Why are we, as humans, drawn to story more than any other thing? What is it about story that compels us? And why do we seek to live out great stories? I once said that brands are just people bound together by beliefs. But I think that falls short of what a brand truly is. Alongside everything else that is meaningful, a brand is a story. It has an origin, it experiences adversity, and it plays a role in the world—the hero, the villain, the victim or the guide. And in truth, at some point, it will play all of them.
This reflection is inspired by Donald Miller’s new book “Hero On A Mission” where he posits that even though life as we know it is flawed and far from perfect, it is our duty to create meaningful lives with our time on Earth. Even more, he suggests that we don’t have to be the victim in our own stories and that we can rise up and be the hero, provided that we embrace hardship, overcome adversity and transform.
Brands are much like people in this way. We expect brands to transform. To evolve and change. Their relevance in culture is one of the most critical markers of their success. And this requires continual reframing. But what happens when a brand gets stagnant? First, the people who drive it become uninspired. Then, that lag eventually bleeds out. And finally, it’s a ghost town and shadow of its former self.
Sure—we may be endeared to nostalgic brands that remain unchanged, but it’s just like porch sitting with Uncle Rico who’s stuck in 1982. He hasn’t moved on and it seems like the best is behind him. Once in a great while those brands revive for a moment and hit culture in a way no one expected. But most brands navigate to that transformation. They find adventure’s current; they put their paddles in the water. Most, do it intentionally.
If brands are stories, it’s a reminder to us that just like the stories we consume, brands must remain interesting. Miller suggests in his book that one of the greatest tragedies of life is losing interest in our own story.
“One of the greatest tragedies a person can experience is to feel dispassionate about their own life. To wake up believing fate is writing a terrible story that we are bound to is akin to being imprisoned in our own skin.”
Have you ever woken up feeling your brand is imprisoned in its own skin? Have you rolled out of bed wondering why it conjures no interest to the world, let alone yourself? We must face the harsh reality that the brands we steward are not always that interesting. But perhaps they can be.
How is it that some companies, despite their category, can be wildly interesting? I think of a concrete company in Milwaukee with punchy billboards that walk the line of humor and vulgarity. I think about HR & Payroll SaaS brands that have built incredible cultures around human centricity and rank among the top places to work, thereby driving their clients' cultures as well. Or a credit union that breaks the stereotype with quirky humor and peculiar promotions like the “Pumpkin Spice Latte Loan.” In truth, our product or service categories are irrelevant. Saying you work in B2B is often an excuse to remain uninteresting and uninspired. After all, we’re all human. And we all want to be part of great stories.
So how do you breathe a great story into your brand—starting today? Well, as Miller suggests, you have to want something. You articulate your hopes, dreams, ambitions and desires. You write a manifesto. You declare who you are and why the world should care. You write your own Rally Cry and preach to yourself first, then to the masses.
We veil these ambitions in marketing terms like vision, purpose, positioning statements and so on. But in truth: these concepts are simply an articulation of what we want and who we want to be. And the clearer, the better.
Don’t waste another day sitting on a brand you loathe. Infuse life into it. Don’t just tell a good story—become a good story. Start small. Start with what you want for your brand. Start with painting a picture and developing a plot for your people. Reframe your adversities and give your brand the opportunity to overcome them. As Miller suggests—the beautiful part about stories is—we can rewrite them.