Clues to a Great Brand Story


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Storytelling exists in all cultures; it is used to convey learning and history, as well as to entertain children and adults alike. Stories were developed down through the ages as a means of transferring knowledge, long before books and now the web enabled their storage.

Storytelling has risen in importance in business over the last decade to become one of the essential skills of CEOs and CMOs alike. And with the introduction of websites and Fan pages, for brands as well.

Brand stories are perhaps one of the easiest ways to resonate with customers, which hopefully then leads to those highly sought-after but ever-diminishing rewards of loyalty and advocacy. Of course I say “easiest” with caution, since great storytelling is an art that is often learned but rarely truly mastered. (and I knowingly accept that I’m too often in that group!)

One of the best places to find great storytellers, and stories in general, is on TED. One of the most popular talks on the topic “The Clue to a great story” was given in February 2012 by Andrew Stanton. Stanton is the Pixar writer and director behind both Toy Story and WALL-E, both incredible stories, I’m sure you’d agree. I was reminded of this fascinating talk recently, because it was turned into a beautiful infographic on the TED Blog. We all love infographics almost as much as stories, so I was inspired to take the five “clues” Stanton talked about and apply them to brand stories.

Make me Care

According to Stanton, a story needs to start by drawing sympathy from the audience. In the beginning, the hero is rejected or badly treated by family, friends, employers, circumstances, or the world; think Cinderella or the loveable WALL-E as typical examples. Their plight immediately sets the stage for building feelings of concern in the audience, especially when identified as unfair or outside the control of the hero, which is often the opening scene.

Plutchik's wheel of emotionsIn the case of brands I believe the emotions most sought are on the opposite side of Plutchiks’ Wheel of Emotions (above); those of trust, admiration or anticipation. People spend money on brands because the believe they will provide pleasure and / or solve a problem. Our job is to not only satisfy this need, but to go even further by turning that expectation into surprise and delight (more on that later).

Take me with you

In storytelling there is a promise of a journey, a mystery or of a problem solved; something that entices the reader or listener to stay and learn more.

StorytimeA brand wants its customers to stay and become loyal, so it too makes promises, whether real or imagined. When I first started working at Philip Morris International, there was a rumour amongst consumers that Marlboro was financing the Ku Klux Klan in the US, because its packaging had three red rooftops or “K’s” on it. Management obviously didn’t want this imagined, so one of the K’s was removed by making the bottom of the pack solid red.

However, consumers’ desire for mystery was so strong that another quickly emerged, that of Marlboro hating Blacks, Asians and Indians. This second story came about because a consumer had found the printer reference line of coloured dots on the inside of the pack when it had been dismantled. This time there was little management could do, other than to deny it, which appeared to have the opposite affect of further confirming the rumour.

Customers love to tell stories about “their” brands. There are many myths about the greatest brands around, often starting from their packaging or communications. Toblerone has the “Bear of Berne” and the Matterhorn, exemplifying its Swiss origin, on its pack and the chocolate itself is shaped like a mountain. Camel has the “Manneken Pis from Brussels” on the back leg of the camel. Whereas the former was intentional, I don’t think JTI planned that into their design; consumers just imagined and then shared their fidning, turning it into reality.

Other brands have developed stories through their communications, that are also shared and repeated into reality by their customers. Examples of these include Columbia outdoor wear’s “Tough Mother” campaign, Harley Davidson‘s enabling “middle aged” men to become bikers at the weekend, or Dove‘s campaign for real women to name just a few. All these stories confirm and further support the connection their customers have with them, making these brands almost a part of their families.

Be Intentional

In a story, the hero has an inner motivation driving them to a goal. They will encounter problems and challenges along the way but their motivation remains strong to reach their goal.

4-quadrantsFor a brand this motivation is what it stands for, its equity. What is the brand’s image, its personality, what benefits can the customer expect? Not only is it important to identify these, but perhaps even more importantly is to consistently portray them in everything a brand does. From its product, to packaging, communications to sponsorships, the motivation for the customer can only remain strong if consistently and continuously reenforced.

Let me like you

A story depends on a hero with whom the audience can empathise; someone worthy of their respect, even love.

This is exactly the same for brands, which is why problems and crises need to be handled quickly, fairly and respectfully. In today’s world of global connection, everything a brand says or does, anywhere in the world, is shared and commented upon globally. Whereas in the past disappointed customers may have told ten others, today it is estimated to be more like ten million thanks to social media!

In a great article entitled “What an angry customer costs” by Fred Reichheld it is said that the cost to companies of haters or detractors is enormous. “Successful companies take detractors seriously. They get to the root cause of customers’ anger by listening to complaints, taking them seriously and fixing problems that might be more pervasive” But it’s not merely a question of preventing the spread of negative word of mouth. As Reichheld himself says “For many customers … (resolving complaints) …is where true loyalty begins“.

(Surprise and) Delight me

Stanton says that stories should charm and fascinate the audience; for brands we should aim for surprise and delight, as previously mentioned. The surprise of learning something new about the product or company that made it; delight at getting unexpected gifts or attention from the brand.

This is where limited editions and seasonal offers first started but over the last few years, thanks to today’s connected world, brands are going much further:

  • In 2010 SpanAir delivered an Unexpected Luggage Surprise for its customers flying over Christmas Eve
  • Also in 2010, another airline KLM, had staff members prepare gifts for a select few passengers who tweeted about their pending departure on a KLM flight at the airport
  • Tropicana brought “Artic Sun” to the remote Canadian town of Inuvik, where residents live in darkness for weeks each winter
  • Zappos are known for their excellent customer service, but they often go the extra mile, upgrading customer shipping to expedited service for free. The surprise of the speed and delight at their accompanying hand-written mail, hits home every time
  • Kleenex surprised sick people with their Feel Good campaign that targeted people Tweeting about going down with the ‘flu
  • Google, who are known for their creative and timely illustrations on their homepage, started showing a birthday cake as the image above the search box on people’s birthday

The last example actually happened to me a couple of months ago and I have to say I was so excited I actually Tweeted about it. Am I the only one who was touched by this gesture, because I haven’t heard anyone else mentioning it?

So those are Stanton’s five clues to a great story, adapted for brands. Do they work? What stories are told about your own brands? Or do you have other great examples to share?

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C³Centricity used images from Microsoft,, in this post

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Denyse Drummond-Dunn
Denyse empowers CPG Execs to accelerate growth by attracting, delighting, and retaining more customers. She delivers inspiring Customer Experience keynotes, talks, and training, and is a #1 best-selling author. Denyse created QC2™, the new CX model that produces quantum results from atomic steps. Denyse is Nestle’s former Global Head of Consumer Excellence and has >30 yrs experience. Her global consultancy, C3Centricity, has expertise in over 125 countries! Check out her website to connect and find solutions to your current challenges.


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