We talk a lot about storytelling in branding. And one term that’s at the heart of this is ‘brand story’. For me, a brand story is a narrative that explains the core of a brand. Crucially, it’s much more than just a back-story; it connects the dots between the back-story, brand identity, and the place of the brand in the consumers’ minds.
It gives the brand identity meaning.
Much of the online guidance around the brand story takes quite a literal approach, often recommending a three-part story structure, for example. But here, I’ll challenge this concept of a brand story as too simplistic. To really understand how a brand story operates, we need to dig deeper.
The aspects of the brand that can add to a story
The starting point for any brand identity should be the brand story. It should provide the building blocks to construct the rest of the brand. And at the core of the story is something the brand stands for. That thing must be linked to heritage, origin, and product.
I’ll give an example, IKEA. Their story is thus:
“We are a company that comes from Sweden.
So we make products that are well-designed, affordable, and accessible.
Our brand is blue and yellow, simple, and friendly — like Sweden.
We want to make good design available to everyone.”
There’s quite a lot going on with IKEA, so let’s unpack it. They lead on national heritage, borrowing core ideas from Sweden like design, accessibility, and simplicity, as well as their visual references. IKEA does a brilliant job of really embedding these values, which are the heart of their story, their products, stores, customer experience, and brand. All of this comes to life on our TV screens through the strapline, ‘The Wonderful Everyday’.
So well-known is this story, that IKEA doesn’t need to ram it home, they can remind you of it creatively. So their UK ads, produced by Mother London, show their ‘The Wonderful Everyday’ proposition, through magical occurrences happening in home environments.
Their visual brand follows their story too. In-house typeface ‘IKEA Sans’ denotes clarity, ease of use, and contemporary-ness. It also has a bit of personality too, which helps illustrate their quirky side.
Each time we see an ad or their brand, we’re reminded of their wider story. In this way, short ‘tales’ play into a wider narrative. A good narrative like this provides plenty of jumping-off points for brand activations.
Stories do not exist in a vacuum; they are part of, contribute to, and are affected by ‘discourse’.
Discourse is the culmination of language, culture, shared memories, and common understanding. It’s the conceptual space that we all inhabit. It’s the reason that, when I say ‘IKEA’, you picture so much more than just one word. The statement ‘IKEA’ triggers you to hear the brand, the products you’ve bought, your experience in the store, their ads, their history, their prices — everything that the word IKEA denotes. And I can communicate all of that because we share the same ‘discursive space’.
So it follows that a successful brand story can’t just be told to one person, it must be commonly understood by many people. That’s why advertising works — not because it reaches you, but because it reaches everyone, and everyone has a shared understanding of a brand’s story (this is also the reason programmatic advertising and personalization are such wobbly territory for a brand). Even though we may live increasingly in a filter bubble, we’re all part of the discourse.
A great example of this in action is sponsorship. Sponsorships enable a brand to absorb or borrow the characteristics of another property. By becoming a part of a sports, TV or big event ‘conversation,’ brands can overlap discursive space. They tell the audience what they stand for, through osmosis.
When your discursive space (or brand story) overlaps with a competitor, it can be hard to stand out. That’s where differentiation and personality come in. Sometimes the best story is one that completely breaks the rules of the sector.
On such example is Seedlip — a new ‘adult’ cordial — who borrowed the motifs of gin to launch their brand. They tell a back-story based on alchemy and nature, and their identity follows suit. With this story, they became part of the spirits industry discourse — and priced their product accordingly — while essentially remaining a cordial.
By creating a new kind of category, Seedlip managed to out-maneuver both the cordial and spirits market. It’s reminiscent of Red Bull, which also launched a new can shape in order to distinguish itself from the soft drink market, and tell their story of Red Bull giving ‘wings’.
The story metaphor
If brands are collections of connections attached to a product, then stories give us easy ways to remember those connections. Brand story is a great way to explain what your product or service is, and why it’s special.
Brands are in a constant game of idea construction, balancing our own messaging, with the media landscape and audience perceptions. By using the concept of shared understanding — discourse — we can appreciate how those stories interact with the wider culture. It allows us to consider more carefully how to borrow elements of culture, language, history, and imagery to give brands differentiation, personality, and meaning.
A brand story is far more powerful than merely an origin story. It’s how a brand lives and breathes in culture. We can try to control it as much as possible, but ultimately, it’s consumers who really tell the story of our brand.
Image source: Linus Sandvide