People everywhere cherish stories. In creative design, we love brand storytelling. As a society, we have a collective appreciation for stories and the meanings they carry. A story offers explanation, history, and a basis for connection. Meaningful stories make up our everyday experiences in multiple forms: shared spectacles, virtual journeys, family and cultural history, nostalgia and memory.
Storytelling is a way for individuals to relate their own experiences to the experiences of those around them, making it a practice that encourages trust and builds recognition. As human beings, we have an innate desire to identify common threads between ourselves and others. By adopting traits of narrative storytelling, a brand can use these threads to sew a rich web of appeal and insight that connects consumers to a product or service.
Narrative, or brand storytelling, has become a popular trend in branding as it allows us to develop and share a product’s story–where it’s going, and where it’s been– thus offering the consumer a reason to build a deeper bond with the product’s brand.
Narrative-guided marketing creates enthusiasm and desire in its audience as it offers stories in fragments, much like a blockbuster movie would, creating intrigue and emotional connections that foster brand loyalty. However, it’s important to see narrative as not just a story that adds intrigue to a product, but as a portal for learning, imagining, escaping, sharing, and connecting.
Bringing the art of narrative into advertising has been a storied practice of its own; logos, ads, and branding tell stories designed to draw consumers to a product and keep them interested in a brand’s past and future. Narrative imagery creates a language and style that motivates consumer attachment, but it’s what people do with this inspiration that offers the most compelling insights into not only the product but also the consumer.
It used to be easy to illustrate a brand’s story to consumers:
• In the 1900’s marketers pragmatically explained a product’s features; the focus was on “What it is.”
• By 1925 marketing was all about communicating how the product benefits the consumer; consumers chose a product based on “What it does.”
• In the 1950’s consumers were hooked through stories about experiences; the market became dominated by a focus on “What you feel.”
• By the late 1990’s the new trend was micromarketing and focusing on who consumers identified with – athletes, celebrities, cultural “tribes” – ultimately, the motivation to chose a particular product became rooted in the idea of “Who you are.”
While formulas and trends can sometimes be helpful to study, they can also be a crutch. Not only have consumers today evolved into even more discerning and skeptical buyers than their ancestors were, but the broad strokes of formulaic marketing stories allow for missed opportunities to authentically tell your own story–in your own way–and without a rigid “call to action.”
Hollywood knows better than any industry how to build suspense and manipulate narratives to boost interest in what they’re currently selling. However, many advertising campaigns devote more resources to creating memorable stories that invite the user into something bigger than a product or service: they’re inviting their audience to take part in a lifestyle, and that lifestyle has a story behind it.
It’s more crucial than ever to avoid one-dimensional advertising; adding layers of history and identity to both your brand and product offers your consumers the warmth that comes with connection and belonging. The fact that current technology is allowing information to change hands faster than we once thought imaginable means that narratives, and the brands they support, are spreading like wildfire: once the story is out there it will gain strength and momentum with each consumer that engages with, and shares, the narrative.
For years while I worked at Nike, we’d refine product stories – finishing them with beautiful color, graphics or materials that often, subtly, told stories themselves. Sometimes product stories would reference historical athletic moments, celebrate events and cultures, or simply inform the consumer on the use of the product.
During consumer research trips, I was always amazed by how a small shift in narrative could make or break a product for consumers. The ability to subtly fold a story into a product just enough so that it winked at the consumer, created the moment in which a product was no longer just a shoe, but a lifestyle–an experience.
Combining simple things with rich narrative, meshing the past and future, and revealing layers of relevant story are now common and trusted marketing strategies. We’ve learned to carefully unravel brand stories – to manage the lifespan of a narrative rather than overtly sharing it all at once. We’re also always trying to find ways for the consumer to participate in the narrative experience.
Orchestrating stories across type, pattern, copy, posters, logos, and icons requires attention to detail. The way an envelope opens and interacts with the letterhead and business card can either be a consistent brand representation, or a memorable journey. Welding storytelling with design creates a whole new machine of its own, simultaneously adding appeal for a wider audience.
Putting narrative in context, and constructing it in a way that entices the desired audience, is the biggest hurdle this Macrotrend faces. Consumers are asking us to tell them a story, but if it’s an irrelevant or aimless story you might as well jump ship because that’s what your potential buyers will be doing.
The narrative Macrotrend is a force to be reckoned with and as more marketing shifts to online campaigns, word-of-mouth, and the act of sharing, a reliance on brand storytelling will become more crucial than ever.