Once upon a time, stories were precious things.
Predating the written word, they bore a weighty responsibility as they passed from one mouth to another – they preserved our history. They safeguarded our knowledge. And of course, they entertained us.
Stories play no less a role in our lives today. Though the mediums for telling them have changed and evolved, the significance they play in our lives holds true.
As does their shape. Scratch beneath the surface of any great story and (it is said) you’ll reveal a gratifying truth: they’re all the same! Well not quite, but there is a blueprint of sorts.
Joseph Campbell brought this to the world’s attention with “The Hero with a Thousand Faces", mapping the typical adventures of the archetypal hero and the stages they go through in their story (spoiler: there are twelve of them, and once you learn them you will recognise them in everything from The Bible to Star Wars).
The ageless patterns that bind together Campbell’s stories mirror Carl Jung’s work on archetypes - both assert the existence of constantly repeating themes and characters that strongly appeal to our collective unconscious, evident across stories, drama, myth and religion in every culture.
We know that stories captivate us. We know there is a way of structuring stories that’s a proven formula for effective engagement.
So what does this mean for brands?
You don’t have to venture far in the branding blogosphere before stumbling across an enthusiast waxing lyrical about ‘the power of stories’ to engage consumers. This is quite true of course, and the enthusiasm at offering such a revelation is understandable.
There’s an irresistible romance to the notion that something we associate with the magic of childhood can be repurposed into a potent tool for business, a pleasing satisfaction that so ancient an art form holds it’s relevance for modern audiences.
Brand stories provide context – what they believe about the world, where they fit into it, what role they play in our lives, what problems they help overcome, how they benefit us and make us happy. Why we want them. Why we need them.
Why shout loudly at consumers until they relent, when storytelling can romance them into coming to you?
Brands use stories for the same reason as everyone else. Whether as a form of entertainment or a delivery mechanism for information, the purpose of a story is always the same - to package information in such a way as to elicit a certain, desired response.
Understanding. Empathy. Attraction. Desire. Anger. Wonder. Excitement.
To provoke laughter or tears, cushion bad news, build desire for a brand or sell a product…ultimately, as storytellers, we are in the business of manipulation.
The art from a branding perspective is to use this manipulation virtuously to create shared value – storytelling that engages consumers in a relevant way, fits into their life, delivers on it’s promise and reassures them about their loyalty.
But in creating this shared value, there is one important rule:
Brands use stories for the same reason as everyone else.
But brand stories have to be true.
When they are not, the story is nothing but an illusion. Its power will dwindle and die. As will the brand.
Stories are still precious. They are undoubtedly powerful. And when brands tell great, authentic stories, everybody wins.
And we all live happily ever after.