and how to make that brand story iconic with a little help from our favorite fairy tales
by brittany taylor | November 25, 2017
I got lucky the first time I registered for classes at my university. My first 9:30 class: children’s literature. It was a dozen seniors, a handful of other upper- and underclassmen, and me. We were all parked in a circle of desks around a woman I’m convinced is the coolest professor on campus.
The first week of class ushered us into story boot camp. We scrawled on the blackboard every classic fairy tale we could think of, then broke them down into their essential elements. We discussed tropes and themes and the fact that almost every fairy tale is missing a nurturing mother figure.
And you know what? Everything I learned about story in that children’s literature class held true in every other English class I took. Even now, when the stories I read and tell revolve around professionals rather than fictional characters, I lean on these basic storytelling principles to communicate growth, messages, values, and expertise.
How exactly does the basic story structure you see in fairy tales relate to your brand? Let’s take a look.
How to use basic fairy tale elements to shape your brand story
Before we had Instagram and texting and cat videos, we had stories. Myths, legends, and, yes, fairytales existed long before people like Charles Perrault and the brothers Grimm began writing them down.
To exist in an oral tradition, these stories had to be strong enough to have an impact and simple enough to be told and remembered. That’s where classic story structure comes in. If you want your brand to be remembered and talked about, crafting a brand story is a great place to start.
We’re going to take a look at five different elements of story today. What do each of them have to do with branding? Read on and find out.
At the most basic level, a story has a protagonist, who is at the center of the story, and an antagonist, who causes the central conflict. The antagonist might not even be a person. It could be a thing, a situation, or an entity. Cinderella had an Evil Stepmother. Jack had a Giant. Hansel and Gretel had really shitty parents and a Witch to contend with.
Your brand story is no different. There’s you (or your brand), the protagonist, and there’s the problem your work solves, the antagonist, which for many business owners is not a single person.
But there are also more characters involved. As a boss, you have your audience to consider, too, and they’re also a character in your brand story. Think of them as the archetypal damsel in distress that you and your brand are working to save from whoever (or whatever) your antagonist is.
As with a work of fiction, the more specific and detailed you can make your characters, the easier it is to write and market your story. Envision your protagonist, antagonist, and audience in your mind. You don’t have include every single detail in your public-facing brand story, but knowing every single detail will help you craft it.
A story goes somewhere. If it doesn’t, what you’re reading is a character sketch. Action, or plot, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In a fairy tale, the action often starts at the beginning of a journey and ends when the protagonist reaches some sort of destination. They might get lost and return home, or they might set off looking to find something and then achieve that goal.
Your brand story doesn’t really have a clean end. As a brand, you’re continually pushing yourself forward to the next thing. There are goals, but there’s no end in sight. Instead of crafting your action with a beginning, a middle, and an end, think of your brand story in terms of where you started, your major milestones, and where you are now.
Another way of approaching it: Think of your brand story as part of a series of stories. If you’re just starting out, you’re on the first book in that series. The end of that book—the end of your brand story right now—is really a jumping-off point for the next book in the series. It’s a “look what I’ve achieved…and here’s a hint at what’s coming next” rather than, “ta da! This is it!”
“Once upon a time in a faraway land”—that’s the setting of every fairytale out there. Cinderella takes place in a house and then a castle. Jack and the Bean Stalk takes place up in the clouds. Hansel and Gretel takes place in a wood.
Each of these settings is intentionally vague. Why? Because these storytellers wanted their audiences to be able to place themselves into the stories. If they gave the fairy tales specific, detailed settings, they wouldn’t be applicable to every child gathered around a fire, listening to the story.
Your brand story setting is a little different. You need to strike a balance that’s specific enough to target a particular audience—say, cosmopolitan American women in their late 20s who are having trouble finding love—without alienating people within that audience.
To do this, you need to drill down on who your target audience is and decide which setting-type elements are important for you to evoke in your brand story in order to make them feel like your story is directed at people like them. It could be a place (Chicago) or a time period (millennials who grew up in the ‘90s). It could be something more intangible (a home in the middle of nowhere or corporate America).
Sleeping Beauty is cursed. The Swan Princess is cursed. The Beast is cursed. Fairy tales love to turn to magic for their conflicts, but the real issue tends to be one of spirit rather than a witch’s spell. Can a prince summon up the courage or goodness or selflessness necessary to break the curse? Well, yeah. These are fairy tales, not tragedies.
Your situation is a little different. (Unless you’re cursed, in which case you might want to grab a volume of Grimm to look up potential solutions.)
Many businesses do solve problems that are character-based. They sell solutions that help their readers become the type of people they want to be, whether that’s a person who works out more or who eats healthier or who communicates better. Others offer more practical solutions, like products that sate a want.
Regardless of which type of conflict your business addresses, your brand story needs to present a problem that your brand solves for your audience.
Marriage. Wealth. Home. Family. These are the typical endings of our favorite fairy tales. They could be the target ending for your brand story, too! It’s important to realize, though, that your brand story isn’t limited to this quartet of possibilities.
Your resolution could be anything! It doesn’t have to be some crowning glory, either. You just need to be one small step ahead of your target audience. Talking to travelers? You don’t have to be Rick Steves. Plain old you with a single stamp on your passport will do. Giving dating advice? There doesn’t need to be a ring on your finger; a history of stellar first dates or a bunch of profile likes works, too.
Remember, your resolution is the end of your brand story’s action, but it’s also a starting point for the rest of your journey as a business owner. As you think about your brand story, consider not just what you’ve experienced and how those events and lessons have contributed to the person and boss you are today, but also what you want to conquer next.
Look forward as you look back, and you’ll create a brand story that speaks to your aspirational audience.