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Big Orange Slide

Monday, April 27th, 2015

Brand new narratives

October 18, 2011 by Joel Derksen

Illustration by Nancy Ng

Over the past decade, the concept of a “brand” has changed steadily yet dramatically.
With new technologies, media, and methods of engagement, a company’s brand has had to adapt to new terrain in order to stay competitive. The broadcasting model of branding, with the “one true way” and safe-zones defined by measuring sticks, is an early modernist idea. Now, brand standards must learn to reflect the idea of fragmentation, complexity, and constantly changing points of engagement while still remaining coherent.

How does a brand change from a distinctly early-mid-20th century concept to an engaging, believable and sociable entity?

The answer is succinct and deceptively simple: Brands are for cows. Stories are for people.

Look at novels, fables, myths, legends. Each a testament to how a compelling narrative can transcend generations, ethnicity and geography. The same can be said for mediums — Homer’s poetry bridged the gap between the written and spoken word. The parallel can be drawn to a compelling brand narrative. A good story is transcendant, no matter what the medium, the time, the place, or the way we engage with it.

Which leads to the next question. What does that mean for the modern company? For the past 50-odd years, the brand has been limited to a book that defined typography, whitespace, and printing colours. It was seen as a fixed, immovable monolith in a world where a brand projected into the ether.
It means that we have to let go of our concept of the almighty corporate identity standards that dictate each and every measured movement, and a shift from the prescriptive to the descriptive.

By opening a brand to the idea of narrative, we also have to consider what this implies: A narrative has ebbs, peaks, flows. A narrative has a personality. A beginning, middle and end. It is also potentially flawed.

Creatively, it means development of an authentic voice, one told over years. Even decades.
And it means the willful bending and breaking of pre-supposed “brand standards” to retain an authentic perspective.

Crafting a proper story may take a lifetime. But patience, in this case, will be well rewarded.

13 Comments on "Brand new narratives"

  • John Maden
    October 18, 2011 @ 10:11 am

    Excellent, well written post

  • Steve Taylor
    October 18, 2011 @ 10:21 am

    Great read!

  • Ian Mackenzie
    October 18, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

    I love the idea of looking at brands as “narrative” – and transitioning from prescriptive to descriptive modes.

    Well put.

  • Nicklaus Deyring
    October 18, 2011 @ 1:57 pm

    I’ve had something like this thought before…. great post!

  • dondy
    October 18, 2011 @ 4:31 pm

    Great POV and well written post. I feel smarter just reading it!

    I just have one beef… You said: “A good story is transcendant, no matter what the medium, the time, the place, or the way we engage with it.” I do agree with good stories being transcendant but all those things you said don’t matter, matters. Even more now, than ever!

    If your great story is delivered without understanding the medium or knowing the right time to present it so it that its not interrupting, the optimal placement so that gives value to the consumer, or the smartest way consumers can engage with it… Then it just becomes part of the noise and junk that’s already out there!

    Great stories are being told everyday… We just don’t hear them cause “Big Idea” thinking is so arrogant!

  • Andrew
    October 18, 2011 @ 9:12 pm

    Do brands ever achieve “epic” status? With an adventure that slays the beast at the end?

    It is getting people to listen for the duration of the story that is the hardest part. Also in being forgiving when the listener strays away from the story.

  • Caitlin
    October 19, 2011 @ 10:36 am

    I enjoyed reading your perspective on the evolving role of brand narratives. I would argue that several brands are beginning to apply this mode of thinking, by way of brand identity. However, as you note a narrative is a more lasting creation than the word associations which, outline an identity. Stories appeal to our innate need for communication and I agree that as you say patience in crafting an authentic brand narrative will be well rewarded.

  • Joel Derksen
    October 20, 2011 @ 1:26 am

    @Dondy –
    Good point. I suppose what I meant there (but failed to articulate) was a reference to the monomyth — that a good story follows a lot of the same arcs, and we still use the same arcs, rhythms and tools that we have been for centuries in storytelling.

    @Caitlin — True that “telling a story” can be worked into a brand book as a rule, but it’s one thing to tell someone to do it, and another to grasp the concept and make it come alive. Think of it as reading the sheet music for a symphony, versus actually conducting the orchestra.

  • UG
    October 21, 2011 @ 4:51 pm

    So have you applied this thinking at Grip? Love to sees ome case studies for storytelling from you guys.

  • Leilah Ambrose
    October 24, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

    @UG Take a look at the recent Kokanee stuff on Facebook. There are congruent narratives around determining “The Next Kokanee Ranger.”

  • MB Seattle
    October 25, 2011 @ 5:52 pm

    This is nothing new. the idea of being a “story teller” in agency circles has been a popular concept for quite some time. This post reads like a college paper that talks theory but with no real experience.

  • Ro
    October 28, 2011 @ 5:16 am

    love your post for real.
    Maybe, mine, it’s not “The real experience” that MB Seattle means, but…i’m an italian copy (with a bad english, forgive me) and i recently working as “story teller” for some hotels. They have chosen to link their brand to a short story that take place in their rooms. Hope other brands, in a closed future, will join this kind of adv.
    Have a nice day!

  • Neil Hopkins
    October 31, 2011 @ 11:58 am

    Great perspective – thanks for sharing!

    I do agree that branding is changing rapidly and profoundly – and this sort of thinking will hopefully put paid to the idea that a brand is a logo, finally.

    However, I would also ask where the limits of brand narrative lie. As a consumer, do I want to get involved with my carpet shampoo producer? Would I get involved with my butter brand? What about my jam brand? How about my phone, netbook or town brands?

    I think that there are different levels of the brand narration approach, possibly revolving around price shock points or high vs low impact products.

    Overall, the brand as content producer approach should be followed – and content naturally needs context. And for context there has to be a story and some narration… (I also had some thoughts on this a while back – you might be interested… )

    Once again, great piece!

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