Think. Creativity. Innovation. Storytelling.
What do these four words have in common? Lots of
things, really, but the answer I’m looking for is that they all
four are buzzwords. Big time buzzwords that appeared— more or less
in succession—to take one industry after another by storm.
Buzzwords originate from concepts that have substance
to them, and there are those who exercise the original concepts as
IBM can be credited with making Think a
mantra of sorts. It was introduced there by Thomas J. Watson at CTR
(Computing Tabulating Recording Company) in 1914, which became IBM
and adopted Think in a big way, even naming their line of
laptop computers ThinkPad.
Then, in 1997, Apple told people to Think
“Think” was done. Somewhere along the way, creativity
had sprung up as being what people strived to achieve from all of
their thinking. But it wasn’t quite enough—anybody, it seems, can
create something—so innovation became where we all wanted to be: a
sort of misty place between thinking and creating, where the magic
is supposed to happen.
Elon Musk didn’t create the electric car. He didn’t
even start Tesla Motors. But when he came onboard in 2004, a year
after the company started, he led the charge to innovate how
electric cars were styled, made, and thought of by the public at
That’s Musk. But being an innovator without knowing
how to innovate is much like saying you’re a magician without
knowing any tricks. Same with being a thinker or a creator.
Or a storyteller.
Storytelling is the latest creative industry hype
bait. Branding is all about storytelling. Selling is all about
storytelling. Even storytelling is all about storytelling these
Landor took on the challenge of telling the Federal
Express story. That included officially adopting the central
character’s nickname (FedEx) and identifying the story’s central
theme of timely delivery with a new tagline: The world on
It seems, however, that a lot of people don’t know
very much about what telling a story is really all about. By
looking carefully at the execution of their ideas, you’ll be able
to discern who is telling a story and who is merely buzzing about
Back to basics
As I teach in my beginning improvisational comedy
classes, to students that are trying to figure out how to make a
scene work, a story is a lot about structure. Every story, if it’s
going to work, needs a beginning, middle, and an end. And every
scene in that story has those same three elements.
And if a story doesn’t assemble these elements
effectively, it doesn’t work. Think of movies you’ve seen or books
you’ve read where the middle of the story feels flabby or the
ending incomplete. Or where characters or situations aren’t fleshed
out well enough in the beginning for you to get a grasp of
Just as important as that simple structure are the
characters. Without a well-defined protagonist (hero) or antagonist
(villain), there is little to hold your interest in the story. We
need someone to root for—or to rally against.
And there are often other important characters as
well. There’s the sidekick—where would Don Quixote be without his
Sancho Panza? Or Han Solo with no Chewbacca? And there’s often a
mentor or guiding figure: Merlin to King Arthur, Gandalf to Frodo,
or the Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi as just a few examples.
Equally important is a story’s theme. Usually, at its
base, a theme is rather simple: Might makes right. Crime does not
pay. Love always wins. Even the most complex tale has such a nugget
of human truth to it that serves to drive the story forward and, if
properly told, pays off in the end.
Finally, but also as important as the three elements
above, is the plot. This defines the journey the characters are on.
The course by which the story unfolds. The challenges that the hero
must face and, ultimately, overcome. The twists and turns that
capture our imagination and offer us enough surprises and rewards
to make this story—hopefully—different than any other story we’ve
How a brand is a story
There’s the tricky part: How does the story of a
brand get told in a way that doesn’t come across sounding like so
much hype and hot air?
Every story starts with a title. In branding, the
title is the brand name. The trademark. Which is a funny dichotomy,
in that one cannot typically trademark a title. But for our purpose
of brand storytelling, the title is the trademark.
As hard as it often is to come up with the name, the
rest of the brand is the puzzle to be solved. Where are the
beginning, middle, and end? The hero? The villain? Then there’s the
theme and the plot.
All the pieces are there, just waiting to be
The story could start with the introduction of the
branded product. Or maybe it’s when the company’s ex-president
returned to relaunch the company. The middle part can be as easy as
a tiny start-up’s rags-to-riches climb to success, or the product’s
hard-fought victory to pass clinical testing.
The ending to almost any brand’s story is, hopefully,
a happy one, with delighted consumers and a hefty infusion of
profits into the company’s coffers. Although it could be a
developing country’s victorious struggle against disease or a
smartphone app so revolutionary it changes the way most of us use
our mobile devices.
The hero could be the company with the brand. A
plucky little startup going up against a megalithic company. Or the
protagonist could be the product itself. Or the customer himself,
who needs the product to slay the dragons keeping him from getting
his work done: King Arthur’s Excalibur, if you will.
As for a theme, many a brand’s core essence can be
put forth in a compelling tagline: FedEx’s The world on
time, as mentioned before. Or Nike’s Just do it.
Regarding these as themes is at once expansive as well as helping
to underline the importance of the story the company is seeking to
Finally, a good plot is what you should strive to
create, as it makes the brand compelling. Just as with a good
story, a riveting story makes people want to come back to again and
again, not to mention tell their friends about.
Ultimately, whether your brand’s story is a
Cinderella tale, a superhero’s origin, or a timeless epic that
people will talk about for generations, as the storyteller, it’s
imperative that you learn how to tell the story in a way that will
capture the hearts and minds of anyone who gets the chance to
Post originally published by