Clear Defendable Territory
Once upon a time

One upon a time...

So, it was national storytelling week earlier this month. You’d therefore expect a piece about telling stories in branding from us.

You’d be right. And it’s introduced with a classic storytelling technique: invite you in with a premise which you then subvert.

From Gucci to Greggs, brands subverting their image is hardly new but certainly fertile storytelling territory. Vegans in Greggs: it writes itself. But we think storytelling has lost its glitterball effect. Not only from over-use but because it’s used in the same way indiscriminately with the same – albeit proven – techniques.  We worry that if you tell stories in a conventional way, you get conventional brands and boredom. Which is a disservice to brands and stories alike.

Time for a narrative switch: filling in the gaps

 There are many ironically convoluted attempts to define what a story is. Perhaps the most elegant and simple definition comes not from a professor or a brand consultant but from story-weaving maestro John Le Carré:

“The cat sat on the mat” is not a story.

“The cat sat on the dog’s mat” is a story.

Even as a definition it does what good stories do – it involves you straight away. Which dog? Did the cat know whose mat it was? Is this a long running feud? Are they fighting cat and dog?

Core to Le Carré’s definition is an idea. Conveyed in a subtle change in words and doing what all good stories do: lodging in our brain but leaving us room to contribute. The dog’s mat is more comfortable than the cat’s, we decide, enjoying working the details out. It’s the level of automatic participation that supermarket loyalty schemes dream about.

Our way of lodging in the mind is Clear Defendable Territory – it’s what we call the unique space brands need to own in the minds of the people who matter to them, and what we help them create. And as with a great story, it starts with an idea. The rest is craft and execution.

Becoming part of the story

Our client Wattbike – probably the best indoor training bike in the world – was concentrating solely on its tech spec, neglecting to build an emotional relationship with the people who use it. Consequently, the brand was getting left in the dust by the flashier Peloton.

Probably the best in the world? Storytelling technique. Create instant connection through vernacular – recognisable, familiar and relatable language.  Even though Carlsberg dropped the slogan, it’s still telling its story, much like the words on a certain tin of wood varnish. And that’s reward. We left it out, you filled it in.

Back to Wattbike. It was concentrating entirely on its extraordinary tech spec which made it the choice of elite athletes, but hard to love. Tech spec is not what makes us tick. Instead, by getting Wattbike to concentrate on why people train, on their dreams, targets and ambitions we helped it became the perfect communicative training partner. One who can tell you how you’re doing and how to improve.

Sport is probably the best raw material for brand stories because it produces so many of its own. And that’s the technique here. With Wattbike, user and brand are participants in creating a mutual story. That’s how it’s credible and authentic.

Here’s another twist. In telling the story, does it have to be words?

Some studies show four year olds breaking down complex messages into simpler gestures, expressing one piece of information at a time. It’s pretty much what we do when we speak and clearly the beginnings of language.

So, we instinctively understand without words. Why use them if there is a better alternative? Does a nonchalant wave of our hand say more than finely wrought sentences? And does that raise the question – what exactly is a tone of voice?

15 seconds of fame

No, we’re not going to drone on about social media changing everything, because in a way it hasn’t. TikTok’s 15 seconds might’ve been the ultimate short story, but it also reminds us of the six-word short story form. The iconic example being Hemingway’s For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.  Same thought, different technology. By the way, there is an annual competition for these stories. We rather like: “It's better this way”, she lied. But we digress. Again.

Heading fast to the conclusion: it’s a great idea

Storytelling, no matter what form we use to tell stories, always takes us back to the quality of the idea. It’s the idea we instinctively understand and adopt. It’s the idea that always drives the story. No idea and there’s nothing to talk about.

Spoiler alert: They all lived happily ever after.