Your brand is not the story. Your brand is IN the story.

Your brand is not the story. Your brand is in the story.

Advertising is dead. Messaging is dead. Branding is also dead. Or maybe they just have one of those 24 hour tumours that seem to be going around. At least that’s ‘the story’ according to the content-marketing-military-industrial-complex as it rolls out the ‘brand story’ juggernaut.

I’m not here to plead for the re-instatement of the 30sec TVC as the ultimate form of persuasive creativity. Far from it. I’ve been on the ‘brands as publishers’ bandwagon for a while now – you can mark me down as a fan of branded content (when done right) and of brand utility in particular.

No story, straight to bed.

The more recent shift, however, is from brands as publishers of stories in the journalism sense of the word (an analogy that worked well for the PR/social practitioners in the house), to a place where brands now must cast themselves as authors or narrators of stories in the fictional sense of the word.

TED talkers (and their audiences) are going apeshit for this metaphor. Which means agencies and marketing departments are going apeshit for it too. Every brief is now a challenge to “tell our story”. Every marketing objective is to “get users to engage with our story”. Every desired outcome is to get users to “share our story” (more sophisticated than asking to “get more ‘likes’ on Facebook”, but essentially the same). I’ve even heard the borrowed-jargon double-whammy of ‘curate our stories’ more times than I’d care to count. I think ‘brands telling their stories’ is kinda bullshit.

The medium is the massage parlour

In theory, ‘Branded Storytelling’ is cast as a sophisticated evolution of our craft, far more nuanced and effective than simply producing and distributing a broadcast message. In practice, just a slightly more complex and technologically-driven expression of the trusted PR approach: stay on message. Generally, we’re just giving our Core Brand Message a bit of a social rub ‘n’ tug and calling it ‘Transmedia Storytelling’.

The thing about stories (in the fictional sense of the word) is that they aren’t generally “on message” themselves. Look (rather, read) carefully, and you’ll discover they usually aren’t even positive or uplifting. Even the ‘happily ever-after’ variety of story needs to go through a few rough patches if it is to have any dramatic tension or connect with the reader.

The best illustration of this comes from Kurt Vonnegut and his ‘Shape of Stories’ theory, reproduced as an infographic here by

Kurt Vonnegut - The Shapes of Stories

(Infographic courtesy of mayaeilam)

You can’t handle a ‘man in hole’

This is going to be a problem for most brands, whose tolerance for anything below the midpoint of the ‘happy’ axis is minimal. Can you imagine receiving a brief that states a brand wants to pursue a “man in hole’ storyline? And their reaction when you present back to them a public fuck-up of epic proportions (the hole) in the second act so that the brand (the man) has something to climb out the other side of and into redemption? No, I can’t either.

So perhaps the idea of a ‘brand story’ is best taken as a metaphor rather than a set of instructions. To that end, Scott Donaton (Global Chief Content officer of UM) did a solid job of pulling the threads of the ‘story as metaphor’ story together and he offers some good advice to brands embarking on content. His point of it being ‘not all about you’ is a particularly good one.

I’m not trying to be a literary purist about the word ‘story’ and reclaim it for novelists and screenwriters everywhere, but I do want to sound a note of caution (and realism) as brands rush to become storytellers.

You are probably not your story

You are more likely to be a character. Or a location. Or a plot device. Or maybe a chapter. But the real protagonist (the person we care most about in any story) is likely to be the person you’ve spent years describing as your audience. And there’s the problem – the person we’re working so hard to tell the story to, is actually the person we should be telling the story about.

Image provided by Martin Ollman Photography

More reading: 

Using brand to breathe life into the machine
20 ideas for content that people love to share on social media
5 lessons rom Coca Cola’s new content marketing strategy
What your client is about to become


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