The Power of the Story


‘Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.’

Robert McKee, Professor, Author, Consultant.

Humans are storytelling animals. I was reminded of this essential truth watching Anthony Gormley’s recent programme on the origins of art. The cave and rock paintings of our ancestors tell extraordinary visual stories about their daily lives that reach down to us across the centuries.

Stories offer us relatable truths that draw us in. They reflect or build on our own experiences and challenge us to think differently about ourselves and the wider human experience. Stories educate and entertain but above all they create connections.

Now, the notion of storytelling in the world of branding and communications is not new. Stories forge deeper connections and by tapping into an audience’s emotions can make a brand feel more human. A well-told story is not only more memorable, but it also has the power to establish real differentiation for a brand.

The Insurgent Challenge

However, coming from a brand identity perspective, it seems that the need for brands, and more particularly established brands, to have compelling, engaging narratives is more important now than ever. The reason is the rise of the so-called ‘insurgent’ brands, those agile, non-conformist newcomers who, across categories, are slowly eroding the share of market and share of mind of the established brands.  

These new brands have more authentic stories to tell, stories that connect in particular with the millennial generation of consumers. No longer interested in bland, mass market products produced by large corporations and shipped round the world, the millennial generation is motivated by experiences rather than things and more particularly by the local and original, the real and authentic.

They have reached what Morgan Stanley called ‘the most important age range for economic activity’; Alan Jope, new CEO of Unilever, described them as the ‘core of our business’. It is easy to see why this preference for smaller, independent brands represents such a threat to more established ones.

Insurgent brands have authenticity in spades. Often built on a founder’s passion and value set, with clear a reason to exist and brutal clarity of purpose that calls into question the ‘reason to be’ of established brands, these newcomers have compelling narratives embedded from the outset.  

Find Your Narrative

So how should the bigger, more established brands respond? At Echo we believe that the answer lies in the power of the brand story, the essential narrative that embodies where the brand has come from, where it is now and where it is going in the future. All successful brands were insurgents once and will have an underlying story; the problem in many cases is that it has become the ‘thing that we forgot to remember’.

Over time the essential brand narrative becomes eroded and hollowed out; it loses its sharpness, clarity, richness and relevance. David Taylor of the Brandgym is absolutely right to emphasise the need for big brands to, in his words, ‘refresh the core’ and ‘remember what made you famous’. Understanding the true brand story can help frame this.

An instructional example of this at a corporate level is Unilever. In its day Lever Soap was an insurgent brand, its story built on improved hygiene. That story is carried on today through Unilever’s USLP programme and brands like Lifebuoy in India which focuses on improving hygiene in the home so that fewer schooldays are lost through children becoming ill.

This is brand purpose with a purpose; not a bolt-on narrative that stretches credulity (of which there are too many shocking examples) but a brand lead story that is embedded in and driven by a product truth. Powerful stuff for a brand.

In the increasingly fragmented world of brand communications brands needs stories. As you get closer to a brand both physically and emotionally those stories become ever more important in helping drive engagement and connection. Just standing out is no longer enough.

Product and Brand

At Echo we talk about ‘tight’ brands, where brand and product unite together as one to provide the framework for the brand’s unique story – and these narratives can take very different forms. Our recent work for English Tea Shop brought to life their unrealised but very real organic and sustainable ‘farm-to-cup’ story. In contrast our work in developing the Smarties toy portfolio has linked the colourful lentils and the power of a child’s imagination to a narrative about the importance of open-ended play in child development. It also shifted the emphasis from marketing to children to focusing on the adult thus addressing Nestle’s commitment to responsible marketing.

 All these stories feel authentic as they are rooted in the brand and product; and because they are inherently rich they provide the startpoint for developing truly engaging brand worlds that bring brands to life across multiple touchpoints. One can think of the pack design and core identity as being the ‘abstract’ whilst the broader brand world is the full, unedited version enabling brands to forge those deeper, emotional connections over time. The brand world also has the flexibility to allow the story to be continually refreshed thus staying relevant in an ever changing landscape.

As with every great story ‘how’ it is told is just as important as the ‘what’. Often neglected, this is where the brand’s values and personality truly come to life through the brand language and tone of voice. From the pack and website to the marketing communications and social media the story creates differentiation - and the way it is told creates distinctiveness.

The new generation of insurgent brands has reminded us of the power of having an authentic brand story to tell. It has also shown us that if you passionately feel and believe something, consumers will feel and believe it too. Stories can humanise a brand in a way that generates affinity, loyalty and advocacy.

Therefore, one way that the bigger, more established brands can respond is to rediscover their unfair advantage, their insurgent roots, and repurpose their story to give it clarity, focus and relevance. Then to use their superior resources to reclaim the high ground.

Alastair Jones