Take charge of your company’s story, as you put together its biography and persona. Because if you don’t take charge of it, then someone else will – and that person may not be so kind towards your company.
Storytelling is an ancient art, but its most impactful form in the modern world comes from cinema. As a marketer, you may indeed know all about analyzing data points and creating captions to generate clicks. But for a marketing campaign to be memorable and lasting, it needs to create a brand persona that will capture your customers’ imaginations.
The goal of this article is to help you create a compelling story for your brand, across various forms of media. A story lets you transform in the eyes of your audience – from an ordinary and self-interested company, to a visionary team of leaders whose goals and values are worth supporting. In short, a story brings you to life in the public eye – and can inspire real passion if told the right way.
Although storytelling has evolved into countless new media formats, at its core are the same thematic elements that are as old as time. At a minimum, you need to have an original idea, interesting characters, real antagonists, dramatic elements that people can relate to, and a satisfying narrative arc.
People’s imaginations are captured by stories – the bigger the better. Think of your story as a content pillar that generates articles, short video clips, pictures, interviews, and quotes to boost and strengthen your overall media presence. The more substantive your content pillar, the more additional content you’ll get out of it – and the greater the likelihood that a growing audience of people will see what you’re doing.
So you’d better do it right. To help you learn from the best, we’re borrowing ideas from one of the creative minds behind Pixar – Dean Movshovitz, author of Pixar Storytelling: Rules for Effective Storytelling Based on Pixar’s Greatest Films.
Start with an idea
Every story needs to stem from an idea. If you want to create a brand persona that will inspire passion from your audience, it’s best to choose a topic that they can get excited about.
Ideas can be developed in two main ways: 1) Explore the universe; and 2) Create a plot for the characters. Each of these is rich in potential, and good stories tend to strike a balance between both.
Remember why your company exists in the first place: You are filling a need that people have in their real lives. Perhaps you sell chocolate, coffee, or water filters. Your brand could shine a spotlight on the connection between your cacao farmers and people’s birthday cakes; or between the workers on your coffee farms and people’s productivity at work; or how clean water is the most urgent health issue in the world today.
Or perhaps you sell something different, like newspapers or aspirin. Similar concepts could be put to good use, showing how information can make a difference in the lives of people and countries – or simply telling the story of how medicine is made. CSR-related projects are a fine choice for an ad campaign, particularly if the story is told with depth and honesty, rather than being reduced to a cleanly packaged, 30-second sound bite. Or you can simply dramatize the actual history of your business.
Geico introduced a fairy-tale universe where lizards sell car insurance, and outsmart their competitors.
Better yet, create a whole universe. From Budweiser’s lovable frog swamp to Apple’s legendary 1984 Superbowl ad, history shows that a distinctive setting, with a memorable cast of characters, can make your brand go viral.
Apply the knowledge: Imagine a setting or a situation that can show off the special features of your company. What is the core concept? Does it offer many possibilities for dramatic moments? Can we add an element of complexity that is related to the plot or characters you constructed? Are you wandering off in directions that aren’t part of your core idea? Write all of your relevant ideas down.
Add some characters
Memorable characters are recognizable in terms of their appearance, mannerisms, motivations, and beliefs. They care about ideas, values, and people – and have a specific point of view. Yet in many cases, they are fundamentally imperfect, making the same mistakes that we all make as we interact with a challenging and complex world.
Remember always that a story is most compelling when its characters have flaws that people can relate to, and are on journeys that ordinary people might find inspiring.
Virgin is an excellent example. Richard Branson’s persona admitted that Virgin was new to business, hence the name. By being open about this very flaw, among others, Branson was able to gather an army of fans for his company.
As the public face of Virgin, Richard Branson gave his company a playful spirit.
We’ve written at length about the archetypes of the hero and the guide, which are used as stand-ins for the audience and the company, respectively.
The additional element to keep in mind here is that your characters’ actions and opinions can be rooted in their own past experiences, to give them depth and let them come across as more realistic. The hero may, for example, have been burned by a used car salesman in the past, making him less likely to trust the guide’s recommendation for a better used car service. This relatable reluctance can add drama to the story, while also helping us better relate to the hero character as he comes to see the value in his guide’s solution.
These three attributes – passion, opinion, and experience – make the events in your story more meaningful and dramatic for your characters as well as your audience.
Always remember the value of comfort, and what happens when it is taken away. Once our happiness disappears, we need to address these new circumstances by letting two forces play out: Who we are, and what we have lost. As Movshovitz explains, this desire for a restoration of happiness creates new potential in the areas of conflict, character, and story.
Watching characters react to their new circumstances – by fighting, learning, and growing – is what makes stories so moving and enjoyable. When your brand is honest about how it communicates these tensions, audiences will begin to feel that your company really understands them at a deeper level.
Apply the knowledge: Think about the characters in your story. Find out what is important to them. What are their beliefs and values? Examples may include: love, friendship, freedom, happiness, the environment, and events that impact the wider community. Why do they care about these things? How can you use their values and history to give your plot a stronger impact?
Most of all, ensure that the characters and storyline mutually enhance and enrich one another.
N.B.: Your company is viewed as a character, particularly if all the employees are seen to be working towards the same goal. Such coordination requires a common vision and mission, which ultimately form the core of your company persona.
Your story does not need to show a straight line from A to B. Let your audience see the failures, dead ends, bumps and setbacks that are an integral part of life and business. The virtue is not in being perfect, but in staying committed despite the difficulty. Help the audience see that through perseverance, teamwork, discipline, and other key qualities, the company’s determination and commitment have led to ultimate success.
Nike changed the tone of their Tiger Woods ads after his personal life fell apart – but never tried to hide his mistakes.
For the audience to go from liking your characters to empathizing with them, you must imbue their personalities with rich, specific emotional centers. As Movshovitz explains, empathy comes when you reveal the idiosyncrasies of your characters, while highlighting what is relatable, human, and universal about them.
One of the most universal feelings is desire. Giving your characters clear goals and strong motivations will help audiences empathize with their effort. Lastly, while pursuing their goals, characters should be bold and determined, bravely battling their self-doubt, and never giving up until they have done everything imaginable to achieve their goal.
Apply the knowledge: How do you feel about the characters in your story? Are they unique or generic? Do they have habits, hobbies, or routines that make them feel real, specific, and relatable? Do they have a clear goal, with motivations that are well articulated, which an audience can get behind? In pursuit of this goal, how hard and far do your characters push themselves? Do they go to great lengths, or merely try half-heartedly? Are their challenges simplistic, or do they contain a combination of external, physical, interpersonal, and emotional obstacles that they need to overcome?
Cast the right villain
Keep in mind that many antagonists have good intentions and can be complex characters. When looking for antagonists to put in your main character’s way, don’t limit yourself to cartoonish villains. Misguided friends, the status quo, nature, and even the environment itself can provide you with plenty of drama. Any of these, or even a stand-in for your competitors, can show that your company is working hard to protect your customers from hardship or inconvenience.
Apply the knowledge: Who is standing in your protagonist’s way? Are they evil for the sake of evil, or do they have good reasons for their behavior? How can you make them more understandable and relatable? Is there a way to make the villain compelling while also retaining the opposition they present to your hero?
Build drama and conflict
As Movshovitz points out, the audience can experience deep emotional effects when the opinions and beliefs of a character put them in danger of losing something dear. To express the emotional forces at work, you must find filmable, external expressions of the conflict. These may manifest themselves as other characters, mementos, dialogue, or a system of symbols that is clear to the audience.
In virtually all stories centered around a conflict, there comes a moment where the main character is at his lowest point. He has lost a fight, and even lost friends, but something inside him tells him he has to keep going. By looking at the bigger picture and bringing in values or social norms, you can enhance the conflict and increase the stakes.
The best kind of conflict offers a chance for both construction and destruction. Consider the amount of change induced by the main characters as a measurement of the quality of the conflict in your script. The story should not end until there is a resolution to the essential problem, which highlights a core feature of your brand.
Apply the knowledge: What is the main dramatic question in your script? What is the conflict for your character? What is at stake if the character wins or loses? Does this question have an emotional component? Is there a force in your story capable of pushing the characters to construct something new and different? Do your characters change in a clear, discernible way because of the conflicts they face?
Follow a simple structure
Most agree on the three basic parts of a story: setup, trials, and resolution. Pixar’s stories are an excellent model for illustrating this structure.
To put it simply:
Setup: Once upon a time there was a ______.
Trials: One day ______ .
Because of that, ______ .
Because of that, ______ .
Resolution: Until finally _______ .
The setup phase involves getting the audience up to speed about the characters, the location, and the key issues that will be explored.
The trials phase involves introducing external events which put pressure on your character, testing his motivations and nudging him into action. In a business context, that means depicting the conditions that spurred your company into action.
The climax and resolution should point to an ending, but the story for your company can be ongoing. Your company is on a journey, after all – and your audience can experience it with you by following your activity online and in the real world.
Elon Musk watching a successful launch of Falcon Heavy, after many years of development headaches.
Story structures serve as a force multiplier, enriching each element separately and creating more major events to follow. It’s often a good idea to include yet another storyline, taking place concurrently with the main story.
Just remember – the bigger the drama, the more interesting it will ultimately be.
Wherever your story may go, it’s best to keep the narrative grounded in human relations. Although real-world business challenges often get technical, you’ll find it easier to retain your audience’s attention if you keep things simple and relatable.
Keep in mind that conflict need not be eternal and irreconcilable. Characters can fight against each other today, and find common ground tomorrow. Two people immediately becoming best friends isn’t moving; nor is it satisfying to watch two people hate each other in perpetuity.
Drama comes when you show characters that have clear reasons not to like each other, nevertheless grow closer as a result of key events. If you have successfully built an emotional core to your story, a resolution of the main conflict can destroy the barriers between the characters, letting them come together in a meaningful way.
Apply the knowledge: Does your story feature all of Pixar’s three components? How many major events does your story have? Are the major events in the story linked to one another? Is there honest bonding in your story? Does your protagonist have an internal struggle they must resolve? Is that struggle strongly connected to your other stories? Is it dramatized externally through these stories?
Cut the fat
Treat your story as an efficient machine, with the characters as key parts of your grand scheme. Nothing can be missing, and nothing redundant. Never sacrifice honesty for originality or coolness, as authenticity means far more to people than fleeting and superficial gimmicks. For every awesome invention or idea you come up with, work hard to tie it to an emotional reality that is part of your storytelling universe.
Apply the knowledge: Review the characters and settings in your script. Do they all fit with your core idea? Is anything missing? Is there something you can do without? Do any elements feel perfunctory or irrelevant? What can you do to make your characters interesting, specific, or entertaining?
Develop your script
Be sure to go slowly at the start, and add many stops along the journey – particularly if you are planning to create a plot with many characters. Be sure to include familiar settings and ideas for the audience, to help them follow along and stay grounded when new concepts are introduced. It’s often wise to impose creative limitations on your story, so that your imagination doesn’t take you too far afield, and you can maintain focus on your brand’s central message.
Apply the knowledge: How much do you know about the world? Have you allowed yourself to wander through its theoretical streets and landscapes? If you’re stuck, consider what you don’t want to happen in your story world. Anything you eliminate will inevitably narrow your vision toward something you would like to incorporate.
Stick the landing
Your ending should be a reflection of your main character, and a direct result of the path upon which they are set. This ending needn’t be expected or predictable, but it must be tied to your protagonist’s journey for it to have real meaning.
One way to create this effect is to have the ending relate to a seed you have subtly planted earlier in the film. When this seed is revisited at the right moment, and pays off in your resolution, the audience will feel an increased sense of cohesiveness, strengthening the meaning of your ending.
The right ending will surely involve the creation of a better world, showing the positive results of the journey your character has taken – preferably in a visual way.
Apply the knowledge: Is your ending a coincidence, or is it linked through a chain of causality to your character’s actions? Does it tell us something new about your character’s personality? Does your ending feel like an inseparable part of your story? Is it linked strongly to your plot through dramatic questions you’ve left unanswered until later in the story? Lastly, does your story create a ripple effect? Does it change something in the people, community, or world surrounding your protagonist? Is there a clear and potent way to express this change visually?
Make the message clear
Themes are universal, abstract, and separate from your plot. They are, instead, about the ideas that your plot expresses. Your theme should emerge naturally from the fictional universe you’ve chosen to explore.
Once you’ve found your theme, ensure that the plot, characters, locations, objects and dialogue all serve to make that theme as present as possible in your script. When you put all the content together, it should fit like pieces in a puzzle.
Apply the knowledge: What is your story about? What are the abstract questions or issues it or explores? Can you make these themes more present throughout your story via objects, dialogue, or characters?
The road ahead
Our world is currently in an Information Age, where attention is currency and storytelling is the vehicle that inspires it. A shirt that sells for a few dollars may instantly become priceless if it becomes known that a certain singer wore it during a legendary performance. A bank may instantly lose most of its value if word gets out that it is untrustworthy.
Controlling your image – and in turn, your fate as a business – often comes down to securing the right narrative. Different channels (text, visuals, audio, video) as well as delivery mechanisms (social media as well as more traditional platforms) greatly influence how you are seen, yet the best branding outcomes result when you thread a single, consistent narrative across these various conduits.
Yet there is an art to storytelling, which draws deeply from human nature. Your audience goes through ups and downs in their lives, which means that they will relate to you better if you show that you also occasionally stumble in the face of a hard challenge.
Your audience also comes with preconceptions about the world of business, as they know that your incentives and theirs do not always align. But by putting your values and commitments on display, and showing these virtues in action, you can begin to build trust with your potential customers.
Pixar’s stories need only last a couple of hours, to sustain momentum and interest for one film. Ad campaigns, however, can last months or years – making it even more important to have all the right elements in place before you begin.
Hitting the right notes can lead to a growing army of passionate followers who believe in your brand, and will spread their enthusiasm to those around them. The redemption story around Steve Jobs after his initial failures at Apple; the McDonald’s story about Ronald McDonald and the cast of characters around him (including the Hamburglar), the SpaceX story about going to Mars – these each work on a human level, because they have universal ideas at their core.
Before you get started, make sure you’ve built up an attractive online presence so that your new character and story will make a splash when it is first revealed. Then work through the above steps, to create a compelling story idea for your business. When it comes time to apply this template, stay creative. The more fun you have telling your story, the more fun your audience will have watching it.