A life as led is inseparable from a life as told. It’s not about “how it was,” but how it is interpreted and reinterpreted, told and retold. Narrative – “story telling” – is a particular mode of thinking, the mode that relates to the concrete and particular as opposed to the abstract and general. Stories make brands real.
Stories serve a number of cultural, social and psychological functions that can and should be used in positioning you brand. The choice of words and subjects in a story convey to the creator and the listener what meaning a brand has beyond the surface. For example, a sporting goods store like Cabela’s may symbolize father/son bonding, a sense of shared identity around which a they can distinguish themselves from the rest of the family, a repository for cultural ideals like fair play and what it means to be a man. While none of these directly reflect the products being sold, they are the underlying currents that draw people to a store, to buy gear, and to get their children involved in little league. These aspects of what a brand is emerge in the telling of a story.
But from a business perspective, why bother? Defining what the brand means to the customer allows the marketing and creative teams to speak to people on a much deeper level. Simply, increased brand relevance and market share.
Wired for Symbolism
Stories are conveyed through language, which is by definition a symbolic system. The key to successful engagement is to move from structural aspects of a story to the symbolic, uncovering systems of meaning that resonate with potential customers and compel them to action. Conceptualizing your brand through narrative ties the signifying components to a powerful symbolic system.
These symbolic dimensions that emerge in the narrative add value to products by fulfilling culturally constructed concepts (quality, status, age, belonging, etc.). A brand is a signal that triggers a field of meanings in the consumer’s mind. These meanings are conveyed directly and inferentially through stories. By harnessing the symbolic power behind these meanings, strong brands move beyond the codes governing a product category and enter the personal space of the consumer.
As each narrative unfolds, it is contextualized by the purposes of the interviewer in terms of the research and of the participant in terms of self-presentation. The story may not represent reality from an external perspective, but is an attempt on the part of the teller to reduce information into something meaningful for the outsider.
The use of a narrative inquiry and the development of case stories offer multiple perspectives in understanding a practice, social group, etc. This process gives meaning to tan audience; it yields history, myth and function. No single story provides a full understanding of the meaning of an event, activity, etc., but it provides pieces for a total picture of a concept. Repeated patterns of behavior and repeated storylines are important in uncovering the meaning of your brand. Patterns lead to those experiencing them incorporating the stories, and as a result the brand, into the fabric of their lives. We don’t tend to remember a sequence of numbers when we read them. We do remember the simplest of stories.
Loyalty and commitment to a brand comes into existence when humans give meaning to it – they control the brand, we do not. Any time a brand is identified, given a name, or designed to represent a known storyline it is separated from the undefined world around it. The sense of brand commitment is strongly enhanced the stories handed down over time and being portrayed part of the collective myth. Doubt it? Look at the lines outside the Apple Store the day the iPad 2 was released.
Creating a Mental Framework
The first step in building a story-based strategy is recognizing that descriptive and symbolic systems that are conveyed through stories serve different but equally important functions in developing a brand identity. Descriptive aspects of a brand come out through stories and provide a narrative frame. The goal in a narrative frame is to provide as much information as possible to a creative team or marketing team so they can incorporate subtle triggers into messaging and the overarching brand experience. Narratives give meaning to the world, both for the individual telling the story and the social network consuming it.
The audience, the shopper and the consumer, is drawn into the story created. They sense what the characters experienced – the audience is meant to relive the experience, insofar as that is possible, rather than interpret it. The emotional impact of seeing and hearing such lush descriptions provided through story telling sparks interest and long-term associations with the brand. They do more than remember you, they come to associate your brand with themselves.
Ownership is a key element to a story gaining ground. Feeling directly invested in the story and the people in an environment allows people to feel a personal connection. With ownership comes the need to share your experience and the desire for collaboration in the retelling of the story. Shoppers who are encouraged to interact with others in a non-transactional way, creating new configurations of the story collectively and dynamically, are more inclined to interpret themselves as part of the storyline. The contextualization of these actions by location provides a deep and varied “space.” This has implication well beyond how we tell or clients to sell their products. It gives us a new tool to understand what matters to people and uncover those triggers that have a major, often unconscious, affect on their buying decisions.
The power of the emotionally influential, culturally relevant, dramatic story in the beginning of the retail branding process can mean the difference between seeing innovation and failure. The narrative serves as a launching pad for brand devotion. Bore the shopper and there is almost no chance of affecting change and growing revenue. Story telling makes points clear in what might otherwise be murky waters. In Gary Witherspoon’s book Language and Art in the Navajo Universe (1977) he wrote, “The greatest value of learning the language of another people does not come from being able to interview informants without interpreters or from providing native terms in ethnographic writings; it comes from being able to understand what natives say and how they say it when they are conversing with each other.” This holds true equally for the people who buy our products or shop our stores. People are often thinking about things other than the goods they need to procure when shopping. They are thinking and living out the experiences of motherhood, play, obligation, etc. In other words, people are part of a complex system of meaning and behavior. Learning the communicative norms and processes of the individual groups allows us to better grasp and define our audiences, adapting our methods of presentation to be understandable and meaningful. That translates into meaningful insights, rather than superficial anecdotes, and more strategically relevant information.
Well So What!?!
Take the Sam Adams brand as an example. The authenticity of brand is not a set of traditions in the standard sense. They talk, of course, about the product and the flavor, but they reach beyond that to explain the story behind the beer. They humanize and historicize the company and its people, turning beer into a way of life rather than an object. Marketing becomes less about selling a product than it does about ongoing engagement between the people buying the products and the producers themselves. Rather than being a purely transactional engagement, the consumer and the company, the brand, become part of a shared interaction. In breaking down the Us/Other interaction the company becomes a member of the population rather than an external force with whom people interact only at the cash register. Those sorts of findings can have a powerful impact on how we interpret what we see and hear. And that can change everything about how we understand and talk to people.