Gini Dietrich

The Five Parts to Brand Storytelling Nearly Everyone Misses

By: Gini Dietrich | October 27, 2014 | 
72

Brand StorytellingBy Gini Dietrich

Last week, I had a fun email conversation with Patrick Coffee over at Mediabistro.

He told me he was moderating a brand storytelling panel, which he thinks is the most over-blown buzzword today.

He said, “Even my 65-year-old dad used “storytelling” in casual conversation last month when he wasn’t even drunk.”

Which made me laugh out loud.

Then I read, “The Bedtime Test of Content Marketing and PR” by Christopher Penn and I laughed out loud again.

(Granted, I’m easily amused.)

To be fair, the quote that made me laugh was, “No child will ever ask you to read them a press release at bedtime.”

Bedtime Story

You don’t say?

His point was the corporate story you tell has to be engaging. If a child doesn’t want to watch, listen to, or read your story, neither will your customer.

It means you’re doing it wrong.

Five Parts to Brand Storytelling

I’m always amused that we all complain about how bad some of the messaging is from organizations, yet many of us get behind our computer screens and pump out crap no one wants to read.

We know it’s crap. We know no one wants to read it. And yet.

I get it. I do. You have bosses or clients who insist it be full of corporate speak and jargon. But it’s our jobs to change the thinking around this.

In Spin Sucks, I talk about how important it is to think about your brand storytelling like you would a novel.

There are five essential parts to brand storytelling.

They include: Passion, a protagonist, an antagonist, a revelation, and the transformation.

Passion

What is it your audience really cares about?

Mailchimp tells their customers stories in interesting ways.

They don’t have their customers talk about how they use MailChimp. They have them talk about their restaurant or their fashion design company or their business cartoons.

These aren’t customer quotes or testimonials; these are customer stories.

The passion lies in how your product is created, your office culture, the one thing your organization truly cares about that makes you unique and valuable to the world around you.

The Protagonist

The protagonist is you, your company, your product, or your service.

This is typically where stories begin and end, but in the brand storytelling process, this is just the beginning.

To figure out who your protagonist is—the leader of the organization, a social media rockstar within your ranks, a spokesperson, a cartoon superhero of your logo—ask a handful of people in various roles to share five adjectives they’d use to describe the company and two aspects of the organization that are unique or valuable.

Ask people inside your organization and your customers to contribute. Look for themes or strong responses and combine them into a clearly defined description of your protagonist’s attributes.

Remember when U.K.-based Bodyform—the maker of women’s products—went on the defensive when someone posted on their Facebook wall that a woman’s period is nothing like a tampon ad?

They responded with a very funny video that made the CEO the protagonist in their story.

It was interesting, it had a great sense of humor, and it brought more awareness to their brand.

Heck, I’m fairly certain we shared the video in Gin and Topics a few years ago.

The Antagonist

The antagonist is the villain and is often the most overlooked part of an organization’s story.

What is the enemy of your success?

Think about it as an issue or challenge you solve.

What keeps your customers awake at night? Is it a cultural issue? Is it an industry concern; perhaps you work in print distribution and the products you make are becoming extinct because everything is going online and you no longer have something to distribute?

Maybe it’s a real problem like the hassle of setting up payroll, or you have email overload.

Chicago-based 37 Signals, now known as Basecamp, discovered there was a problem for small-and medium-sized businesses in using customer relationship and project management software because what existed was far too expensive and was built only for very large companies.

They also knew the web should empower, not frustrate.

Their antagonist, then, became the big enterprise software solutions for both customer relationship and project management.

The Revelation

Part of what makes fiction so compelling are twists or turns you weren’t expecting.

We enjoy the surprise and delight, even if the revelation is sad, because we like to feel like we’re being let in on a secret.

Likewise, your organization’s story should share something unexpected with customers and prospects.

There is an interesting company called FoldIt that creates games as a way to solve real issues, such as new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs for AIDS patients.

The company is billed as online gaming, but the big revelation is the games serve the purpose of finding a needle in a haystack—something scientists may miss by not being able to see the forest for the trees.

The Transformation

The final part to your story is the transformation, or the thing (or things) that is different about the way you do business.

Think about how your company has evolved. Think about the problem you solve and how it connects with both emotional and practical needs.

What is your value proposition? What can customers get only from you?

It might be intellectual property or a new way of doing things or a super duper cool new widget.

People want to know how you arrived there.

The argument many business leaders make at this point is, “Why would I want to give away our secret sauce? Then our competitors would do what we do.”

Here’s the thing: Your competitors may know the exact recipe to your secret sauce, but no one does it as well as you do.

It’s your secret sauce.

It was created with your people, your thinking, your culture, your passion, and your vision.

Tell the story from your point-of-view and no one can copy it.

Pulling it All Together

You also need to start with an idea, theme, or concept.

Going out and telling the company’s history isn’t going to fly. Choose one interesting tidbit and start there.

To Patrick’s point, “brand storytelling” is overhyped. Not because we shouldn’t be doing it, but because it’s rare to find an organization that does it well.

Choose your passion, protagonist, antagonist, revelation, and transformation.

If you do those five things, every child in the world is going to want you to read them your story at bedtime.

photo credits: Tom Fishburne at Marketoonist and Creative Commons from Christopher Penn

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

  • These are very good. It does boil down to plain old story telling. A lot of people forget that in their effort to sound like smart “content marketers.”

  • Gini Dietrich

    That cartoon makes me laugh.

  • Ellie Pierce

    It’s pretty perfect.

  • The stuff on storytelling was one of my favorite parts of the book! I’m going to use it when I finally get around to writing that novel, too.

  • You make a great point about “The Transformation.” I think this is exactly why so many people find it hard to tell their story. They want to tell some of it, but not all of it. That would be like E.L. James writing a PG-13 version of the Fifty Shades of Grey. Who would buy that?

  • **  I should also ask who would buy that book and its awful writing? **

  • JRHalloran I know, right?!  I mean it’s going to be a movie soon, anyway……..

  • Just printed out the poster for my cubicle.  

    Also, if I get in trouble for snatching random children off the streets and reading them About Us pages, I blaming you.

  • HeatherTweedy That would be hilarious! Excuse me, kid! I need your help!

  • JRHalloran I felt like I had to wash my eyeballs with bleach after reading that.

  • One of my peeves is the way people and organizations these days play fast and loose with the definition of story. Everything’s a story — a quote from Steve Jobs, a customer testimonial, a picture of a puppy in the rain.
    But you’re right, a real story has to have certain fundamental elements. People may disagree on how to structure it — a friend of mine was researching a book and counted 82 different definitions of story — but things like conflict and a relatable character are essential.

  • RobBiesenbach You have pictures of puppies in the rain, and you’re not sharing?!

  • RonellSmith

    Gini,
    I agree 1,000 percent with Patrick. Brand
    storytelling is BS. Everyone, it seems, is in a rush to explain the
    efficacy of storytelling and its usefulness as a marketing and sales
    tactics, yet at the same time the web is rife with examples of customers
    sharing how they resent being sold and marketed to.

    Many
    content marketers love to climb atop the soapbox and extol the virtues
    of storytelling by using the examples of literature, poetry and the
    popularity of raconteurs worldwide. And most of us fall for the ruse.

    The
    audience doesn’t give a damn about the brand until they have first
    formed a connection with said brand, and that happens ONLY after the
    brand has put the customer (“users”) first. How is that done? By making
    users the centerpiece of the story being told by brands.

    To
    my mind, there should ONLY be user storytelling: Brands forming a
    relationship with, then sharing stories of, about and with their users;
    Users, seeing themselves as part of the brand story, making the brand
    and its products a natural part of their lives.
    In my opinion, brands should only be storytellers to the extent that they’re sharing users’ stories.
    I wrote about it here: http://www.isoosi.com/blog/brand-storytelling-bland-storytelling.html
    RS

  • tnfletch

    I love the visual of reading marketing content and pr to kids before bedtime. As a working mom it takes multitasking to a new level!  I agree with everyone’s comments, a good story is only a good story if the reader defines it as so. Start with your customers needs in mind and then build your story around that.

  • RobBiesenbach I agree that they/we/me-myself-I all play fast and loose with the whole notion of story these days… However, I think that one way the perversely pervasive invocation of story can be helpful is if it gets an organization to totally shift its mindset for all communications away from corporate-centric and toward customer-centric,  in the most human ways possible.  This may not turn a food company’s packaging copy into Graham Greene or even the latest winner of a Moth story slam (and hey, is that getting over-exposed, too?), but it may earn a better reception for that or any communication and thereby make it more effective overall.

  • creativeoncall True, though I don’t think a brand has to focus solely on their customers’ stories. Employee stories can be effective, too — as long as, of course, it’s still relevant to the customers’ concerns.

  • Eleanor Pierce which you will (write the novel); we can put our tables adjacent to each other at book shows so we can chat in between signing autographs 😉

  • And, dare I play devil’s advocate here, some people simply won’t ever learn how to tell a good story – even using the steps you’ve outlined above. Like interviewing, storytelling is a skill. Some people can hone their skills over time, but some are doomed from the start.

  • tnfletch How funny would it be if you got them ready for bed, tucked them in, and then started reading them your white paper?

  • RonellSmith I’m not sure I entirely agree. Part of what storytelling should do is build a connection between the brand and the customer. For instance, we have a couple of clients that didn’t have a huge affinity with their customers, but once they began a storytelling model, it was created…and in a big way.

  • RonellSmith

    Gini,
    In my haste to post my comments and rush out to the gym, I neglected to say I love this post. You hit all the right notes, highlighting how it’s about integrating your brand/brand’s story with the needs of the audience. 
    I should have known you’d be the person to handle storytelling the RIGHT way 😀
    RS

  • RobBiesenbach I want to argue with you… but I agree. Darn.

  • ClayMorgan Or the age old, “But that’s not the way we do things.” Uh…

  • biggreenpen Eleanor Pierce I kind of love this idea!

  • RonellSmith

    We actually ARE in agreement, Gini. My problem with storytelling is how it’s often co-opted by marketers to mean telling your brands’ story at the exclusion of making it relevant, meaningful or useful to your audience. 

    When I look around the web, that’s what I see: a lot of “brand storytelling,” not much in the way of brands telling a relevant story to build a connection with their users. If that were not the case, I think we wouldn’t continue to hear the same handful of brands held up as the example for all others to follow.

    RS

  • RonellSmith Ah ha! We DO agree! Darn…I need someone to disagree with.

  • belllindsay Don’t you think, though, it is a skill that can be honed?

  • RonellSmith

    I’m that person. This was the olive branch before peace talks break down for good 😀
    RS

  • ginidietrich belllindsay That´s why they´ll need you! 😉

  • RonellSmith Ha! Let’s find something to debate!

  • ginidietrich biggreenpen Eleanor Pierce I like it. We’ll have three tables (Gini’s got a novel in her, too).

  • patrickcoffee

    For the record, I left out part of my joke, which went: “I recently wrote social media copy for a couple of consumer clients, and the only ‘story’ I was telling was that this cute bear really wants you to click here to download a free coupon for $1 off your next bag of frozen vegetables.”

    But great points, Gini and readers! Really like the idea of the “antagonist,” which in most cases would be an abstract idea like “a lack of productivity” or “dishes that won’t clean themselves.”

  • RonellSmith

    You are awesome. One of many reasons I love your blog. Has zero to do with Clay, Eleanor or Lindsay 😀
    RS

  • patrickcoffee Wait. The dishes won’t clean themselves? You should come to my house!

  • RonellSmith THAT’S RIGHT!!

  • I do! I’ve seen it. With a little structure, guidance and discipline, anyone can tell a decent story. It’s not, as they say, rocket surgery. They may never be masters of the craft, but that’s okay.

  • sblanton2

    ginidietrich SpinSucks ebrufit Sorry just now seeing this; thanks for the mentoring

  • JamboTw

    morgancarrie Thanks for the RT! ginidietrich SpinSucks

  • ginidietrich belllindsay I believe any skill can be honed… but the motivation has to be there to DO it.  Often what holds us back from learning a new skill is the discomfort of doing, knowing it won’t be perfect.  But that’s where SKILL (vs talent) is developed.
    So, paradoxically, I agree with Lindsay.  Some people won’t ever learn how to tell a good story, but not because it’s not within their reach 🙂

  • Love it.  I’m a Hero’s Journey freak.  

    It’s not a story if it doesn’t have a conflict and plot, and that’s where the antagonist comes in.  I recently read that your protagonist is only as interesting as the antagonist makes him/her.

    Then what makes it meaningful, in most literature, is theme. And that’s where revelation, transformation help in putting it all together… putting the theme together.

    And… I’m an absolute Harry Potter freak.  JK Rowling wrote seven long books… 1.080,000 words to say three:  “Love conquers all.”  Yet, she didn’t waste a word.

  • LisaPetrilli

    TomMartin Agreed! ginidietrich nails it. I think swoodruff would enjoy as well… http://bit.ly/1FQ7dHK #branding

  • swoodruff

    LisaPetrilli TomMartin ginidietrich :>}

  • Agreed @LisaPetrilli but ginidietrich is quite skilled at hitting the mark 🙂 swoodruff TomMartin

    My favorite part of this is “The Antagonist.” … The enemy of your success… nothing like this — putting a knife to your nemesis — to motivate one to action, eh? 😉

    This makes me want to re-read her book.

  • LouHoffman

    ginidietrich belllindsay I agree that some people will always struggle in telling a story as defined by a good guy/gal, bad guy/gal, conflict and a happy ending. But the reality of business is most communications don’t call or even allow for teasing out the classic story arc. In these cases, the ability to apply storytelling techniques in the form of contrast, anecdotes, levity, etc., can absolutely be honed.

  • patrickcoffee

    LouHoffman ginidietrich belllindsay Hi Lou!

  • LouHoffman

    patrickcoffee  ginidietrich belllindsay Good hearing from you Peter // Gini, I can see that my trouble with the Livefyre login caused my comment to appear three times. Sorry about that. It wasn’t because the comment warranted 3X the attention.

  • LouHoffman LOL!! I’ll delete two for you. 🙂

  • LouHoffman Not only don’t call for it, but may not even be allowed.

  • LouHoffman

    ginidietrich LouHoffman

  • You nailed it, Gini! There are so many great comments here, too, about the overuse of incorrect or half-baked storytelling.

    Though it’s been proven how effective storytelling can be, many industries believe if you don’t speak the technical language, you appear not to know what you’re talking about. We talk a lot about speaking the language of our executives and other audience members. So, my question is, how do you bridge this gap? How do you appear credible but not boring? Is it a combination of tech talk shaped around a story structure?

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  • MonicaMillerRodgers Ah, yes. The “we have to talk like this so we sound smart” conundrum. We worked with a Fortune 10 company that had a freaking dictionary so people knew what they were saying. It took a loooooong time for us to talk them out of writing that way. If you have to have a dictionary, you’re doing it wrong.

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  • ginidietrich

    NaeemScott Thank you!

  • damian.dayton

    Thanks Gini, these are some great tips. I think a brands story is more important than their mission statement because it tells you what the brand is interested in, but more importantly, it tells you what story their customers care about which is a pretty good indicator of where you want your company to go in the future.

  • damian.dayton

    Also, when I consult with clients I use Aristotle’s terms for the basics of story telling. You need characters (heroes and villains), a conflict, a climax and a resolution.

  • cygnetinfotech

    socialnotz Great article. Every product branding campaign has to be customized and tailor made as per the requirements.

  • When you were for a high-tech company, which is purely a B2B play, it can be hard to convince folks to become more conversational vs tech-speak. I like the brand story-telling, and I wanted to even tell the stories that involved our “twists and turns”…because I think we’ve had some awesome ones that make us who we are.

    But some of those twists and turns can be perceived as weaknesses. Me, I feel like the protagonist came out the other side a winner.

  • dbvickery I totally understand that. I had that very conversation with a client the other day. He said they have to be technical because their audience is. I just don’t agree with that thinking. So we do a little of both and see which content does better. I think you know which does.

  • ginidietrich dbvickery It’s interesting because some of my internal bloggers that I’ve enlisted have adapted well to the more conversational tone. Others feel they have to be “professional”…and it definitely comes across as a dry snoozer.

  • ginidietrich

    ElaineBeliakoff 🙂

  • NinaP44

    This made me start thinking about our story in a whole new way…. thank you!  I am currently working on the re-design of our website and it couldn’t have come at a better time 🙂

  • We always say the customers are asking; Why should I care? Why should I believe you? and then (and only then) What do you do?  Your customers want to know why they should care. Storytelling answers their questions. Great article again Gini

  • NinaP44 Oh good! I”m glad it is helpful!

  • Tony Felice I love those questions. You’re absolutely right, Tony!

  • damian.dayton Totally agree. I think the mission statement is more for internal use, anyway. Who really cares what you’re doing internally? Only your employees do.

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