
As change is a part of what it means to be human we can see why story is so important to us. As we experience a story we can’t help but put ourselves in the role of the hero and ask - what would we do in this situation? How would we face this change and challenge? We love to learn and develop with the hero as they go through the story and we marvel and celebrate the victory and transformation the hero makes because if they can do it - maybe we can too. In our lives. We too can overcome the challenge of change. Our brains literally fire off behavioural hormones as we experience a story. This is why we can laugh our loud whilst reading a book or experience goose bumps and thrust our heads into a cushion when watching a movie.
Storytelling and branding
So what does all this have to do with branding and how is this relevant to brand strategy and business? Well, if branding is the management of meaning and the human brain is wired to create meaning through stories then it seems obvious that anyone seeking to build a brand should become acquainted with the power of storytelling.
All brands should understand the change they are seeking to make, on a very human level, to their customers lives. They should then position their brand so that it helps their customers through that change. To communicate how they do that swiftly they can leverage the power of storytelling. To show up in the right way so that customers "get" why they should choose that brand.
The biggest mistake business leaders make though is that they often tell a story from their own perspective. But a story should not be about you. It should be about your audience.
The customer is the hero in their own story. A brand simply shows up to help the customer through the challenges ahead. The brand shows up to help them be a better version of themselves. To overcome the challenge of change. To help them through the adventure.
An exercise to uncover brand narrative
So how could you use all this in your brand building? By making story part of the strategy. But how do we get a customer centric narrative? Well one exercise I’ve found really helpful is to get leadership teams to really think through the change they are seeking to make for their customers. To do this get your team to build out audience personas and think about what that audience is ideally “thinking”, “feeling” and “doing”; before they come across your brand; whilst engaging with your brand and then; after engaging with your brand. In other words before they make a change (Act 1), whilst going through a change (Act 2) and then after the change has happened (Act 3).
Having a deep understanding of this can help weave a powerful and joined up narrative that can unite people around the customers story. Document it. Add it to your brand strategy. Include this thinking in your vision and mission. If you can do this internally within your leadership and business culture you'll find your people will begin to build out more powerful brand experiences for customers. You can align your initiatives to this narrative and easily spot areas to improve, innovate in and evolve. It can also be used to more effectively communicate the value of a brand to a customers and potential employees and therefore increase perceived value and help you make more sales and recruit talent more easily. But where you really want to see impact is in the stories you hear from customers. When they play back a form of the narrative you have imagined. You know you've made it when they tell stories about you and your brand in this way. When your strategy has turned into reality. Thats when you know you have really leveraged the power of story. This is why storytelling and the monomyth is essential to brand building.
So, I wish you every success as you mange your meaning better. Develop alignment around your customers story and know your role in it. Build better brands through the power of storytelling.