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While the use of storytelling in business is a vast and deep topic, there’s one key point I’d like to highlight here. In the casting of your brand story, you don’t get to be the hero!

Storytelling basics

Volumes have been devoted to the art of storytelling. While the formulas have been innovated and creativity reigns throughout, certain elements are common across narratives. At the very core and in the simplest possible language, all stories include: the character, the problem, the turning point, and the resolution. As a former elementary school teacher, I used the following sentence stem to help students organize these elements.

Somebody wanted…but…then…so…

Take The Lion King for example (spoiler alert):

Simba, prince of the animal kingdom, wanted to be a great king like his father Mufasa, but his evil uncle Scar murdered Mufasa, accused Simba of the crime, and convinced young Simba to go into hiding. Then, after years had passed and Simba had grown up, his old friend Nala found him and told him that Scar was destroying the home they both loved. So, Simba returned to his childhood home and defeated Scar, finally taking his rightful place as king of Pride Rock.

Character (somebody): Simba

Problem (wanted…but): wants to be king but Scar ruins everything

Turning point (then): Nala opens Simba’s eyes to all that happened in his absence

Resolution (so): Simba defeats Scar and becomes king

brand story, brand storytelling, The Lion King, Kettle Fire Creative

Your brand is like Nala, the one in the back behind the villain… and the crazy baboon.

How about The Hunger Games (more spoilers):

Katniss Everdeen is a strong, determined young woman who lives under an oppressive regime in the country of Panem. Katniss just wants to provide for her family and keep her loved ones safe, but her sister is selected to participate in, and doomed to die in, a violent show of the Capital’s political power called the Hunger Games. Then, Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in the bloody competition and is sent away to train for the horrific days ahead. So, Katniss uses her cunning and compassion and wins the games in a defiant manner, much to the chagrin of the Capital.

Character: Katniss

Problem: wants to protect her family but her sister is chosen to go to the Hunger Games

Turning point: Katniss volunteers in her sister’s place

Resolution: Katniss’s unique skills help her survive and win the games

brand story, brand storytelling, Hunger Games, Kettle Fire Creative

See the arrows behind Katniss’s head, barely poking out there? That’s your brand.

Elements of your brand story

Your brand also has a story. Whether you’ve intentionally worked through it or it’s just happened over time, it’s there. You have a customer/target audience who has a need but is unable to meet that need on their own. You come in with your product or service and the customer’s need is fulfilled.

Broken into narrative elements, your brand story should look like this:

Character: Customer

Problem: has a need but can’t meet it alone

Turning point: your brand steps in with a product or service

Resolution: the customer saves the day with the help of your brand

The problem arises when the brand tries to be the hero of the story. You aren’t the hero. You aren’t even the main character. Your brand should be more like the fairy godmother, magic wand, or wise old mentor. You are Nala, who helps Simba see his true identity. You’re Katniss’s bow and arrow. You’re part of the turning point when the hero starts to become all he/she can be! But you are not the hero.

To further understand the difference, let’s look at a real-life brand.

Nike (with the company as the hero):

A shoe designer wanted the world to love and appreciate the fabulous shoes he made, but nobody was interested in his fancy, sporty sneakers. Then, the designer got a business loan, brought on investors, hired a stellar marketing agency, and created a top-notch business plan. So, thanks to the designer’s effort and genius, athletes enjoyed the best shoes ever made.

Character: Nike shoe designer

Problem: wants recognition, fame, success but no one’s heard of him

Turning point: learns how to run a business

Resolution: Nike becomes a huge brand

Does that story make you want to buy Nikes? No! It’s make me want to give up wearing shoes altogether. All the focus is on some shoe designer chasing his self-centered dreams, and it paints the customer as a fool who got sucked in by good marketing. Luckily, this is not at all how Nike portrays itself. Their brand story is all about the athlete, whether professional, amateur, or hobbyist.

Nike (for real):

Athletes worldwide wanted to excel in their sports but they struggled to find footwear designed for the particular rigors of intense activity. Then, Nike emerged with high-end shoes designed with athletes and specific sports in mind. So, athletes, with the help of their Nikes, were able to push the boundaries of physics and dominate the sports world.

Character: Athletes

Problem: want to perfect their performances but need better footwear

Turning point: Nike develops great athletic shoes

Resolution: Athletes worldwide excel

You see how the end user is the hero here? Nike shoes are an important tool, but they aren’t the hero of the brand story.

brand story, brand storytelling, Nike Olympics ad, Kettle Fire Creative

Nike makes the athlete the hero of their brand story.

How to make the customer the hero

No business sits down and writes the ridiculous brand story above. But companies often end up portraying that story unintentionally. Here are a few tips to keep the hero’s crown on your customer’s head.

1. Start with the customer’s needs and wants, not yours as a business owner. Think about who they are as the main character of your brand story.

2. Correctly identify the problem or pain your customer is facing. People want a good night’s sleep, for example, not a great mattress. Develop products and services around real, meaningful pains not just market opportunity and craft your brand story around these genuine solutions.

3. Think about the brand story you are telling. Be intentional and think through how your product or service can make the customer a hero. You may want to hire a professional to help you with this process.

Which brands make you feel like a hero? Leave a comment and share.

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