How can you unearth a brand story?

A couple of fellow copywriters asked me for advice about the story-digging process. They want to know about the story excavation process and how to build an overarching narrative for a brand.

For me, it’s like asking, “How do you walk?” Story digging is a simple and intuitive, so it takes effort to break it down, but that’s what I’m doing today.

How does a brand have an overarching story?

Whether you’re a personal brand or a company, your story exists in relation to those you serve.

If you’re an expert or guru, the story might be, “I was the lowest of the low at this thing, and I went on a journey to learn some lessons that I can now share with you.”

As an illustration, think of Greg McKeown, a thought leader on‌ Essentialism, the disciplined pursuit of less.

Greg starts his podcast with the story of how he left his wife in the delivery suite as soon as their first child was born so he could attend a work meeting. His colleagues didn’t admire him more for this (and I’m guessing, neither did his wife). That moment caused Greg to reflect on his priorities and reassess them. This began his journey to questioning what’s essential in life.

It’s a neat story and memorable. That mould works for many personal brands, but not all.

In other cases, following a process like StoryBrand or using a customer transformation grid helps you analyse the before, during and after for your customer.

In these processes, you see the customer as the protagonist, working to achieve an outcome. The brand (or you) is the guide who helps them reach their goals. How does the brand affect the customer through the interaction?

What’s the practical, emotional, or status transformation that your customer goes through?

This varies depending on the type of brand and the nature of the relationship with the customer. This includes whether it’s a one-off purchase or a long-term relationship.

A brand might support their customer to feel a sense of belonging, to identify as an outsider, or cement their status as a creative person.

For companies, the origin story is often the root of the brand story, but not always.

Another area to explore is the brand’s mission. How does the brand stand apart from the industry they’re in? What changes are they pushing for in the wider world?

Again, customer interviews provide an understanding of the brand’s attributes and customer transformation. I also use brand archetypes and Codex Persona brand voice archetypes to understand what makes a brand distinctive.

Remember, the most engaging stories and brands don’t tell people what to think. They paint a picture with words, images, narratives, and sounds and allow people to FEEL the resonance of their story.

Here are seven steps to unearthing a brand story

  1. Start with hunches

Before the interview, based on early research, I may have some hunches about what their story is about.

For example:

  • When I developed a brand story for a school on an island, I wondered how its location shaped its purpose and identity.

  • When I spoke with an illustrator who moved from China to New York, I wondered what drew her there and what aspects of life in China she wanted to leave behind.

These hunches are useful places to explore that may deliver gold, or not, once you get deeper into the process.

2. Be fully present at the interview

When most people tell a story, they have a collection of moments they want to share, but they don’t know why. They present fragments that are clues to the bigger picture.

When I listen, I’m listening to what they say and also what they don’t say.

For example, if they say, “I also had a lot of problems with my mother/ partner around that time, but that’s another story.” I immediately want to know that other story because I suspect it’s not a separate matter. So they’ve dropped a clue.

The interview is a mix of deep listening to what people say and digging into what they gloss over. Then I make connections between those two elements.

Your own life can be a useful mirror or jumping-off point, but try to avoid imposing your narrative onto others.

How do you get people to open up to you?

The key to getting people to open up to you is both simple and profound. The answer is to care deeply about them, and they sense it.

When people feel safe, they open up. This is partly about being fully present and making a connection with them.

3. Look at the precise words used

Fifteen years in documentary making taught me deep listening skills. There were days on location when my job was only to listen and to check we got the ‘grabs’ we needed to make our narrative flow. In television, that means having a clean moment to edit in and out, comments delivered in full sentences and with emotion.

When I interview a client, I listen with complete focus.

Usually, I’ll get a sense of those ‘aha’ moments as they happen, but I also rely on transcripts. I go back over what people said and look the exact words they used. I listen again to remind myself of the emotion behind the words at the time.

4. Start to spot patterns

I’m programmed to look for storylines or patterns in behaviour. If someone says something happened for the first time, I wonder whether actually, it’s a pattern that’s been repeating over time.

Or if someone tells me about past behaviour or a pattern that they’re now finished with, I’m likely to wonder whether it will recur.

When I see the possibility of patterns, I raise them as a question and listen to the response.

5. Figure out the story beneath the story

When you’re crafting a story, you need to know the underlying tension you’re exploring, but you don’t need to reveal it. The same is true for a brand.

Some examples from my past work:

  • A documentary about a famous boxing rivalry is really the story of destruction and resurrection.

  • A documentary about the Goth subculture is really looking at how outsiders build community.

  • A school exists to provide protection and nurturing in nature

  • An art dealer exists to offer people beauty to transform their lives

There are endless possibilities.

One way I like to find the story is by asking myself, what’s at stake?

Ask “What’s at stake here?”

7 Steps to Unearth A Brand Story

6. Harvest stories in two stages

To find stories, we need to harvest information. We do this twice. First, we do it in an open non-judgmental way, this allows us to see the patterns and through lines.

This comes from having conversations with customers, staff and the client themselves. This helps you identify that through narrative.

7. Shape stories to bolster your underlying narrative

Once you have the overarching narrative clear in your mind, then you can look for other stories that illustrate and bolster it. These could come from staff, customers, partners or your community.

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My next post will share more of the tactics I use to excavate stories. Sign up for monthly brand building emails below.