Designing a brand story is not optional

Brand storytelling is your unique chance to be persuasive and make the case for your product.

Editor’s note: this is an excerpt from our recent book Lean Branding ; it is part of a free curated collection of chapters from the O’Reilly Design library. Download a free copy of the Experience Design ebook here.

Throughout this chapter, we will look at the six essential parts of a lean brand story: positioning, promise, personas, personality, product, and pricing.

I’ve never met someone who did not aspire to be something more. Even Homer Simpson, with his absolute lack of will and ultimate disregard for the future, at times aspired to be a better husband, a fitter couch potato, a less miserable son to his old man. I’ve heard 5-year-olds state with absolute certainty that they will be president. Someone is sweating his head off right now at some ridiculously expensive gym because he aspires to be fitter. As you read this, someone is pulling an all-nighter studying to earn class valedictorian status — or maybe even reading this book to up her brand game (in which case, I highly appreciate it!). I’m pretty sure someone is daydreaming to the sound of Bruno Mars’s “Billionaire.” Someone (perhaps you) aspires to build a successful product that customers open their wallets and hearts for. If that is indeed you, please hold on to this thought: aspirations.

Behind every great brand is a promise that fulfills its customers’ aspirations. We are in the business of taking customers from A to B, where A is who they are today and B is who they want to be tomorrow. Consider the products you love — sports attire, note-taking apps, electronic devices, chocolate ice cream, this book — and how they’ve made you feel closer to whom you want to be.

When most people think about aspirations, they imagine long-term dreams or perpetual objectives. But in reality, aspirations come in all sizes, time lengths, and levels of difficulty. After all, an aspiration is nothing more than a pursuit, an urge that influences our daily decisions. Whether that aim is to become a more organized worker, a more inspired creative, or the president of the United States is irrelevant.

All human aspirations are opportunities for brands to build relationships.

Here are some sample aspirations to think about:

  • Be independent and perceived as such by others. Become an autonomous individual by purchasing products and services that empower you to do more and better on your own.
  • Be more relaxed. Live a less stressful lifestyle by purchasing products and services that help release different kinds of tension.
  • Be unique and perceived as such by others. Express yourself and your worldview by purchasing products and services that let others know who you are and reflect your identity to the world.
  • Enact a new role in life. Embody a “new persona” by purchasing products and services that help you attain a new professional or personal position.
  • Engage in better relationships. Improve the way you connect with other human beings by purchasing products and services that strengthen your social circle and increase your sense of belonging.
  • Be more stable. Avoid danger by purchasing products and services that increase your safety.
  • Be well-known. Become accomplished by purchasing products and services that help you become more recognized and reputable.
  • Be a genuinely better human being. Grow individually by purchasing products and services that boost your professional, spiritual, and emotional development.

Forget everything you’ve heard about brand stories

Our mission for this chapter is to understand whom we’re selling to and learn the best way to show them who we are, what we offer, how we’re different, and how we promise to help them. The good news is that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Human beings have been learning via stories forever, and there’s simply no better tool to send our brand message across.

For some reason, when they hear about “brand stories,” some people imagine their company’s CEO reading to a potential buyer sitting on his lap, in an altruist display of emotion and mutual love. Rewind. Yes, there might be some reading. And yes, we need the CEO on board. But, while emotion is a part of the whole thing, please remember this:

Your brand story’s “happily ever after” involves open wallets.

Seth Godin has an interesting thought on the matter: “Stories and irrational impulses are what change behavior. Not facts or bullet points.”

Some other people hear me say “brand story,” and “storytelling” immediately comes to mind. I’d like to let you know that “telling” is not what we’re doing here. We’re aiming for “story-showing.” Telling isn’t enough. Brand communications are not about explain-time, justify-time, defend-time…blah-time. Please keep the idea of show-time close to heart. This is why Chapter 5 is all about “story-showing” — feel free to take a peek if you’re curious at this point.

But before we deal with ways to show our brand story, we need to create one.

I know social media, digital channels, videos, websites, and many other tools are appealing at the moment. I know that you think they might help your product scale instantaneously (miraculously), that they’re just what the doctor ordered. I also need you to understand that you’d better stay away from them unless you have a story to tell.

Otherwise, digital channels just have a way of, well, swallowing you. Remember this:

Digital channels are just tools to show (what should be) a meaningful brand story.

Having a brand story is not optional. If you don’t start writing it, please worry because — mark my words — someone else will write it for you. In my experience, only extremely disgusted or extremely pleased customers will put any effort into contributing to your brand story, so imagine how that would turn out without your attention. Brand storytelling is your unique chance to be persuasive and make the case for your product.

To take full advantage of this opportunity, we will answer five simple questions for our customers — though, as you’ll see, there’s really one big, profitable, underlying question (Why should I buy from you?):

Brand story part Customer asks Customer really thinks
Positioning “How are you useful to me?” WHY should I buy from you?
Promise “What do you promise to do for me?” Why SHOULD I buy from you
Personas “What do I need/want from you?” Why should I buy from you?
Personality “Who are you?” Why should I buy from YOU?
Product “What will you offer, over time?” Why should I BUY from you?
Pricing “How much is this going to cost me?” Why should I BUY from you?

You can download the remaining free chapters from Experience Design here; author Laura Busche’s Lean Branding is available here.

This post is part of our ongoing investigation into Experience Design and Business.

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