Storytelling architecture

Photo Alexandra Cavoulacos/Flickr |

branding

Storytelling Architecture

Narrative has an architecture. And it's the key to better branding.

Reading Time: About 2 minutes

At their best, brands tell stories. Sometimes it is overt, such as when they advertise, and sometimes it is subtle, such as when they cue a story already in your head with a brand interaction. Because stories are fundamental to the richness of our experiences, it’s no wonder that brand managers talk a lot about brand stories, brand storytelling, brand narrative, and the like. Storytelling has been en vogue with brands for years now, even before I tackled the subject in my 2002 book, Legendary Brands. The trouble is, while brand managers want their brands to tell stories, they don’t know how to systematize an approach.

Over the course of the last year, I’ve been paying particular attention to the practical demands of brand storytelling—looking for ways to help my clients express a brand voice and execute compelling storytelling on their own. On a few recent assignments, we introduced a new tool for clients: storytelling architecture. What is it? At the most rudimentary level, it’s a flexible framework designed to help writers bring brand copy into voice. It does this by suggesting structural patterns that fit the brand. So, for example, if we had a client with a brand story rooted in personal experience, we might suggest one architectural pattern that uses personal anecdotes to humanize the brand and connect it to the bigger story.

The best example of story patterns in action is the MasterCard Priceless campaign. The storytelling architecture relies upon telling the story through purchases. Each purchase builds dramatic tension. The denouement occurs with the final element, which has no price. That example is heavily tied to the brand advertising, but there’s no reason the pattern could not extend to other brand touch points. In musical notation, that pattern could be expressed as A-A-A-B, where the A’s are the verses and the B is the chorus.

But that’s only one pattern example. We’ve also looked at genre. A genre is a meta-pattern. It is storytelling architecture that defines the conventions of the story to be told. Audiences like genres because genre sets expectations and creates a shared set of knowledge. For example, if you were to tell a vampire story, the audience would have a number of pre-conceived assumptions as a result of the genre. They would expect that the vampire needs blood to live. They would assume the vampire cannot be exposed to daylight. And they would probably assume that the vampire was averse to religious symbols. Certainly, many vampire stories have shunned these conventions, but that’s why we love vampire stories—to see how the new storyteller plans to deal with the genre. That’s why True Blood is gaining an audience.

Brands can take the same approach. Their storytelling architecture can rely upon genre to familiarize brand audiences with the bigger story, then the brand can choose which conventions of the genre to observe, and which to break. W Hotels has chosen a very specific genre in which to build its brand. It is linked to social currency. W defies some of the standard conventions of upscale hotel branding in order create its own unique storytelling approach. The architecture uses genre to structure the brand experience.

This work is ongoing, and requires a lot more illustrations than I have space to present. But the work in the subject area is proving helpful to clients and engaging for our team.

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