For Amazing Brand Stories, Think Potato Not Portrait

There’s a lot of buzz lately about brand storytelling. It’s one of the hottest content trends in digital marketing, with good reason…

  • Stories can often cut through noise and attract more attention than a down and dirty marketing pitch.
  • Stories often lend themselves to more interesting packaging and imagery.
  • Stories can do a better job of getting your audience to let their guard down and really listen to you.

brand stories contentBut, this new breed of digital storytelling has little in common with the practice we know from our childhood.

Rather than a traditional, “Once upon a time” formula, this new form of storytelling…

Instead of being a portrait of your brand, the brand stories of tomorrow are going to look more like Mr. Potato Head. They’ll have a common base, but the final picture will look a little different every time it’s told, depending on who puts the pieces together and how they do it.

It’s this unique twist that makes a lot of companies step back, scratch their heads and ask, “Um…say what? How the heck are we supposed to own something we don’t own? How do we construct something that is supposed to be deconstructed? How do we tell a story without a traditional beginning, middle and end?”

Well, as Frank Rose says in his new book, The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories.

“We stand now at the intersection of lure and blur. The future beckons, but we’re only partway through inventing it. We can see the outlines of a new art form, but its grammar is as tenuous and elusive as the grammar of cinema a century ago.”

We’re going to have to invent the rules for this new type of storytelling as we go. Here are three I would recommend we start with…

1. Solidify your story arc.

First, clarify and solidify the basic arc of your brand story. The arc is like Mr. Potato Head’s brown plastic base to which all of your story elements will be applied.

When it comes to story arc, the simpler the better. Because, once you start adding voices and vehicles to your plot line, things are going to get a little messy.

Take Nike, for example. Their basic brand story is this…

Inside all of us is an athlete. Nike is part of the mix in helping that athlete reach his or her fullest potential.

The hero of the Nike story is you and me – the athlete – not the brand. (Which is brilliant, because people love to read stories about themselves.) And the Nike story — how each athlete pulls together our resources to “just do it”  — is told from all of our diverse perspectives, from sports pros to average Joes.

2. Clarify your story’s voice.

Your brand has a persona, and that persona has a voice. You need to use that voice when you tell your story. So, make sure you are clear what that voice sounds like…

  • Is it gentle and advising?
  • Is it sassy and supportive?
  • Is it austere and wise?

Online, your story will likely become fragmented. Having a unified voice will make it possible for all of the pieces to sound good together, no matter how far apart they are scattered.

It’s like purchasing a special kit of parts for your Mr. Potato Head (e.g. Mrs. Potato Head, Easter Bunny, Star Wars, etc.) The various pieces still allow you to assemble a unique creation, but each of those creations will look like they are part of the same family.

For instance, Old Spice has a consistent tone for all of its brand stories (a tone which is confident, sassy and a little tongue-in-cheek.) So, their stories sound the same whether they are told by their Old Spice Guy persona or their “Director of Marketing,” Mr. Wolfdog.

3. Create a collection of branded story elements.

In order to make your story accessible to many different audiences in many different platforms, you will need to create a collection of diverse, branded building blocks with which your audience can assemble your story. (Just like Mr. Potato Head comes with an assortment of hats, mouths noses, etc.)

Describing what exactly this collection should look like is hard — because I’m not sure these exist yet.

In my mind, a collection of branding building blocks would consist of two layers of content assets:

1. Elements and approaches to the brand story (e.g. Mr. Potato Head’s hats, mouths, noses) like…

  • Different perspectives within the story, as explained by the brand (from customer’s perspective, prospect’s perspective, company’s perspective, etc.)
  • Different storyteller voices within the story (the customer’s voice, prospect’s voice, company’s voice) as explained by the users themselves (through user-generated content.)
  • Different themes within the story (lessons learned, hardships weathered, partnerships forged, etc.)

2. Categories of media within each of those elements and approaches (e.g. TYPES of Mr. Potato Head hats, types of mouths, types of noses) like…

  • Video interpretations of the story, when told from the customer’s perspective, focusing on the lessons learned.
  • Image interpretations of the story, when told from the customer’s perspective, focusing on the lessons learned.
  • Long-form text interpretations of the story, when told from the customer’s perspective, focusing on the lessons learned.

And so on…

This three rule framework creates an exciting new playing field for brand storytelling — one that is limited only by your imagination and your company’s courage in venturing into uncharted waters.

So grab a potato and pull up a chair. It’s time to start telling your story.


Jennifer Kane
Jennifer Kane is a marketing/communications strategist with more than 15 years of experience working with B2B and B2C companies. She has nearly two decades of public speaking, education and training experience and speaks nationally on topics related to social media, content marketing and digital communications. She is Principal of Kane Consulting, a 10-year-old firm that helps companies use social media and other digital technologies to improve their marketing, communications, sales and customer service. Jennifer runs a popular business book club in Minneapolis and manages the "Spinal Fusions Suck" social community on Facebook. In her spare time, she thinks a lot about the zombie apocalypse and the awkwardness of writing about oneself in third person.
Jennifer Kane
Jennifer Kane

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