The Principles of World-Class Brand Storytelling

Hero, setting, plot—and how to combine them to bring your story to life

You're hearing from more brands in more ways than ever before. At this point, all are multichannel, some are open source, and a few are more than a little experimental. They pop up overnight with shared DNAs, guest visionaries and new communities, but the ones that stay—and stay relevant—share one thing in common: They are world-class storytellers. 

World-class storytellers don't rely on the written word to do the work for them. They use every tool at their disposal to express what they have to say. These brands have wildly different approaches to visuals, sound, textures and experiences—but all understand the need for these elements to work together to advance their stories. And by harnessing these storytelling principles, you too can create a brand that is world-class. 

1. Start your story by defining your hero—a cause or focus people can rally behind.

World-class storytellers are memorable because they advance a clear perspective. Having a main character, or hero, to focus on is part of what creates perspective. Beyond content, it is a human element that audiences can recognize and connect to. 

Many brands are unreliable narrators that claim their hero is the customer, when in fact they focus on themselves. Smart brands find a way to center people or humanity within a general focus, cause or community related to the people they serve. 

The stronger the hero is, the clearer and more connected the brand. One way to strengthen brand characters is to define an enemy, or the negative force their hero is up against. The introduction of an enemy creates conflict, a reason to pay attention and keep coming back to brand and story. 

Pfizer told a breakthrough story during the pandemic, with a renewed focus on science. Science became the hero of the brand and a champion audiences could trust in the face of serious disease. By shifting the storytelling focus from itself to the field of science, Pfizer became more powerful and relevant. 

The New York Times holds up the truth as its hero and shows how it beats the odds in an increasingly dangerous media landscape. With every new campaign, they point to new threats to journalism and the effect on people's understanding of the truth, to show the importance of quality media. In these communications, the Times stands for more than a publication—it is a protector of free press. 

Nike defines its hero as the athlete in everyone. Its famous slogan, "Just Do It," established in 1988, still resonates today, and clearly sets up an enemy—any obstacle that could get in the way of people "doing it"; the blockers that keep people from getting physical and achieving their goals. 

2. Build your setting—a brand world that's memorable, consistent and responsive.

Any good hero needs a setting to thrive. Great writers create settings for their stories that are instantly recognizable and immersive, places people can imagine and want to visit.

To be credible to the audience, the setting needs clear rules and memorable hallmarks. Think Harry Potter: an ecosystem built on magic and wizards, with agreed-upon social codes, spaces and details that are not real in our world, but are believable to millions of fans globally. 

For brands, the setting, or in this case brand world, needs to be memorable, with creative hallmarks that inspire people to stay a while and discover more. The brand world also needs to be believable, with consistent rules that make it recognizable and trustworthy wherever it happens to be. Most of all, it needs to be responsive, acknowledging and rewarding its audience just for showing up. 

Openness is the connective theme across Mozilla's brand world. Their mission is to ensure the Internet is a global public resource, open and accessible to all— which they have proven through a crowd-sourced visual identity, transparent experiences, and resources that are available to all. 

Dunkin' proves that brand worlds don't need to be rigid to be strong. They produce funny, tantalizing and far-out collaborations held together by the same energizing creativity and sense of play. 

Gucci is an exhausting brand to keep up with, spanning categories and collaborations, but wherever it appears, it sucks people in with its eclectic sensibility. The prints, posture and casting of company they keep all add up to a club not everyone can afford—but everyone can enjoy watching pass by. 

3. Keep the plot simple by planning ahead to create connected events and behaviors across season and initiative. 

The best storytellers know how to keep their audiences on the hook by developing an engaging plot. They understand the role of voice and style to keep people engaged, but do not let these elements compete with the purpose of the story. They gather the facts and events, arrange them in a logical way, and bring audiences along for the ride.

Brands that advance a strong plot are planners. They think beyond the moment to create connected events that drive their story forward with clarity and surprise. New chapters may be added as brands grow and evolve, but the best storytellers can tie everything together with a single red thread, so no one is lost along the way. 

Adobe has always stood for creativity. As its product suite has grown, it has stayed connected, because each product is clearly defined by how it supports the creative community. 

Rather than develop a new story around sustainability when launching an ESG advisory, KPMG connected this work to its larger role of empowering change in the world. With this clear focus, they have been able to show the impact of what an ESG advisory can do for clients and society. 

Target exists to help all families discover the joy of everyday life. With a strong design ethos and emphasis on value, they make it easy to find the products people need with the savings and fun they want. Visit a Target on a Friday night, and you'll see it teeming with shoppers, each experiencing the Target story across the aisles, checkout experience, and through the Target Circle rewards program, a loyalty experience built for shoppers, with a giveback component for the community—truly, a joy for everyone. 

Advertise With Us

Featured Clio Award Winner



The best in creativity delivered to your inbox every morning.