How to ensure your brand story builds your brand

by Nigel Hollis | December 28, 2016

We all know people love stories but not all stories are equally compelling, particularly when it comes to brand building. Great marketers recognize that the focus of the story should be the brand. The story is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

At this point I can imagine many people working in advertising crying out,

“That (expletive), he just does not understand how advertising works. Stories are how we engage people. Stories are how we add interest to a brand. Stories are what people want to share.”

The strange thing is that I will happily agree to the last three statements. Yes, stories have immense power, but only if you harness that power to benefit a brand. Just because a brand tells a story does not mean the brand benefits. It is perfectly possible for the story to take on a life of its own and leave the brand unnoticed.

Those of you familiar with Kantar Millward Brown’s Link pre-test will know that one of the key qualities we aim to measure is how strongly the ideas, feelings and images conveyed by an ad will be linked to the brand in people’s minds. This is because all of our work designed to identify what best predicts whether an ad will boost sales finds that brand-linkage is critical. About half the ads we test fail to achieve their full potential because they fail to link the ideas conveyed with the advertised brand.


In advertising, success depends on whether a marginally-attentive audience actually does follow and is moved by what is being shown and said, and remembers something at a later date that motivates them to buy the advertised brand. In a movie you may have the luxury to expand beyond a single storyline and to resolve ambiguities later in the plot, provided the overall story remains compelling. But when it comes to advertising – particularly online or mobile video – you do not have that luxury. Ads need to be compelling, focused and single-minded when it comes to creating an impression that benefits and links to the brand.

However, I think this is actually just the tip of the iceberg. Part of the reason that so many ads fail to create strong brand-linkage is that many brands have not clearly identified their own story. Why does the brand exist? Why was it created? Who is it intended to serve? Why might that audience find it meaningful? In a sea of mediocrity what might help it stand out as different? Great advertising is founded in a great brand story and focuses people’s attention on something about the brand that matters to them.

Even when a brand does know and live its story it is perfectly possible for an individual execution to fail to create strong brand-linkage. So much depends on the flow of scenes and ideas within an a video as to whether people even notice, let alone remember, which brand was advertised. That is why it is so important to test whether an ad has good brand-linkage before it runs, otherwise people may talk about your story but never even think about your brand, much less buy it.

So why do you think so many brands fail to tell their own story? Is it that they just do not know it, or is it all about how that story is told? Please share your thoughts. 


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  1. Rick Ray, January 22, 2017

    Nigel - "Storytelling" as an advertising executional technique (slice-of-life, anyone?) is not only not new, but has also become a fad-like, if overly superficial topic these days - even if undoubtedly relevant to the "measurement" business of any Research Institute, of course!

    However, "storytelling" DOES have an innovative impact in one area that is rarely discussed, and even more rarely used - the development of the innovative business tool, the "strategic brand story"... or what I prefer to refer to as "the human face of brand strategy." The strategic brand story is a four-pronged tool conceived to help unite the efforts of all internal (and external) stakeholders of the brand - because the real success of a brand is not found to be found in its "advertising," per se... but rather in the united and focused efforts of all the brand's stakeholders.

    Strategic brand storytelling contributes to a laser-like focus on the brand's differentiated Positioning, to a total coherence among the brand's various Integrated Marketing Communications efforts, to a consensus surrounding the brand's Human Resource recruitment and training activities, as well to an insightful definition and sharing of the brand's own distinctive Organizational Culture. A win-win-win-win proposition for any brand with its own authentic, credible, memorable and motivating brand story. A built-in competitive advantage!

    Because, in effect, a brand's long-term success is related much more to its unique right-brain culture than it is to the brand's left-brain processes (all of which can eventually be copied by alert competitors).

    Yes, THIS is power of brand storytelling! So much more significant than the "quality" of any :30 commercial, no?

  2. Arsalan Yousaf, January 19, 2017
    I loved the article, very basic and truly a key factor in building up brand. What do you think isn't it important in advertisement context that along with the marketing message it should be a sales pitch too? 
  3. Nigel, January 10, 2017

    Hi Philip, thanks for the suggestion.

    I love your idea because I really do believe a huge amount of what has been learned in the past is still totally relevant today. As you imply, it is a delicate balancing act between appearing contemporary and addressing the latest issues and seeming out of date! Have passed the suggestion on. 

  4. Philip Conliffe, January 04, 2017
    This is why I'd like to see a section of the MB website dedicated to the basics, the principles which have arguably been proven and are unlikely to change.  On the client-side, I'm often asked to provide evidence (generally by younger colleagues, but not always!) that supports something which I would have thought was an assumed given.  The website has lots of POVs on current issues that reflect the changed media landscape, etc. and this is understandable as it's a prerogative of all members of the marketing community to appear current, but an MB Classics corner might be a nice antidote to that pursuit.     
  5. Nigel Hollis, January 03, 2017

    Happy New Year! 

    Thanks David, I think the real problem is that everyone assumes the world has changed and that old learning no longer applies. Some things are different but many remain the same. For instance, while it is true that telling a story via online video requires a different approach than if the video is shown on TV the basic need to ensure people link the ideas and associations to the advertised brand remains the same. 

  6. d jenkins, December 28, 2016

    Aloha Nigel,

    the fact you are still having to make these points suggests new generations of people in the advertising industry do not take well established learning, accept it and then build on it. Which would be efficient and effective. These findings about linking creative story telling to brands were pioneered by ad. agencies like BMP, clients like Cadbury and tested by MB in the  late 70's and early 80s. And the other side of that coin of really creative but unbranded creativity was also rampant in those days particularly in the UK. That's 40 years ago. Keeps new generations of people in work I suppose but it does seem to be like wide eyed re-discovering of gravity.

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