Building brand through storytelling: Seven elements great stories have in common

Here’s a quick story:
A friend of mine and I had stopped at a gas station for a soda on a summer afternoon. I was probably about 10 years old. As we were drinking, I was mindlessly tearing the plastic label off my bottle and shredding it into pieces. He watched me do this for a few minutes, then said, “I hate tearing off the labels because it makes the soda taste bad.”

This was my first lesson in branding.

Few ways of communication are more universally human than storytelling. Stories give full-color context to black-and-white facts. They’re designed for sharing: Easy to tell, easy to remember. Simply start at the beginning and let the story unfold.

And because their context is shared with it, it becomes very easy for stories to be passed from one person to the next. Which is one of the reasons why, as author Daniel Pink says, storytelling, like design, is becoming a key way for individuals and entrepreneurs to distinguish their goods and services in a crowded marketplace.


Pink devotes a chapter to storytelling in his classic 2005 book, “A Whole New Mind.” He identifies storytelling as one of the six key senses for right-brain thinkers. He writes:

“When facts become so widely available and instantly accessible, each one becomes less valuable. What begins to matter more is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact.” “And that is the essence of the aptitude of Story–context enriched by emotion.”

So, how to use the elements of storytelling to build a brand? Here is my non-scientific list of seven elements that great stories have in common:

1. History

A beginning, a backstory. This provides an anchor to help understand where the characters started and what guides them today. It’s not surprising that those beginnings are often humble–they usually are. The more simple the beginnings, the more unlikely, and then remarkable, success becomes. 

For many years, financial institutions looking to establish an impression of lasting credibility built one ad campaign after another around antique-looking recreations of company founders. Today they seem to be more about understanding and building relationships. But they’re still about stories.

At Red Hat, I regularly presented on brand and culture in new hire orientation for several years. I always tried to build these around stories about where our company began. Not just because they’re fun and part of the folklore, but because they contain clues to a culture that we try to maintain today. The stories are about smart, resourceful people in the early days of Linux and Red Hat who challenged a status quo and found a better way.

2. Journey

A path. The journey gives a story movement and action. Characters are tested and react to other characters. They may fail, but they pick themselves up and keep moving. They’re often discovering themselves along the way.

Think about how your company has evolved. What challenges did it face? And how did it use what it had learned over time? But when talking about your brand’s journey, the story has to be authentic. On this journey there are no shortcuts.

3. Values

A set of beliefs. These beliefs guide your characters and ground them. What do they care about? How do they make decisions? How is their belief system tested? Did they hold true to that belief system even at the expense of short-term opportunities?

Why are values so important in brand building? In a competitive marketplace of intellectual capital where so much can be copied–values are extremely difficult to replicate. But they have to be built-in and hard wired. They have to be lived.

4. Language

A voice, a tone. Just like how the way people talk expresses their personality, the language a brand uses expresses its personality. This language could include a common set of terms and definitions. Or it could be design as a language, or type of media, video, animation.

What is that tone for your brand? Is it strong, confident. Speaking in short sentences. Direct. Quick. Or does it take a more intellectual tone, calculated and carefully articulating a position using the language of analysis and complex terms unique to that industry. Both may work. It all depends on the personality you want to convey.

5. Characters

The human element. You can’t have stories without characters. The more you care about them, the better.

This doesn’t mean every brand needs to have a spokesperson or avatar. But it can sometimes help. Red Hat has Shadowman–a strong silent type that represents the character and style of our brand. But we also have a pretty big cast of three-dimensional characters representing us in real life who are very active in the open source community.

So many companies seem to hide their people behind the walls of the brand. I say make heroes out of them. They deserve it. And they make your company more real.

If your brand doesn’t have a strong personality on its own–start giving it one now by talking about your people.

6. Place

A context, setting. A sense of place draws its own collection of mental images. Like sets on a stage, these scenes provide a backdrop to the story.

Red Hat had tobacco fields. Especially in the early days of Red Hat, journalists often referenced North Carolina tobacco fields as a setting to create an image that Red Hat was no ordinary Silicon Valley startup.

7. Emotion

Passion. In the world of business, emotion isn’t always welcome. I think it’s essential. When that emotion is genuine and authentic, originating from commonly held beliefs, it can be extremely powerful.

Emotion is one of the hidden ingredients to making a brand compelling. And so often it’s relegated to external advertising. If you care, show it. Make music and imagery choices carefully. Write your content with emotional impact in mind. And show it in the places your audience wouldn’t expect. Any company can use two people in love to sell diamonds or a tearful mom to sell phone service in television ads.

Sure, it’s a gutsy move. It means you may have to wear your heart on your sleeve.

But people will remember.

“We are our stories. We compress years of experience, thought, and emotion into a few compact narratives that we convey to others and tell to ourselves. That has always been true. But personal narrative has become more prevalent, and perhaps more urgent, in a time of abundance, when many of us are freer to seek a deeper understanding of ourselves and our purpose.” – Daniel Pink


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