A Story of Brand Storytelling Versus Brand Tools

I have a confession to make. I used to be addicted to brand planning tools. It was a problem: one that got so bad I eventually started pushing such tools on others to support my habit. Let me explain.

Long before I took up the call of strategic brand storytelling, I was a brand planner in the advertising business, helping clients uncover and define the essence of their brands. During that time, I used a variety of different tools to accomplish this, each dedicated to reducing a brand down to a few words or phrases that would fit snuggly into some cleverly designed diagram. While I always appreciated the precision and economy these branding models required, I couldn’t help but worry that, when shared broadly within an organization, they were falling short with the very employees they were meant to focus and inspire.

This concern became a reality for me during my last year in the advertising business after I had led a client through a Brand Promise Pyramid exercise (my brand planning tool of choice at the time). It was a good outcome for that sort of thing, and our clients were quite pleased with the results; so much so that they set out to present the completed pyramid to everyone in the company through a “pep rally” where motivational music and light machines cued people onto the stage, and everyone walked away with a brightly coloured t-shirt emblazoned with a new internal rallying cry. There might have been a confetti cannon; I can’t remember.

A couple of weeks later I was at a Christmas party and bumped into a friend who worked for the company and had attended the pep rally. Knowing that I had been involved in this work, he complimented me on it. I asked him what he thought about the Brand Promise Pyramid shared with him and his colleagues and if he remembered anything about it; and to his credit (and I guess to ours) he recited a couple of phrases and words.

I then asked him, “So what do those lines mean to you?”

He stared at me bewilderedly. “What do you mean what do they mean?”

“Like what do those words mean to you as an employee? To your job and the way that you approach or think about the work that you do?”

More bewildered staring. “Ummmmmm…..” (sfx: crickets)

And then it hit me.

Just because employees know what a brand planning diagram says, doesn’t guarantee they will thoroughly grasp what it means. A couple of pithy phrases or provocative words will never be enough, on their own, to fully articulate what a brand stands for—e.g. the higher purpose that inspires it, the difference it makes in people’s lives, the values it shares, etc. There is always richer meaning behind a brand that runs deeper than the headlines or bullet-pointed words squeezed into some diagram for it. It wasn’t until I defected from the advertising business that I came to realize that the best way to capture and share that richer meaning of a brand is through storytelling because storytelling has always been the way we make sense of things and exchange meaning with others.

Think of it this way. If you were ever sitting across from a potential employee, client or partner and that person asked you to tell them what your brand is all about, you might start with a collection of words or idea (e.g. “The happiest place on Earth”), but you would never just stop there. You would naturally elaborate (“Let me tell you what I mean by that.”). And then you would likely share an exemplary story of that idea coming to life. And in elaborating and sharing a story, you would bring richer meaning to that idea and make it real, helping that person evolve from “I hear you,” to “Ahhh…OK…now I get it.”

I still respect and admire the focus that is needed in many brand planning diagrams and the exactness that results from them. The problem arises when an organization that has such a diagram thinks that that is all they need to fully engage, align and inspire employees around their brand. The problem also arises when the process of identifying the essence of that brand is more focused on filling in a diagram than it is on uncovering and capturing true meaning.

EPSON scanner image

I love this cartoon, though it strikes a little close to home.

I was an enabler of such processes for many years. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. I facilitated lots of planning sessions in which a bunch of very smart clients would come together with the best of intentions to define what their brand was all about. These sessions would start out wonderfully, filled with great discussion and exchange as we collectively explored evocative ideas about the brand and instinctively started sharing stories about those ideas coming to life.

But inevitably process for process’ sake would take over.

As time ticked on we goal-oriented, type-A personalities would become increasingly focused on completing the task at hand and ensuring that, come Hell or high water, we were walking out of the room with a completed diagram. The storytelling animal in me wanted to keep the discussion going because it was so engaging and enriching on a deeply human level. But the facilitator in me would start screaming out how little time we had left (“We’ve got one hour people!”) as I stood poised, marker in hand, ready to write something, anything down on a flip chart.

So yes, we walked out of those rooms with a completed brand planning diagram, but we sadly left behind all the rich ideas, nuances and stories about that brand unearthed along the way. It’s like we had spent the last four to five hours mining for gold, but then in our haste to finish, left all the gold on the tracks.

So if you’re intoxicated by brand planning diagrams as I’d once been and want to use them to define what your brand is all about, then I encourage you to do so. There is certainly a lot of merit to them. But please bring along with you the brilliant stories you mine and extract during the process so you can share those stories with employees and, by example, inspire them to do the same. For it’s those stories and the richer, nuanced meaning in them that will bring your brand diagram to life and make it shine in the hearts and minds of your workforce, creating a lasting glow that will light the way for years to come.

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