Reflections on Ad Age Digital Conference Part I – Brand Storytelling

Brand Storytelling

Brand Storytelling is one of my major takeaways from the Ad Age Digital conference in New York last week.

At the event we saw an all-star lineup including Tencent, Hulu, Facebook, Google, GAP, Sony and Buzz-Feed and nearly every one of them talked about the importance of brand storytelling. They talked about it as if it was a new trick but it’s nothing new, in fact all great brands are great because they do that simple thing well – tell the story that connects the consumer.

Reminding ourselves what a brand actually is is important and it’s something we talk about everyday. It’s not about logos it’s about meaning. In short, your brand is the sum total of all the meanings that all your possible audiences carry around about you in their heads and hearts. In other words, your brand is everything that your customers and prospective customers think, feel, say, hear, read, watch, imagine, suspect and even hope about your product, service or organisation.

As I said, it’s nothing new. Creating narratives about brands gives the consumer something to aspire to, to connect with and to talk about. What do you think of when you hear the name Harley-Davidson? A faceless corporation, churning out motorcycles and generating revenue? Or are you transported somewhere else? Into a story of rule breakers, rebels and outlaws who flout convention? A tale with a more dynamic sense of narrative than a static balance sheet?

Say what you like about the brand itself – and for the less romantic among us Harley Davidson mainly says ‘mid-life crisis’ – but the creation of a story lends the brand a backdrop, a mythology and momentum that together help to articulate its core values and draw in its audience.

The Innocent Story

Drinks company Innocent has been associated with storytelling since its inception: witness the oft-cited story of how they began – asking customers at a music festival to vote on whether they should give up their day jobs by throwing their empties into either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ bins. “Our story is the tale of what happened when three friends had a good idea,” says creative director Dan Germain. “We don’t have to invent a brand story, or have sessions to think of what it might be. Our story is the real story of us doing stuff. The hardest part of the last 12 years was sitting down and trying to remember everything when writing our company history. It’s much easier just to carry on making up the story up as you go along, starting tomorrow, 9am, at Fruit Towers.”

The Twist

Knowing that brand storytelling is nothing new and hearing it so many times at the conference got me thinking. Why are these guys harping on about something that any good brand builder does automatically? The answer is that because we are now so connected digitally we can reach new levels in the story and allow the consumer to totally interact with it. Not only interact with it but share it. This goes way beyond talking about a brand you like or an experience you had in the pub. It goes to the level of letting the consumer be part of the story when done really well. Just look at Facebook Stories as an example. Brands are using this to allow the consumer to weave their stories into the overall brand stories. What does this do? Brings the consumer closer to the brand. Makes them feel ownership. Makes them more likely to share and repost. It’s no longer broadcast storytelling.

Old Spice is hard to ignore when talking about storytelling. They tell their story remarkably well with the core narrative “I’m the man your man could smell like” running through all their activity and have had remarkable success starting on TV and YouTube and becoming one of the most watched YouTube channels and the number 1 body wash brand for men. Why? Because firstly it was a great idea, executed brilliantly, was highly entertaining and brought people along with teh story. It wasn’t a one-off, it’s what the brand became.

Your takeaway

The story doesn’t always have to be the history of the brand, the product or indeed a true story. It can be about a lifestyle, a thought, an aspiration. It needs a big idea tho and done right the story will become the brand. Think about what will inspire people to share, what resonates with them and what will hook them. Importantly as criminals always tell each other when they get arrested ‘stick to your story’.

A great story coupled with the power of social media can have amazing results.

What’s your story? Have a think. After all, who doesn’t like a good story?


Jaime Steele

Jaime specialises in brand strategy, creative concepts, naming strategies, digital media marketing and technical project management. He has a strong background in delivering and managing social media and digital marketing campaigns for both small start-ups and blue chip companies.

He has also worked with many top professional athletes, advising on personal branding, sponsorship and social media.