The (Imperfect) Brand Story We Tell

Why a crisis is the time to give brands personalities, context, and meaning

The thought of being vulnerable makes them red in the face. Every image is perfectly posed, perfectly lit, and perfectly filtered. They refuse to show imperfection. Sound like anyone you know? Or perhaps a brand you know?

Brands, like people, can suffer from social anxiety disorder. Unfortunately, by their very nature, brands are supposed to be in the spotlight, interacting with the public everyday and even multiple times a day on social media. Every chance a brand gets to show its personality and tell its story is vitally important, yet many brands waste the opportunity by hiding who they are behind boring facts.

In contrast, the very best brands let their unique personalities shine through. They stand up in front of the crowd, unashamed and unafraid of how others will perceive them. There are many brands right now who choose to be honest about how the pandemic is changing their future. Fashion brand, Tamara Mellon, admits to why they need to keep their annual sale as scheduled, even though many women aren’t thinking about a new pair of heels right now, because their business, like others, just can’t afford not to continue with planned sales. There are also brands that need to pivot their business operations to survive, and are taking this opportunity to tell a different story. Nordstrom is now focusing on a new plan for sustainability and phasing out plastic bags. “Through this COVID-19 crisis, we’ve been given a unique opportunity to reimagine our future and rethink what kind of company we want to be for our customers, employees and shareholders,” said President and Chief Brand Officer Pete Nordstrom. Brands should be prepared to let their perspectives come through in a growing brand story; this story that is changing minute by minute, and is so much more substantial and honest than those that attempt to hide and deny reality

Stories are a part of human nature. We’ve been doing it for a long time. Mankind has always passed on knowledge, learned lessons, and imagined adventures through storytelling. We use stories to give our personalities context and meaning.

A story is not only the best way of earning an audience’s attention but its heart as well. It breaks down barriers, allowing people to understand you and forgive you your weaknesses because they can see how your story relates to them. Moreso than this, an established story is memorable and should encapsulate what the brand ideals are, and should be the blueprint for how the brand interacts with the world.

The real secret is choosing the right story for your brand. Just like any person, a brand can have any number of stories that define it. These stories can range from seemingly insignificant, to monumental. Last year, we worked with Little Unicorn for a brand design refresh. During the process, we found that the real connection between the brand and the consumer was the story of real parenting and the story of the moments with your child—that story will be messy and sometimes a little dull, but it won’t be boring. Their story of imperfection makes an authentic connection with their audience and allows an opportunity for their brand personality to resonate. Many of us are currently stuck at home with babies and kids, trying to balance parenthood with work. Life is less than perfect and sometimes we make choices that sacrifice one for the other—letting that spill go unwiped, mid-video conference hugs, or sharing a bowl of mac and cheese for lunch. Creating marketing messages that prioritize their customers and their ability to share intimate moments with new or growing families through their products, tells a story of understanding and empathy.

The reason this story of imperfection is important is because it’s emotional and sticky. Those who read it will come away with feelings about the company based on their stories and will bring that perspective to all other interactions with that brand.

Chip and Dan Heath, authors and columnists for Fast Company magazine, expounded on what makes an idea (or story) sticky, and it’s a lesson that all brands can benefit from; like Little Unicorn’s story, the Heath’s suggest it must be simple (the story of your child), unexpected (the story is messy and sometimes a little dull), concrete (everyday is a story), credible (we all have a memory of childhood to hold on to), and emotional (enhancing the beauty of real parenting). Not all stories have all these elements, but the more they have, the more effective they are.

Admittedly, finding your personality and finding a way to communicate it through a story that stands out and connects with your audience amid so much clutter may be daunting. For every good story out there, there are dozens of completely forgettable ones. It’s all the more reason to put the extra effort into finding, creating, and crafting a good story.

If a good brand story is worth having, it is worth telling.