Brand stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —September 27, 2008
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling

Marketing folk confuse me sometimes. For example, they talk about brand stories yet they forget the story bit.

For example, if you Google the phrase “brand story” the top hit is a blog post by Mark Thomson. Reading his post you’d be forgiven for thinking stories are superfluous to crafting a brand story because while he uses the word ‘story,’ often actually, he doesn’t explain what he means by a story nor give any examples of brand stories. His advice is to be clear, consistent and give it a bit a flair. A nicely formatted set of dot points could meet his criteria for a brand story.

Let me show you a brand story and then I’ll share with you why so many marketers, journalists, and political spin doctors talk about narrative but don’t appear to really get it.

At a minimum stories are set in a time (at the turn of the century, three months ago, in 1996, when I visited Grandma, a long, long time ago—you get the idea) and events happen which are linked together inferring causes and effects. If you haven’t got these two basic features—a time when things happened and things actually happening—you don’t have a story. And these features are merely the pre-requisite. Having them certainly doesn’t guarantee a compelling story.

I’m surprised how many people talk about stories yet can’t actually determine whether stories are present or missing. I’d say about half of the people attending our storytelling courses are confused about what a story actually is and it’s one of the things we spend a good amount of time to ensure everyone’s got it. Without this understanding you can’t work with stories.

Even our very best political journalists seem confused. Here’s Michelle Gratton, political editor for The Age newspaper said recently:

Having a “narrative” — which is just a sexy and fashionable way of saying a government should present what it is up to in an overall framework — gives people the feeling their leaders know what they’re doing, and that the ends of policy are both worthwhile and consistent with the means. (That is, of course, provided the narrative is convincing.)

And here’s ANZ’s chief economist, Saul Eslake, suggested narrative (according to Michelle) for the Rudd government.

“If I were advising the Government, I’d be trying to say that there are some downside risks as a result of global factors; that because of this inflation is likely to fade away; that the budget had got the balance right; that if things got worse, it has the funds to ease fiscal policy,” Eslake says.

“It could also say that Australians are exposed to the international credit crunch not because banks are up to their gills in dodgy mortgages, as in the US and Europe, but because we have a huge current account deficit — and that we want to address that through better productivity, skills and other reforms including tax reform.”

Saul’s suggested narrative are merely a string of ideas. You could craft a story from Saul’s ideas but in themselves are far from a narrative.

When someone asks me about Anecdote I tell versions of this story.

Ever since Isaac Newton published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687 people have viewed the world around them as measured, predictable and conforming to defined laws of physics. The world is a machine and we only need to understand how that machine works so we can optimise each part.

Fredrick Taylor introduced Newton’s mechanical perspective to business in the 1880s and 90s. Taylor strongly believed that well defined procedures executed with precision was the best way to run a business. His ideas took off and this mechanical view of the firm dominated business thinking for the last 120 years. It worked remarkably well.

Since the industrial revolution we have seen things speed up and the information revolution has seen the world become more connected with changes accelerating every day. The 21st century, however, marks a tipping point where the mechanical view begins to falter. We need new ways to conceive the way businesses work that reflect their complexity and their essential human nature.

In 2004 we started Anecdote in the belief there was a new way to conceive of work that was organic, human-centred and reflected the complexity every business experiences in the 21st century. So we set about developing techniques and tools based on stories, a uniquely human faculty, designed to facilitate change more effectively, foster learning and collaboration and advance the natural leadership capabilities that exists in every organisation.

We believe this human-centred approach marks the future of organisations. There is still a long way to go because the majority of businesses still work on the basis that they are a machine with levers to pull, wheels to turn and cogs to grease.

The thing is, it’s not the only story we tell that helps people understand who we are and what we stand for. There isn’t a single brand story rather organisations should have a repertoire of brand stories that everyone knows and can tell.

My guess is that marketers, advertising agents and political Hollowmen use the term ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ so often that there is a belief that everyone knows what it means but only a subset of the group actually get it and the rest are too frightened to admit their ignorance.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

6 Responses to “Brand stories”

  1. Stephen Bounds Says:

    Very interesting post. But I’m not sure I am comfortable with the way you conflate “story” with “narrative” — I think there are key differences.
    Firstly, a story does not have to be recounted in the first person, whereas a narrative by its very nature does.
    Secondly, a narrative is implicitly understood as observations made from a personal perspective. A story can be divorced from personal context.
    Thirdly, a narrative does not have to provide causal links for what is being recounted, but should indicate a time sequence.
    In other words, governments can legitimately provide a “narrative” simply by recounting their view of current events (including their actions). However, because few people naturally think the way that governments do, typically they will also explain *why* they hold any given viewpoint to make the narrative a “convincing” explanation of the true state of affairs.

  2. ken Says:

    narrative sounds like one of those buzzword bingo words (discourse, meta and schema, too) – it would be fun to carry around yellow and red cards, holding them up for flagrant abuse 🙂
    the kind of thing Orwell railed against in his essays, impressive sounding foreign words.
    techno-latin (or the pomo french disease), what the cluetrain guys talked about – if we need marketing is it really a market?
    did you like the video? would it make you buy a phone? i thought i was cynical until i read the comments for it on youtube 🙂

  3. Shawn Callahan Says:

    Hi Stephen, one thing I have learnt about the world of stories that there are many ways to look at it. There are literally thousands of scholars arguing over what is a story and what is not. So for me I see story types as a spectrum (my friend Mary Alice Arthur helped a lot in this understanding) from what I call big ‘S’ storytelling to little ‘s’ storytelling. At the big ‘S’ end are myths, legends, creation stories and fairytales and heading to the little ‘s’ end are anecdotes and ante-stories (a term used by David Boje referring to partially formed narratives). Personally I believe they are all narratives (or stories) of different types.

  4. Shawn Callahan Says:

    Hi Ken, yes, I liked the Nokia video. It was a story that passed the plausibility test and could easily be retold (mainly because it was a story). I’m not sure people will conclude that Nokia is the only provider of the 4th screen. When I watched it I immediately thought of my iPhone.

  5. Mike Wagner Says:

    What a wonderful conversation your post has generated.
    Thanks for getting my mind racing.
    Keep creating…a story worth repeating,

  6. Luke Says:

    I think that the political connotation of narrative as described above is really looking for a “metanarrative” (show me the red card for that one!) that they can then pin their soundbites and stories around.

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