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The 5 steps of storytelling: Exploring the narrative structure of a brand

Alberto De Martini

CEO and head of strategies

Red Cell




As we celebrate Italy’s most valuable brands, we also seek to understand the factors that determine the health of a brand. In essence, a brand’s strength is equal to the power of its meaning. In this sense, marketing can be defined as a battle between meanings. We all know that a sign acquires a meaning when it becomes the origin and fulcrum of a story. So, what kind of narration can make one brand greater than another? What is the structure, the narrative strategy of a great brand?


The answer becomes clear when we look at all great ideologies, whether political, religious or cultural. Their structure is always articulated in five key steps. The first one sets the founding values and principles of the ideology as handed down from the original narrations or myths. An example: the value of humility, celebrated in the ancient Greek myths of Prometheus and Icarus.


From myths and values come the second step: a specific empathy directed to specific segments of population. An example: the exploitation of the working class, according to Marxist ideology.


Empathy determines a request, a commitment, a promise of change, and this is the third fundamental step, the true meaning of every ideological narrative. A typical example is the self-determination of countries such as India, Ukraine and Croatia; each had great promises of transformation originating from nationalist ideologies, even though each had a different historical, cultural and religious matrix.


At this point, the change must become real, therefore tools for the fulfilment of the promise need to be conceived. This is the fourth step, the one that led the Enlightenment thinkers to create their 18th-century Enciclopedie, a practical and symbolic tool for the assertion of knowledge and rationality against the slavery of prejudice and superstition.


The fifth and last step sees the creation of effective organizational and productive processes. An example: the separation of powers in liberal democracies.


Now we just need to read between the lines of this narrative structure to understand the story of a great brand.


We all like to speak about brand values, and every great brand has an extended repertoire of myths and legends. We only need to think about the dusty garages connected to famous Silicon Valley startups, or the first Ferrari races, with legendary driver Tazio Nuvolari. And then there is the pharmacist in Atlanta who discovered Coca-Cola while looking for a sore throat treatment.


All this generates empathy and what we in marketing call insight, which in turn defines the actual target. A famous example of this in action is David Ogilvy’s insight for Dove. Guided by his observations of real life, he focused on the natural beauty of women, and took this insight as the foundations on which one of the most powerful brands in the world has been built.


Just as we see in the narrative structure of an ideology, the purpose of a brand is its essence, the “reason why”, and this also determines its place in the market. Amazon’s purpose, for instance, is to deliver any product, anywhere, and in just a few hours. This is its essence, and is what has driven Amazon to be one of the fastest-growing brands in the world, according to global BrandZ data. For the relatively new and rising brand Tesla, its essence is luxury travel, quietly and with respect for the environment.


Products and services are the tools that help fulfil a brand purpose, and are the means that help deliver a promise of change. Connecting all people throughout the world would have remained a dream, without a simple and user-friendly platform like Facebook.


In the physical world, consider how many people are now attracted to organic products. Their wishes can be fulfilled thanks only to innovative production processes that allow producers to work without fertilizers and artificial pesticides.


Knowing and reflecting on these issues will not necessary propel a brand into the BrandZ Italian Top 30 ranking right away. But it does provide food for thought – some marketing “therapy” – that can help brand managers and their agency partners build brands with true meaning.