Every year tech companies hold massive conferences to launch their newest products. The invited crowds of reporters and fans often seem more like cultists than critics and customers. The products might be innovative, but gathering together in ritual celebration is nothing new. These high-tech brands tell a story of innovation that people want to be a part of. And even if your story is different than innovation, your brand can tap the same human need to be part of a larger story.
Brands are Stories
The foundation of a brand is its story because stories give people a simple way to quickly understand what a brand is all about.
Stories are the way humans make sense of the world. They pack a lot of punch in a small package, and most importantly, stories do two major things:
- Stories relay information about the world in an easy to understand format. Everything from science to religion is formed around competing stories about how the world works. Even the most basic self-help has some story of the world that gives people a framework to sort the information they’re inundated with every day.
- The framework of a story gives people information with meaning. Instead of just a list of facts, stories tie information to plots and characters, giving emotional investment in success and failure, happiness and depression, tragedy and comedy.
Every person has a story, and every person tells themselves stories about who they are and where they fit in the world. These stories can have a profound effect on how people see themselves in the world. For example, people who tell themselves that they always fail will have a much different outlook than people who tell themselves a story of what they learn from failure instead.
Every business has a story too, although businesses often tell themselves a different story than outsides tell about that business. Think of the incompetent managers who think they’re the best in the company while everyone else tells stories of their incompetence behind their backs. Just like with people and their personal stories, bosses and business often lie to themselves about what their story is.
Despite the protestations of hotshot marketers, the story of your business–your brand–is not entirely under your control. Your brand’s story emerges from a network of information and storytelling, including PR and marketing, but also including online customer reviews, internal rumors, and general word of mouth.
This is why the greatest marketing campaign in the world can’t save a despised brand. A brand that has been too sullied by bad press and bad word of mouth is often better off changing its name than spending years trying to salvage what might be unsalvageable.
What Brands Can Learn from Religion
Despite mistakes, some of the strongest brands last decades on the same story. Coca-Cola’s brand today is about the same as it always was. It still exists on a story of happy, refreshing nostalgia. And Coca-Cola embraces its long history to tap into something deeper than the simple youthful pleasure peddled by Pepsi.
Dating back to the late 19th century, Coca-Cola is much older than most modern brands. But compared to those earlier story-tellers, religions, Coca-Cola barely compares. Many religious traditions and their modern secular descendants date back thousands of years, proving the value of tradition and ritual remains in modern daily life.
For example, the celebration of Midsummer, celebrated during the summer solstice on June 21 each year, dates back at least as far as the pagan summer feasts of ancient Rome. All over the world, cultures have long celebrated the height of summer and the good times it brings at the summer solstice. Seeing sense in pagan traditions, the early Christian church incorporated many pagan rituals into new Christian celebrations, and Midsummer became the feast day for St. John the Baptist.
Okay, but what does this mean for branding? Three things:
- There are natural rhythms to the year. In North America few people celebrate Midsummer, but both Canadians and Americans celebrate their national holidays just a week later with fireworks and fires just like their ancient ancestors. This means that depending on their story, not every brand can do big business in every part of the year, and businesses should not expect every quarter to bring the same profits.
- Be careful about changing too fast. Tradition and ritual persist through thousands of years because people like parts of their lives to be regular and orderly. This helps give their lives an understandable story. In this sense, think long and hard before changing any brand to something new. It might not attract the new customers you want, and the old customers might leave as well, having been confused by the new story.
- When making major changes, incorporate something of the old story. A company looking to rebrand should consider what about their brand is actually working. Even if there’s very little about a brand’s story that’s good, that might be the seed around which you can create a new story, and this is often much easier than starting from scratch.
The Best Brands Give People Identity and Belonging
At their best, brands provide an easily understandable story for people about products and services, and the best brands provide people with a bit of belonging and identity. Some people like to identify with their Nike shoes and designer clothing. Some people like to be identified by drinking Coke instead of Pepsi. And some people identify with eco-friendly brands.
The key is that your brand’s story makes sense within the network of stories that people already understand. For example, tech companies often seem to have a slightly awkward time with Christmas, because their innovative and creative stories don’t quite match with the tradition and ritual of Christmas celebrations. Of course, they still do well, because Christmas is the high-point in the year for giving, but compared to a chocolate or cookie brand, Christmas isn’t a tech company’s natural narrative habitat.
By understanding the story of your brand, it will be much easier to adjust your brand to the stories your current and potential customers want to be a part of. Do things right, and you can make your brand part of your customer’s ritual and identity by becoming a part of their story.
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