People are drawn to tradition. That’s why people like me walk the Camino de Santiago trail, a traditional hiking pilgrimage that spans the Spanish coastline and countryside in dozens of routes, some as long as 1,000 kilometers, all of which culminate at the steps of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, where the bones of St. James supposedly rest.
And I’m not alone. Tens of thousands of people from all over the world make the pilgrimage each year, streaming into the city with trekking poles and blistered heels. By the end of their journey, each pilgrim has come to the end of a story—one that is both personal and communal, fresh and traditional, simple and still profound.
What is it that draws so many to a tradition like the Camino? It’s become a cliché in branding to say that people are drawn to stories, but just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
People aren’t just drawn to narrative. They build their lives and identities upon it.
Experiences like the Camino are both a testament to the profound power of a great narrative, and a lesson in how to create one.
In branding, the undeniable truth is that stories are most powerful when everyone can take part in them. People are drawn to the Camino for a multitude of reasons–from spiritual awakening to wanting a cool selfie. Regardless of why, they are expecting an experience that you can see, hear, and feel.
A great narrative allows people to experience it, to feel it, see it, and hear it, on both a personal and communal level, regardless of where they enter, or what knowledge they bring to it. This means building great brand narratives requires more than just telling the story of your brand, your ‘Founder’s Story’ or creating a clever ‘About Us’ page, it means transforming your story into a narrative that people can find themselves in.
Symbols lead the way
You don’t need a GPS signal to complete the Camino. You simply have to show up and follow the symbols. The first is the yellow scallop shell carved into stone posts to mark the direction and distance to Santiago de Compostela. Next are the simple yellow arrows painted onto surfaces to mark twists and turns in the route. The shell is a reference to the scallops that supposedly covered St. James’ body when he washed up on the Iberian shore after a shipwreck, and the simple arrows are just that. Wherever you enter, you can find your way deeper into the story, through imagery that echoes the overall narrative.
You don’t even need to know the origin story to find the shell meaningful. You don’t need to have any affinity for St. James, his famous bones in the tomb below the cathedral, or the history of the trail. You just need to take a step onto the path to the cathedral. That’s it.
The Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is a romanesque and baroque masterpiece on par with Europe’s great churches. It is also the symbol that unites the shells, the arrows, and the trails themselves.
A great brand narrative applies the same principles. Every visual asset should be treated as a narrative symbol–closely connected to the heart of your brand, and should lead a person deeper into your narrative. Even if a person doesn’t know or care what the symbol means, it should still function meaningfully—keeping them on the path you want them to take.
Create a shared language rooted in your story
On the Camino, there are a few phrases you pick up very quickly and repeat so often they become mantras. The weight of these phrases comes directly from the deeper narrative that everyone shares on the path. To complete the long Walk is both personal and communal, and therefore generates a highly personal, and yet communal language–increasing the sense of belonging to a bigger story.
‘Buen Camino’. Have a good journey. It’s a blessing, a greeting and an affirmation of this shared experience.
‘The Camino provides’ and ‘Camino spirit’ refer to the generosity that peregrinos (pilgrims) share along the Way.
Because the language is true to the narrative experience, and not just ornamental, these phrases instantly take on an awe-inspiring significance.
The mistake so many brands make is settling for bland sentimentality that is disconnected from their purpose and behavior as a brand. We’ve witnessed how a phrase like “We’re in this together” can communicate the opposite. The problem with language that isn’t rooted in a brand’s reality, their narrative, is that it quickly feels like pandering, and at worse, manipulation.
The best narrative language allows everyone to connect with a brand and its broader, shared identity. Just Do It has a powerful personal and collective meaning. It communicates a personal challenge that can be collectively explored, the narrative holy grail.
As is the case with symbols, great brand language does more than just convey information—it invites people to play a role in the story being told. That language can be simple or ornate, foreign or familiar. As long as your language and the ideas it conveys are all connected to the narrative and purpose at the heart of your brand, the effect will be powerful, and maybe even profound.
Make it a journey…and other metaphors
At risk of sounding like an English teacher–I used to be one–the power of metaphor in brand narratives can’t be overstated. Metaphor creates space for growth and connection. It pushes the mind beyond the literal, into deeper waters, where it must kick its feet and swim.
The key to a powerful metaphor is the key to a powerful brand story: it is about allowing someone to discover themself in your narrative.
More so than visual cues, metaphor by its nature fosters a feeling of being at the center of the story. Joseph Campbell said, “a metaphor suggests potential”. But using metaphor in branding doesn’t have to mean writing a novel or an epic poem. In fact, it shouldn’t. A single metaphorical idea, woven through your language and visuals, is all it takes.
The North Face, Never Stop Exploring functions both literally and figuratively. First, it invokes the spirit of physical adventure inherent to an outdoor apparel brand. But exploring can also be metaphorical. After all, their jackets and fleeces can be seen on city streets all over the world, far from any peaks or rivers. Again, a personal challenge that can be embraced collectively.
The value of metaphor is that it triggers the deeper thinking that creates engagement. On the Camino, the predominant metaphor is ‘the journey’ itself, which is both literal and figurative. There’s the physical, actual walk, over rivers and mountains, and then there’s the internal journey each pilgrim experiences subjectively, over and through their own complex internal terrain. If your brand can inspire an encounter with that mysterious but rich inner space inside your audience, the potential for sustained, meaningful engagement is limitless.
The end of the journey
I arrived in Santiago on a misty June day at mid-morning, and walked with a few pilgrims through the medieval city to the Cathedral. We dropped our packs in the square and gazed at the massive structure before us, a symbol of immense significance, deeply satisfied and slightly dazed. We’d completed the journey, and there was the cathedral to prove it. The metaphorical journey, which was personal to each of us, would live in our memories, colored by the symbols we saw, the language we learned, and the experience we shared.
The journey also left me a new checklist of elements that I now look for in every experiential narrative, for brands and beyond. First, the narrative is accessible from any point–you can step onto the path from any point and find your way deeper into the story. Second, it contains layers that are unified by purposeful language and symbols. Finally, it uses metaphor to inspire a literal and figurative experience.
Luckily, you don’t have to recreate a thousand-year-old tradition to build a great brand narrative. All you need is a story that people want to be a part of, and a path to lead the way.
Cover image source: Pablo Avanzini