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Business Insight: Behind great brands is a good story

In marketing, know why products exist beyond profit motive, author suggests.

First Published Feb 17 2012 08:12 am • Last Updated Feb 17 2012 09:15 pm

Jim Signorelli, author of "StoryBranding: Creating Stand-Out Brands Through the Power of Story," says companies that convey their brands’ value and purpose build lasting relationships with clients.

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What is StoryBranding?

It’s an approach to brand planning that has its roots in story structure. Stories are one of the most useful and often-used tools in our communications arsenal. We use them every day to convey meaning in an engaging way. Unlike advertising that is seen by many as self-serving, stories communicate without getting in their own way. We welcome stories. By contrast, one of the only times we throw out the welcome mat for advertising is during the Super Bowl. More often than not, advertising becomes wallpaper behind things that are much more important in our daily lives.

How can businesses identify and develop a compelling brand story?

The most important step requires that management understand the brand’s value and belief system apart from its functional benefits. Typically, when we ask clients what makes their brands different, we get an answer about some unique service or product attribute. Features and benefits are important, but what is unique today won’t be tomorrow. Given the speed of innovation, it’s very easy for competitors to copy or outdo a given brand’s function. We work with our clients to help them find their "why," or the reason their brand exists beyond what the brand does or how it performs. What the brand does is a result. Beliefs and values are the cause. Apple products appeal to us for what they look like and what they can do. But we love Apple for what the brand represents, values of creativity, originality and innovation. We like Nike because of how the products look and feel. But we love them because of a bond of their association with the value of athletic achievement. All brands need to know why they exist beyond their profit motive. Admittedly, this can be hard to express. One of the techniques we use is archetypal analysis. For instance, comparing a brand to various archetypes — say, the protector, the maverick or the romantic — we elicit responses from management that start to articulate what their brands are really about.

Any other tips for connecting with clients?

Demonstrate your brand’s value. Don’t just tell customers what it is. Telling someone that your brand believes in providing people with top-notch service does very little to convince them that you have a genuine intent. In your advertising, show them what service means. And show them through everything you do. That’s one of the reasons we shy away from "we claims," as in "we care," or "we help." Rather, we are drawn to mantras or theme lines that invite subscription, such as "Never Stop Exploring" for North Face, "Find Your Beach" for Corona Beer. These lines communicate intent more believably than brand-and-boast statements that often bombard us. And, they communicate the brand’s purpose to external audiences and to employees. Another do is to be authentic. Don’t just say what you believe, prove it. Given the cynicism that surrounds advertising, customers expect hypocrisy. Don’t give it to them.

What are some benchmarks for success?

The primary goal of StoryBranding is to create a relationship with the prospect. This goes beyond awareness and brand comprehension. We have achieved the relationship goal when consumers tell us, "This is a brand for people like me." This is the simplest, most effective measure of whether we are accomplishing what we set out to accomplish. Sales are important. But again, sales are a result, not a cause. Achieving a lasting relationship with a brand helps to generate sales, protects the brand from competitive inroads, and creates brand evangelists who help spread the brand’s value.

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