The Game-Changing Power of Brand Stories
by Idoia Gkikas
This is an article about brand stories — what they are (and aren’t), why you may (or may not) benefit from one, and some examples from major brands that could very well inspire yours.
Nike. Apple. Airbnb. Asana. Uber.
When we at Focus Lab ask new clients which brands inspire them, one or more of these names almost always pops up. Not surprising, of course. The Apples and Nikes of the world are leaders. Bold, memorable, and enduring (not to mention rich as all get out). They’ve earned fans among people who don’t even buy their products. These are brands with the kind of equity that transcends the very things they sell.
This is no accident. Besides a marketing budget that rivals the GDP of a small country, what do all of these brands have in common?
In one way or another, they’re all built on story.
What Brand Stories Are — and Aren’t
Simply put, a brand story is a dedicated and creatively built-out narrative about your brand. The story can serve an internal purpose (to rally your team, for example), an external purpose (to connect with customers), or a balance of both (an internal version and one written for customer-facing collateral). Your story can be inspired by your core messages (purpose, vision, mission), company history, values, or the customers you serve, among other fonts of inspiration.
So does that make it your founder’s story? Your “About” page? Should it be built on archetypes? But wait, you read a book that said it’s supposed to be your customer’s story.
Well … maybe.
Brand stories vary in perspective and content, length and form, diction and tone. Point of view matters less than point of reference. Enduring narratives come from a place of intuition, not “Is this going to sell more widgets?”
While a story can certainly support your brand system in a way that leads to increased sales (which we all want), that’s not the objective. They work from the inside, out. We’re not writing to attract millennials or Gen Xers or Gen Yers or whatever desirable consumer segment we’re on at this point. That’s marketing, which is an output of your story but not the story itself.
If sales can’t be directly attributed to your investment in a brand story, why the heck would you want one?
When your story is aligned with your purpose, it becomes a touchpoint, a home base, a sanity check that has the power to guide and reverberate through every outward expression of your organization.
What Purpose Do Brand Stories Serve?
When your story is aligned with your purpose, it becomes a touchpoint, a home base, a sanity check that has the power to guide and reverberate through every outward expression of your organization — from overt assets like copywriting, logo, visuals, and marketing, to systems that seem unrelated: recruitment, internal culture, UI/UX, customer service, even vendor choice and project management.
Just as importantly, stories have the power to resonate with the people who are most likely to become long-term brand allies. Let’s take a look at our brand darling, Apple, to see how this can shake out over the long term.
When Apple rebranded in 1997 with Steve Jobs back at the helm, he and the brand were driven by a singular (albeit grammatically controversial) vision: “Think different.” This two-word slogan was the distillation of a deeper story about the boundless potential of audacious ideas. It has guided their vision, company culture, and every product they’ve developed since. And here we are, 20+ years later, still loyal to all things Apple because damn, they get it.
Is a Brand Story for Us?
If your Focus Lab team recommends a brand story, it’s because we see a genuine opportunity for it to do what it’s intended to do: clarify your vision, unite your team, and wholistically inspire your brand system. Outwardly, a story unites and inspires your customers to drive your organization forward.
At the brand discovery level, there are hints that indicate a story will add value:
- You’re going through a rebrand. You need to re-orient and breathe life back into your organization.
- You’re renaming or pivoting your product, service, or company.
- When you sit down to write about your company, you feel adrift and uninspired.
- Conversely, you’re ultra-inspired by your company and want to convey that passion through something more developed than a purpose, vision, or mission statement.
- Your company has an audacious purpose, mission, or core values.
- Your founder or founding story is mythologized and you want to capture it in writing.
These signposts do not always scream BRAND STORY. Sometimes, they point to deeper conversations your team needs to have around company culture, values, or purpose. We can help you untangle that knot.
Your story should develop the sentence, “The reason our organization gets out of bed in the morning is because … ”
A Compelling Brand Story Is:
- A standalone work.
- Attention-getting, whether that’s through insightful writing, striking visuals, or both.
- Aligned with your company’s core values, mission, and purpose.
- Told in your brand’s voice and tone.
- Devoid of cringey marketing speak.
- Authentic, told from a place of unfiltered passion for your brand and the people you serve.
- Evocative. When you tell your story, your reader should lean forward, lock eyes, and say, “EXACTLY.”
No matter what final form it takes, your story starts with some aspect of your root WHY (to borrow a concept from Simon Sinek) and builds from there. From this place of internal authenticity, it will naturally overlap with your external audience's values.
Feeling jazzed, but still a little foggy, about the power of a brand story? Let’s bring it to life with real-world examples from your favorite brands.
The Masterplot: Airbnb
Arguably one of the most game-changing rebrands in recent years, Airbnb’s identity began with a full year of searching for their why until they distilled their purpose into one word: belonging. Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky wrote an extended brand story about how a side hustle morphed into the purpose-driven global brand we know and love today.
There's a reason why this story resonates with travelers around the world: It's a classic Masterplot. Masterplots are timeless tales that convey universal aspects of human experiences and conditions — stories such as good vs. evil, rags to riches, the triumph of the underdog, and so on. The story of belonging parallels the Masterplot of the Quest — a hero’s search for purpose and connection in an increasingly divided world. Notably, the brand’s story came first; the outward expression emerged from there.
The Muse: Lululemon
Lululemon trains every team member and creates every product based on the story of their Muses, Ocean and Duke. This may sound like a persona, but the Muse isn’t rooted in reality. It’s an impossible ideal, an identity out of reach. It’s who someone younger aspires to be, and who someone older wishes they had been. This elusive high standard consistently drives innovation, supports all facets of brand expression, and reinforces connection (and thus, loyalty) with your audience.
Another Muse-driven brand comes from Anthropologie, the fashion and lifestyle retail chain: “We have one customer, and we know exactly who she is” — a “yoga-practicing filmmaker with an organic garden, a collection of antique musical instruments, and an abiding interest in Chinese culture (plus a husband and two kids).”
The Manifesto: Goodr
The Manifesto is a shouted-from-the-rooftops rallying cry. This type of story says, “This is what we stand for! Who’s with us?!?” Goodr, the irreverent sunglasses brand, sets forth their Manifesto in poster format, populated with concepts that communicate their values and reflect the offbeat lifestyles of their runner tribe.
Check out I ❤️ New York’s brand book for another Manifesto example.
The Archetype: Nike
Archetypes embody universal qualities and experiences apparent across eras, cultures, and boundaries. They differ slightly from Masterplots in that they are based on personalities rather than narrative arcs. Nike exudes the Hero archetype, an intrepid figure that tells us, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Accordingly, Nike proclaims that an athlete is defined not by their physical ability but by their mental grit. We buy Nike because we’re the type that doesn’t worry about logistics — we take a leap of faith and Just Do It.
Believe In the Power of Story
In our over-saturated, over-communicated world, continuity in your organization’s communication is what’s going to garner the longevity you seek. We yearn for — no, demand — connection in all things, including the brands we buy. A brand story does just that, connecting everything within your organization with the people you serve in a purposeful, consistent, and yes, game-changing way.