Great brand stories have one purpose

This week The Story Museum opened in Oxford. A wonderful and inventive experience for all ages, it especially focuses on young people, encouraging them to explore the joy of storytelling. Oxford is a city of stories. Many of the world’s most famous and most successful stories started there, among them Alice in Wonderland, The Lord of the Rings, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. Harry Potter has been adopted by Oxford. Quidditch is played in the University Parks and Christ Church College is the setting of the great Hogwarts Hall in the film series. 

There’s been an opening up of storytelling in business too in recent years. Perhaps it started as an antidote to the crushingly dull and meaningless corporate jargon which has been pitilessly satirised. Storytelling has been used by brands such as innocent, Patagonia and Burberry as a means of creating greater connections with customers. They, like many other brands, seek to tell their founding story or the authentic story of their people and their products. 

Business folk who championed PowerPoint bullet points or doorstep-thick Gap Analyses and Strategic Intents now raise high the banner of the well-told story. Everyone, it seems, has woken from a bad dream in which incomprehensible, inhuman language ruled, to a brand-new day in which the old ways of communicating are reasserting their traditional power. 

People learn best through storytelling. They build deeper relationships with each other through storytelling.  They are inspired, entertained, educated and informed best through storytelling. Almost 20 years ago, a new kind of business writing course was established by John Simmons, one of the pioneers of the discipline of verbal identity. Called Dark Angels, it encourages anyone in business to write with greater humanity and to find a connection between who they are, what they are writing and the audience for whom they are writing.

This week a new brand was launched whose purpose is all about storytelling. Narrative Entertainment, a division of Narrative Capital, has acquired the rights to the Free-To-Air TV channels previously owned by Sony. The channels feature classic movies and TV programmes. With no original content, everything is curated to be dependably enjoyable, exciting and entertaining, to be a great story that viewers will relish. The channels are therefore called Great!. Daniel Levin, the CEO of Narrative Capital, describes stories and our ability to tell stories as one of the greatest natural resources available to us. It is certainly a resource to which everyone has access. We need step no further than into our minds to find a story that connects us with something – with a moment or a memory, with an idea or belief, a friend or family member, a feeling or a thought, a hope or a dream, in short, with anything that is human. That’s why so many brands use stories – because they want that connection. 

A story can be a three-volume book or a three-line tale; it can be a poem, a song or, as in the case of Great!, a series of moving pictures and sounds. Whatever its effect, whether it makes us laugh or cry, lightens our load or lifts our hearts, its purpose is always the same: to connect. The novelist E M Forster, author of A Passage to India and A Room with a View, gave this advice to all writers and readers: ‘Only Connect’. 

Nevertheless, there are still brands who get their storytelling wrong. They try too hard to connect, forcing a narrative on to an inappropriate product or ascribing a higher purpose to a mundane service. The story seems false, and the brand loses trust or at the very least appeal. Great brands tell great stories that connect a truth about what they do and why they do it with a reason we would want to buy it. They do so in a way that engages, explains, entertains and evokes an emotion that ‘calls us to action’. Steve Jobs was a great storyteller. The story he told at the launch of the iPhone remains one of the greatest pieces of brand storytelling. He knew how to connect with his audience. That takes us to the fundamental principle underlying great storytellers, be they brands or people – they know their audience, often because they are the audience. Tim Waterstone, who founded the eponymous bookstore chain, told us in our book See Feel Think Do the story of his dissatisfaction with the bookstores available at the time: “I reckoned that if I felt that way there must be several million out there like me.” 

Great brands tell great stories about themselves, but they are only great because they connect, authentically. They don’t fake it or force it. They don’t work too hard or try too hard to make you believe six impossible things before breakfast. They ‘only connect’. And that is the only purpose of any great story – be it a book, a brand or, as in the case of Harry Potter, both.

We were delighted to work with Narrative Capital to help articulate its purpose and develop the Great! brand

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