The brand narrative is one of the essential elements of brand-building strategies. It is the foundation upon which you lay pillars of verbal and visual communication. It’s more than just a story. It is a carefully woven net of values and meaning, a blueprint that keeps you synced with the most authentic version of you.
What is a narrative?
Among other definitions, Merriam-Webster offers this: “a way of presenting or understanding a situation or series of events that reflects and promotes a particular point of view or set of values.” Although that is a pretty accurate definition, it doesn’t say much about its application in the context of brand and business. So, instead, I’ll offer you my own:
The narrative is the WHY that is hidden behind your story.
This definition becomes extremely handy for understanding the central notion of this article – brand narrative.
What is a brand narrative?
The brand narrative is the basis of the brand’s storytelling. It is the foundation of all other pieces of content, especially in written form. But most importantly, it is the foundation of the brand’s story. Although a brand story helps us understand HOW it all started, a well-written brand story helps us understand WHY it all started.
Brand Narrative is the story of the WHY behind your brand.
That WHY sets the tone, and all other stories have a hint of that same emotional tone. It is not that we need to stay true to the storyline but to the essence behind the storyline. To explain it simply, if we as a brand say that we believe that connection is at the basis of all human exchange, we cannot treat our customers as a means to an end and have the worst customer management culture ever. If you say that you are a brand that cares, then you need to care about your customers.
Have you decided on your word?
Can you build a whole narrative around a single word? I think you can, and I will use one of my favorite movies as an example to prove the point. I’ve never read the book, but I watched Eat, Pray, Love many times, and I prefer the director’s cut version. The movie ends with Julia Roberts deciding on her word – attraversiamo. It is an Italian verb in the first-person plural imperative form. It means, let’s cross over.
It is a beautiful Italian word, no doubt about that. Still, it is much more than that – it is a verbal representation of a psychological transformation that Julia Robert’s character undergoes throughout the whole movie and in the final scenes.
She hears this word from her Italian language tutor, and then during a casual conversation with her friends, she struggles to define herself using a single word. Ever since I watched the movie, I’ve been picking my word for the new year. However, I still haven’t picked one for 2023, I guess that’s due to some inner transformation that my psyche is currently undergoing.
How to choose the right word for your brand narrative?
Here is a funny story, a guy once told me how he “cheats” at exams. Like most busy students, he only learns about 70% of the curriculum. And if he pulls the questions from the remaining 30%, he applies the “elephant and the snake” method. If he drew a question about elephants and only learned about snakes – he would start his answers like this: elephants have uniquely shaped trunk that looks a lot like a snake. And he would spend the rest of the time talking about snakes.
This approach might work with exams, although I’ve never tested it myself. However, you should never cheat when telling your brand narrative. And if you choose to talk about elephants, you should, by all means, talk about elephants.
Figure out your number one value and build your brand narrative around it
The best way to build your brand narrative is to figure out your number one value – something you would fight for no matter what. To bring us back to the aforementioned movie, the narrative of Eat, Pray, Love is built around Love. The main character spends the whole movie searching for herself, and in the end, she loses herself for love.
But that is the lesson – to find ourselves, we must cross over the illusion of self – there’s no half-assing in love, it’s all in or not love at all.
I believe the same goes for brands. You cannot half-ass it. I mean, you can, but people will know. They will feel it, and you will never gain genuine trust. There is a powerful exercise for finding core values that I always facilitate for my clients. You can do it yourself, but for it to be impactful, you mustn’t read the following lines at once due to spoiler alerts.
To conduct this exercise, you’ll need a stopwatch, a pen, and paper.
Cut your piece of paper in 10 equal parts. They don’t need to be perfect. Set your timer to 5 minutes and choose 10 core values from the following list, writing each down to one of those 10 pieces of paper. You might end up with more than 10, but then you need to scratch on of the previously selected ones. Beware, 5 minutes is all you got. Be fast, and don’t overthink it. Once you pick your 10 core values, you can proceed to STEP #2
Congratulations. You identified your top 10 values. However, what you need to do now is to pick the least important value of those 10. You have 30 seconds to choose the least important value. Once you do that, you can proceed to STEP #3
Take the piece of paper on which you have written the selected, least important value – and tear it into small pieces. Congratulations, you have just forsaken one of your values. Proceed to STEP #4
Okay, let’s speed it up a bit. You have one minute to choose your top 5 core values, which means you need to pick 4 more pieces of paper, well, your values, and destroy them, forsake them. I know it’s hard. You have one minute.
5 is still a lot, we need to figure out the top 3 core values. Two more need to go. Do it fast. Tear that paper into the tiniest pieces. We need to move on.
How are you feeling? Look at those three remaining pieces of paper. Those are your main values. Cherish them. For a minute or two – because we need a SINGLE word, you need to destroy two more. Sorry. Proceed to to STEP #7
Yeeeeey! Pat yourself on the back – you have found your word. Now for the sake of this exercise, you need to let that one go, too. Quickly. Into the tiniest of pieces goes your most important core value.
Go the extra mile
Sometimes, people get upset, sometimes too emotional, but almost always, people get so emersed in this exercise that they forget that we are not forsaking our values, we are just tearing down pieces of paper with some words on them.
The point is – values are extremely important and thought and emotion provoking. If we are able to identify the core value of our brand, not only that we will be able to communicate with ease, but we will also connect with ease with our target audience – because that audience feels equally emotional about our core value as us.
You can repeat this exercise with your strategic brand narrative in mind, but to get accurate results and pick the right word, I suggest you research on your own, find similar exercises, or reach out to a brand strategist, me included. I love helping clients find their brand core values, it’s one of my favorite parts of consulting.
The basis of BRAND narrative structure
Assuming that you found your word, you are now ready to start building a narrative around it. The best thing about it is that when you spend some time understanding and discovering your actual core value, you will also understand WHY that is your core value. And that WHY becomes, as we already said, the narrative.
The narrative has a structure. This structure is well explained in the theory of literature. Without going into too many details, the vital thing to know is that there are no fundamental rules. You can, and you should tell your story like it is. And you should build your brand narrative accordingly.
Some brands have very well-structured, chronological storylines. Others have simplified non-linear narration. Some have circular structures in their narratives, just like our movie – it ends where it has begun, but our main character is forever changed, nonetheless.
It’s about the process
This article is also circular, so, in the end, we come to the beginning. There is no secret process that can help you build a whole brand narrative around a single word, apart from the process itself. While trying to figure out your word, your core value, your why, you’ll figure out the whole story.