“You need to tell stories through your brand. People like stories.” It’s something we hear a lot these days.
It’s true; people do like stories. The stories in the Bible form the basis of most laws in Western society, they’re a huge part of our wider cultural narrative (who isn’t familiar with Romeo and Juliet?), and a good story is almost certain to grab attention in a way that stating facts and figures never can.
But what is a brand story? Ask around, and you’ll probably get as many answers to that as there are characters in Harry Potter (answer: 772). Some would say it’s about having a company history that’s worth recounting, like Facebook does. They even made a movie about that one. Others will tell you it’s about framing your product through the stories of other people, something that happens a lot in TV advertising (I can think of no better example than the Fernleaf Butter family ads that ran in New Zealand in the late 1980s and early ’90s).
And others will swear blind that it’s all about how your market perceives your brand, how you put yourself across to them, and how you can get them build a community around your product – effectively helping you with your marketing. Apple, of course, do this very well.
Here’s one I want to share – even though I’m a little late to the party, and it’s done the rounds of the internet already. Lee Reid is a New Zealand neuroscientist who developed free music software Musink. In itself, that’s not much of a story (apart, I guess from the neuroscientist-musician-software developer angle) – but the kicker to this is that he wrote the whole program using voice recognition software and moving his mouse with his foot after developing a pain disorder that baffled doctors and meant he couldn’t use his hands for two years.
The full story can be read, in comic form, here. (Full disclosure: I know both Lee and cartoonist Josh Drummond personally – but even if I didn’t I’d still want to link to this story.) A lot of great products have been built because people didn’t like what was already out there, and wanted to make something better. (Example?) But the story of Musink goes further – and I can’t think of a better use of someone’s time when they can’t do much else.
Sticking with New Zealand brands, Icebreaker do a great job of storytelling. This merino clothing brand is very much based around New Zealand’s – it’s got the nature, it’s got the outdoorsiness, and of course it’s got the sheep. But it does much, much more than include pictures of merino rams and snow-capped peaks that look like Tolkien’s Misty Mountains. Every piece of Icebreaker clothing you buy has a label sewn into it with a code. Enter that code on their website, and it traces your merino back to the station the sheep who grew it lives on.
(It’s called a ‘Baacode’, which delights me.) It makes their brand story tangible, making that top you’re wearing almost an artifact. And it also gets you thinking about the origins of your clothing, which I entirely approve of.
As for building a community around your brand, Threadless is one of my favourite examples. It sells clothing, mostly t-shirts, with designs submitted by community members. Users vote on the designs, and the favourite ones get turned into t-shirt designs and wall art. Since it started in 2000, it’s grown to have an astonishing amount of community engagement. Artists can get their designs out to the world (and get paid). Voters can help make their favourite designs a success.
But I think the most important thing about Threadless is that the designs it carries are so Threadless, community members can identify each other in an instant. I own several Threadless t-shirts myself, so can speak with some authority. I’ve walked past people in the supermarket wearing the same t-shirt (an impressive feat, considering the thousands of available designs). I’ve spotted people in the street wearing t-shirts I recognise from the site. And that’s interesting, because that wouldn’t normally be cause for celebration if it was from some run-of-the mill shop like Glassons, but with Threadless it’s more like Freemasons recognising each other.
Most importantly of all, when I’ve been complimented on a t-shirt I’m wearing I’ve told the other person all about Threadless, if they haven’t already heard of it. And that’s the whole purpose of a brand story, right there – to create enthusiasm, to have something worth talking about.
Every company has a story to tell. How will you tell yours?