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The Protagonist in Brand Storytelling and Retail

I’ve been working to crack the code on fiction writing for several years now, mostly as a hobby just because I don’t have more time than that. But I’m getting together some short stories to publish in an anthology (if you really want to know more about that, email me), and I was attending a writer’s conference this weekend, and it struck me – I’ve been talking a lot about brands telling stories lately, and here I was on Saturday listening to people who don’t know the first thing about retail or retail technology talk about how to tell a compelling story.

And so I found myself wondering what it really means to say that a brand needs to tell a story. I even looked up online to see if there were any resources dedicated to the topic (beyond Jay Dunn, who has been pretty passionate about brand story). I found this site, and lo and behold it led me to a Ted Talk by Andrew Stanton of Pixar and now Disney fame, where again the content led back to fictional storytelling.

I know, from recent work, that retailers frankly suck at telling stories. I hear about fashion brands that supposedly tell good stories and all I find that to mean is that the brand is fairly consistent about what they stand for and how that’s expressed in the logo, the site design, and the store layout. As an author, that leaves me sorely wanting. That’s not a story. Not really.

So what is a story? What does a story need? And can we really apply it to retailers – some of whom don’t have just one brand, but many of them? After spending a weekend immersed in learning the tenets of good storytelling, I’m willing to give it a shot.

Every story needs a certain set of things. And by the way, if you’re a fan of story structure or have a dusty old MFA in a frame somewhere, I’ve found that there are many different kinds of story structures, but they’re often just different approaches to the same problem. The names might be different, but the concepts are the same. I’ve only got space to do one today, so I’ll start at the beginning. Every story needs:

A protagonist.

The main character. The person who, during the course of the story, has to change the most by the end of the story. He or she (I’ll run with “she” here on out) usually starts out with some major internal goal that is being thwarted in her life. Whether she reaches that goal or not at the end depends – it’s not always a happy ending.

To apply this to retail (and since I mean retail in the context of branding, I’m going to use “brand” from here on out), the brand needs to decide who the protagonist is. The brand itself could be the protagonist of the story. Or some representative of the brand – Flo from Progressive Insurance is a good example. Geico has also been pretty great about coming up with brand representatives – the Neanderthals, even the Gecko. Aflac (since we’re on an insurance bent) has the duck.

I can’t think of any retailers off the top of my head where the brand or a representative of the brand is the main character. There’s the Maytag repairman, but they haven’t used him in awhile. Do you remember “Hey Kool-Aid“? Maybe that counts, but again, a retiree from an earlier time.

Alternatively, the brand could choose representative “customers” to be the face of the brand. I always think of that famous Volkswagon TV ad – the Darth Vader kid, and the dad who humors his son by using the remote start to enable the kid’s application of The Force. It honestly could’ve been any car company that made that ad. But VW was telling a story about the kind of people who buy their cars. They’re doing it now with the family dinner table ad that never ceases to crack me up. Quirky, fun people who place a lot of importance on value.

And as a counter-example, there is JCPenney during the Ron Johnson era. A missed opportunity in so many ways, and brand storytelling was just one on a long list. The very first ad they ran had so much promise – all of the shoppers sick and tired of senseless deal-mania. If JCP had cultivated that idea into a set of characters they used consistently (and done a lot of other things too) I think they would’ve had a better shot at capturing their audience. But instead they moved on breath-takingly fast from that ad to a bunch of really weird ones that depicted too-young mothers that looked like they were stuck on a leftover set from the Stepford Wives movie. Even Ellen DeGeneres couldn’t save the company from that strange message.

Some brands have a founder or an owner who can be the main character in a brand. Clearly, this applies to the Kardashians. And any famous person with a fashion label – try No Doubt lead singer Gwen Stefani, or even Madonna paired with her daughter, Lourdes. These brands don’t have to work so hard to tell a story, because the famous person is by default the protagonist – their story is the brand’s story to a large degree. The downside is when the celebrity decides to step away from the brand – what next? Or if she’s, say, Britney Spears or Amanda Bynes or Lindsey Lohan. These women tell a story, right enough, but I’m not sure that it’s one that would resonate with a large audience.

Sometimes that owner is a famous designer, like Tory Burch or Elie Tahari or Vera Wang, for example. But I would argue that even these people don’t really step it up as the main character of their brand story. Of these three, Tory Burch comes closest.

So, retailers. My challenge for you. Who is the main character in your story? Is it a mythical brand representative? (My favorite of all time was Walmart Kevin, a one-time and quite obscure Twitter representative of Walmart who has since faded into the early, early glory days of social media and whom I am still convinced was the Walmart version of the Dread Pirate Roberts) Is it a customer? Is it a real person who so embodies your brand as to be nearly impossible to differentiate from the brand itself?

You just can’t have a story without a main character. Who is yours?

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About Nikki Baird

Nikki Baird's picture

Public Profile

Although Ms. Baird writes on issues for big retailers and company chains, franchisees can learn what is leading edge in retailing trends. These issues will be coming down the pike, if they aren't there already.

Managing Partner of Retail Systems Research, Nikki has led retail research and analysis at RSAG. Forrester Research, Viewlocity,and PwC Consulting, now IBM Global Services. Nikki has an M.B.A. from the University of Texas, Austin and holds a bachelor of arts in political science and Russian, with a minor in physics.

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Franchise Consultant