5 Mistakes To Avoid When Developing Your Brand Narrative
Updated: May 19
It's not whatever you want it to be. Finding limits will strengthen your effort.
It's not converting brand values into a sentence structure. Instead, define what appeals most to the brand's target audience. This creates depth and substance.
It's not the founder's narrative. Following this myth ignores the most important part of a brand: its target audience.
It's not the company culture. That is reserved for employer brands. A company or product brand narrative is reserved for the customer and target audience.
It's not the company's vision. That is just one ingredient in a larger brand recipe, but you're on the right track.
First, what is a brand narrative? It is a brief description that sets the stage for everything that comes next. It paints a picture of what to expect. Many describe it as a messaging framework or story platform. Imagine talking casually to a friend who hasn't heard of a new company that's rising up in the ranks. How would you describe this company to them? For example: What is Fetch Robotics? "Well, they set up and manage warehouse automation in a really fast and flexible way."
There is more to it but that's brand narrative in a nutshell. Bottom line: A brand narrative comes down to the art of storytelling. Presenting the most important information in a brief and compelling way. It's a mysterious mix of sales, marketing, and creative effort that is complex and difficult to get right. And with complexity comes misunderstanding. So, to develop a strong brand narrative, there are some common myths to watch out for.
A brand narrative can be whatever it needs to be
The sky is the limit. The potential is endless. Whatever we need, the brand narrative can deliver. This is probably the most common myth. In many cases, executives defer brand narrative to someone else and, in an effort to offer some guidance, they point to the top priority: revenue, bookings, or the customer. The true mistake is thinking the brand narrative can develop organically through an existing framework like the sales funnel. The problem is, sooner or later, the brand will struggle to hold up against inevitable and legitimate scrutiny.
For example, Spire Global went through a brand discovery phase where the brand's narrative was more or less "We are a legit space company and we can prove it". While that garnered attention, Spire's customers at the time didn't care about space. They cared about valuable data. So, the brand narrative pivoted to "We are an innovative data company". While this was more effective from a sales standpoint, it placed Spire—a relative newcomer—against a lot of heavy competition.
Then, another wrinkle: A new customer base began growing that cares about data specifically sourced from space. A space company, a data company, and a space-powered data company? Does this mean Spire's brand has to accommodate three separate but thematically similar narratives?
The short answer is no. If you find yourself developing multiple—yet seemingly valid—narratives for one brand, then there is a fundamental issue with the process, like deferring to the wrong group. Or not giving the brand the attention it needs.
Let's say your company is really taking off. You're flying high. The product is practically selling itself and the brand narrative is effortlessly being shared everywhere. Why not let it be whatever it wants to be, right? The problem here is a lack of foresight. Every brand has flaws. Let's say your rising, unicorn tech company has a problematic and overlooked company culture, bubbling just below the surface. As the brand's voice is elevated, so too are the employees. Suddenly out of nowhere, a dismissed employee blows the whistle on a toxic work environment and your promising rockstar brand falls back down to Earth.
Find the brand's limits
Whether it's deferring to an ill-equipped development process or allowing it to float in the wind, for a brand to succeed, its limits must be identified. Not to rain on the parade but to be used as guideposts: What is the brand not capable of? What potential risks would cause it to falter? What are the brand's weaknesses?
The brand narrative is driven by the brand values
The logic goes like this: If your brand values are the 3 F's: "flexible", "forward-thinking", and "friendly". Then, the narrative is: "Our forward-thinking nature keeps us flexible, so we can serve you with a friendly smile."
Remember, branding is the art of storytelling. Using brand values to drive the narrative is like adapting a cookbook into a best-selling adventure novel. Again, don't fold brand narrative into something else that may appear the same but is fundamentally different. When it comes time to showcase a narrative like the "3 F's" example above, it will be overlooked and ignored, ten times out of ten. Guaranteed. No one will care and you’ll wonder why your brand is as bland as a bowl of oatmeal.
Clearly identify the brand appeal
This is a simple, innocent misunderstanding of brand values vs. brand narrative. Think of the brand values as a panel of judges. The first of a multi-stage approval process. All branded content is presented to the panel, which then determines if it moves forward in the approval process. With that in mind, the "3 F's" example tries to make a story out of the judges themselves. Unless you are one of the top ten brand geniuses on the planet, never do this. You will tear a meta whole in the fabric of space-time, sucking your brand into it, never to be heard from again. Next time you test out a candidate brand narrative with someone, see if they are surprised and/or delighted in some way. If so, you're on your way to properly identifying the brand's true appeal.
It's the founder's story
After all, it is a narrative, right?
There are two big problems with this. First, an origin story is only appealing if the main character possesses long-lasting appeal. Let's say the founder(s) really do possess the gravitational pull needed to take center stage. Even then, you're shackling a potentially immortal construct to a mortal human being. The day will come when the brand must stand on its own. If proper steps are not made beforehand, the brand will stumble.
It's easy to think of big name brands fundamentally attached to their founder(s). Let's not forget, for every one of these, there is a vast graveyard of countless founder-driven brands lying in unmarked graves because they are quickly abandoned and forgotten. Anyone reading this who is contributing to the exception, congratulations, you've won the lottery. However, I guarantee you, the brand has the potential to outlive its founder.
The second problem is, when a brand narrative focuses on its founder, it's incredibly difficult to focus on the target audience. If an origin story is all you needed to carry a brand, why focus on the target audience at all? It's a reputation trap. Business goals, project initiatives, key metrics… they all start to bend toward serving the brand instead of the customer. It gets worse over time. What used to serve the brand ends up celebrating it. At that point, it becomes an echo chamber of hubris. Suddenly and inevitably, the music stops and everyone wonders why the brand's influence is stagnant.
The driving factor is the brand's relationship with the customer
For early startups, who must surgically choose priorities, it's okay for the origin story to be the brand narrative, but only to buy time. For every other situation, the brand narrative must be more than an origin story. If every comic book issue of Spider-man recycled his origin story, we’d have never heard of this iconic character because a constant rehashed story, told over and over again, quickly becomes a waste of the customer's time. Yes, the origin story can be powerful. It is possible to retell it, even from different perspectives, just as the Spider-man franchise has done, but only because it was earned. Many other appealing narratives had to be told before the origin was revisited.
The company culture is our brand narrative
This is a current trend. "We at [Company X] care passionately about [hot topic Y]". It is also a tediously over-leveraged trend that rings hollow in the end.
Hear me out. Just because a hot topic applies to a brand’s company culture doesn’t mean it’s the avenue to a quality brand narrative. Yes, company culture plays a role in a brand’s narrative, but remember, the main character in this narrative is the customer.
Employees are supporting characters. This is why the concept of employee/employer branding has emerged. But for the context of a product brand narrative, focusing on anything other than the customer is a path to failure. Yes, employees serve a very important supporting role, but a supporting role nonetheless.
The market culture cannot be ignored
Just as the founder's story makes the target audience play second fiddle, so too does the company culture narrative. It places the spotlight on the company and shoves the target audience into the background. So, instead of focusing on the company culture, draw inspiration from the market that the target audience lives in.
The company vision then!
Let me stop you right there. The company vision is equivalent to the main character’s aspirations. Yes, it's worth developing and is very helpful, but it is just one ingredient in a larger brand narrative recipe.
If you haven't noticed the pattern, all of these myths fail to service the target audience, in full or in part. Assigning the company vision as the brand narrative is no different. It renders the brand narrative incomplete, focuses on the company, and leaves the target audience out in the cold. The company vision should be developed but don't stop there. Go further. Leverage it as you then think about the needs of the target audience.
Establish what the brand is before jumping to what it could be
Just as the company vision helps to identify the company, a brand narrative identifies the brand. The two work in tandem but they do not replace the other. Define what the brand is first. Then, define its relationship with the target audience.
A brand narrative should evoke the action(s) generated from this relationship. This will surface how the brand will be perceived by its target market. Do this, and you'll be that much closer to strong, long-lasting brand narrative.