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Brand Building Best Practices | Storytelling : Good storytelling is a powerful tool for building memorable brands

The best brand stories relate

to consumers’ personal stories


Anvar Alikhan

Senior Vice President and Strategy Consultant

J Walter Thompson, Hyderabad



The most powerful words in any language are, “Let me tell you a story.” No wonder some of advertising’s greats have been highly skilled storytellers. As the legend goes, when David Ogilvy was on his way to shoot the first Hathaway Shirt ad, he picked up some props to add a story element to an otherwise bland fashion shoot. And one of those props was, of course, the famous black eyepatch.


In an era when dashing World War II veterans occasionally wore eyepatches, it immediately created a mythology around the elegant model with the expensive lifestyle: Who was he? What was his story? What was the mysterious secret of his past? These things were never explicitly revealed over the next two decades that the Hathaway campaign ran, unchanged.


Ogilvy later confessed that he got the idea from James Thurber’s classic short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” to trigger the “Walter Mittyesque” fantasies lurking inside all of us. The Hathaway campaign was ranked by Advertising Age as one of the “Top 25 Advertising Campaigns of the 20th Century,” and it went on to inspire numerous other brands over the years, including Marlboro, with its iconic Marlboro Man.


Today, the nature of brand storytelling has obviously evolved, and the brand stories that were once simply written into TV commercials and press ads have become part of the consumer’s larger brand experience. With exciting new media opportunities, from digital and interactive to in-store branding, storytelling has become more relevant than ever before, and an entire mini-industry of brand storytellers and consultancies has sprung up, specializing in the art of articulating and narrating brand stories.


Connecting with the consumer

Storytelling is essentially a strategy that takes us through the process of crafting a relevant narrative—from the creation of an initial “brand Bible” to the creation of characters, plot, conflict and resolution. But the crux of it is that the brand needs to interact with a consumer's own story. It is how you activate the personal narrative that determines your ultimate connection to the consumer.


Great examples are brands like Harley Davidson, Absolut Vodka, Starbucks, Apple, Coke and Ben & Jerry’s, and the reason they inspire such brand loyalty is because they tell a story that consumers are eager to adopt as their own. We need to examine the mythologies surrounding such brands, and think like storytellers, developing narrative skills that will enable us to craft brand stories that will resonate with the consumer’s sacred beliefs, and thereby drawing him/her into an enduring relationship.


Indian brands like Paper Boat (soft drinks), Royal Enfield (motorcycles) and Sodawaterbottleopenerwala (café) all tell great brand stories, in their own different ways. But there is a special learning in Surf Excel, with its “Daagh achhe hain” story, which asserts that stains on children’s clothing are good because they represent the fun and freedom of childhood.


Before that idea was unearthed through market research, it had been lying there for years, waiting to be uncovered, in many much-loved works of popular literature, like the misadventures of Dennis the Menace, and the books of Richmal Crompton’s Just William books (about her endearing little schoolboy rascal). Indeed, the idea goes all the way back to the lovably naughty antics of Lord Krishna as a child.


There’s an important lesson in this for all brand marketers: we need to read a lot more fiction, for it is from fiction that we learn the dynamics of compelling storytelling—not to mention a wealth of sharply-etched human insights. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of timeless brand stories out there in literature just waiting to be discovered, ranging from R.K Narayan’s tales of Malgudi, his fictional town, to Amish Tripathi’s mythological fantasies, or, indeed, Charles Schultz’s classic Peanuts cartoon strips.


But the real trick is to understand that a good story taps into a specific emotion and takes the consumer on a journey of transformation. Whether it helps sell a product or not, the story must necessarily stand on its own. If the story is nothing more than a thinly disguised marketing message, you’re just fooling yourself.


An outstanding example was Barclaycard’s brand story of a bungling secret agent (played by Rowan Atkinson, of Mr. Bean fame) who demonstrated the credit card’s advantages through his various mishaps. It was a story so powerful that it was eventually spun off into a feature film: the hilarious spy spoof, Johnny English.


So how engaging is your brand story?