Tell me a story! Brands and strategic narrative.
We are surrounded by narratives: in newspapers and politics, on Netflix and Spotify, in press conferences and advertising. But what exactly does this buzzword, which was puzzling the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper as long ago as August 2017, actually mean? And why is narrative particularly relevant for brands undergoing transformation processes?
March 16, 2021
Historian and author Yuval Noah Harari describes the human ability of storytelling, our talent for telling tales, fiction and myths, as a decisive competitive advantage, crucial to the dominance of our species:
“You can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana by promising him ‘after you die, you’ll go to chimpanzee heaven and you’ll receive lots and lots of bananas for your good deeds, so now give me this banana.’ Only humans believe such stories. Which is why we control the world.”
Storytelling allows people to cooperate flexibly and in large groups, regardless of spatial separation; to pursue common goals, work together as a network for the sake of a shared conviction. Let’s be clear: nations, currencies, religions, political parties, ideologies, human rights, laws – none of these ideas are intrinsic to people at birth. They are fictional phenomena, based on narratives, brought to life and shared by groups of people all over the world, without them ever having to meet or get to know each other in person.
Stories not only attract attention, but community.
Unlike facts, stories allow us to store information in emotional form, and make it more memorable – quicker to find, so to speak. In our brain, in addition to the language centre, they also stimulate the regions in which associative thinking occurs and our sensory impressions and emotions arise. Perceived stories are stored where we also store our own experiences: in episodic long-term memory. So we remember and believe many things that we hear, read or see as if we had experienced them ourselves.
Stories not only attract attention, but also community. Anyone who has sat around a campfire or seen videos of a Trump rally knows that. Why does this work so well? Powerful narratives can guide and unite. Thus, Duden defines narrative as a ‘connecting, meaningful account’. And now perhaps you can guess how we come to answer the actual question: what does all this have to do with brands?
Narrative is particularly needed when the aim is to move people to believe in something abstract.
Narrative is particularly needed when the aim is to move people to believe in something abstract. In the value of a product that goes beyond its functional use. In a strategy or vision, in a future I invest in, or am even required to make sacrifices for. Where acceptance and conviction are required, narrative serves as a steady, storytelling core on which (brand) messages, lectures or campaigns are based.
The principle: the strategic narrative, comprising just a handful of sentences, reduces these messages and connections to universal, human values and subjects and packages them in a memorable and tellable story. The elevator pitch in the written word.
Basic themes such as love, recognition, self-determination, belonging, sex, overcoming of obstacles, security, self-development or community speak to us on such a fundamental level that they attract attention and resonate even within diverse target groups and collections of listeners. It is true that some of these subjects are not contextual with regard to current events. However, we are particularly attentive and receptive to such topics that correspond with current social developments. That is why we might currently have the impression that we are surrounded purely by narratives of resilience and solidarity.
Narrative is a way to hitch a ride into our long-term memory.
Narrative is not to be confused with the form of communication referred to as storytelling. It is not a specific story of drawn-out protagonists, surprising twists and happy endings dressed up as a heroic tale. Rather, the narrative organises different forms of communication together for the long term under an essential basic theme and serves as a briefing and starting point in its development.
The strategic narrative is therefore an instrument of persuasion – whether in communication with customers or in internal change processes. It makes it possible to communicate abstract and complex ideas. Above all, however, it should be understood as a means of transportation for brand messages: as a way to hitch a ride into our long-term memory. And anyone who pays attention after reading this article will recognise for themself how successfully strong brands make use of this method of transport: focusing on universal basic themes and core stories. Stories almost as old as humanity itself.
Harari, Y. (2011): Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind
Astete, L., Chaudhary, N. et al. (2017): Cooperation and the Evolution of Hunter-Gatherer Storytelling, Nature Communications
Margolis, M. (2018): Story vs. Narrative? And Why It Matters to Product Managers and Designers, Medium
- Philipp Wiederhöft is brand strategist at Stan Hema. Together with our editors and consultants, he develops narratives for clients that make strategies and visions tellable and re-tellable.