Why brands need narratives not onions
A view from Rob Gray

Why brands need narratives not onions

First brands were told they need a pyramid, onion or key. Now it's all about having a purpose, big idea or finding your 'why'. Tomorrow, it will be something else. However, says Rob Gray, co-founder of creative communications consultancy Squad, there is no magic construct.

There’s often a belief that defining a brand positioning in the right way is the key – pardon the pun – to success.  It isn’t. The way you implement a positioning is far more important.  

In 1988 44% of shoppers in the United States didn't know who George Bush Snr was.  Most knew only three things: (1) he’s good looking, (2) he’s from Texas, (3) he’s currently Vice President. Later that year Bush Snr was elected president.

This example was cited by Al Ries and Jack Trout in their seminal book, Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind. It was this text that first introduced the idea of positioning. 

The example of George Bush Snr was used to support their fundamental premise that we live in an over-communicated society with excessive choice, so to cope with complexity people have learnt to simplify their decisions. Success in such a world requires brands to find a simple message and own a distinct space in people’s minds.

We still live in a world of over-communication and excessive choice, but the media landscape is unrecognizable from when Ries and Trout authored their text.

Many micro-interactions

In the 80s you could craft your message and then reach millions of people using a handful of activity, be that a TV spot in Coronation Street or a newspaper ad.  Brands operated like dictatorships, built through command and control.

Today, the volume of communications activity that contributes towards a brand’s image is huge.  Adam Sweeney, of London Strategy Unit, talks about brands as the product of micro-interactions: "Brands have realised that every tiny moment that a user wants something – whether it’s to log in, to go for a jog, to relax – is a moment to assist, impress and even delight them in giving them something they want, when they want it.

You don’t need just one monster insight or killer proposition: you need multiple microinsights about the fleeting wants and needs of a user as they arise."

The upshot is that past positioning techniques are no longer fit for purpose.  A single, rigid message won’t work today.  Brands need to deploy more messages, more often, through more channels and teams.  Modern positioning tools must allow brands to be built through grassroots activism, not command and control.

The same, but different

A brand needs a positioning in order to be coherent.  Whether you see an ad, speak to a salesperson, or visit a store, strong brands deliver a level of consistency. 

This isn’t about total uniformity.  Much like people, brands can behave differently, dress differently and talk differently depending on the context.  But brands must always feel like the same person.

This is where many brand management tools fall down. Corporate mission and vision statements are frequently so generic and bland that it’s impossible to grab hold of an idea.  The same issue exists with brand onions, keys and pyramids.

These models suggest that successful positioning is about the construct. The truth is, there is no magic formula.

At Squad we advocate positioning brands through a looser central narrative.  Think of it like fan fiction.  Stories like Harry Potter and Star Trek have huge communities of fans creating their own stories.  But it’s all based around a narrative and set of characters defined by the original author.

Successful political campaigns too will often have a central narrative than runs through every piece of communication.  Think of New Labour – no more left and right, centre – or Barack Obama – change.

There’s no magic process to finding a brand story.  Much like a good author or journalist, it’s about having a nose for a story.  Relentlessly explore and question everything. When you find it you’ll know – like a good book or film, it will stick in your head.