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  • Writer's pictureDr. Gary Witt

Branding: Got a Story? Gotta Have a Story!

Marketing Psychology

Dr. Gary Witt

We show others the image we want through the clothes and accessories we wear, our hair style, our manner of speaking, and so on. That public image is not based on reality, but on the elements we show others.

The brands we pick allow us to define our image for ourselves and others. In part we are a reflection of the brands we buy, and we like it that way.

Laurence Vincent wrote an interesting book called Legendary Brands. He talks about the power of image to sway buyers, to build loyalty to a brand. Vincent calls brands like Starbucks, Apple, Nike, Levi’s, Kodak and others Legendary because they transcended their functional image in the buyer’s mind.

One of the best points Vincent makes is the importance of the “story” or narrative in developing the brand image. The narrative behind Apple is the iconic Garage Success Story, like the garage band success story, of two teens building the first Apple and overcoming mighty IBM to make it a success. Subway built its brand on the story of Jared Fogle, the 300 pound student who found health and happiness by eating their sandwiches for every meal (and now Subway is trying to get as far away from that association as possible). Kodak’s brand image is the iconic story of family togetherness, helping capture special Kodak Moments to treasure forever. For decades people would pay a premium for Kodak film because that image made them trust their special times to Kodak. Michelin created a similar story of family safety with their baby in the tire ads.

As we begin to move into the 2020 Presidential marketing season, watch for the stories emerging around each candidate. That story will build the brand image surrounding each candidate like a halo. It will resonate with certain voters –as is has in every election in recent memory – far more than their position on the issues (what would be their ‘features’ if they were products – and, of course, they have been marketed like products since Dwight Eisenhower!) Watch how their media consultants manufacture the stories, the narrative of their brand image, and you will get some good lessons you can use, too.

As Vincent writes, “Legendary brands do not yell at the consumer to buy, buy, buy. They instead engage them in a narrative – a brand story -- that makes the consumer want to buy because they identify with that narrative.” They feel a bond with that image because they feel a bond with the backstory, something they admire, appreciate, like, identify with or desire. The coffeehouse image of Starbucks where “everybody knows your name” (and what you drink) taps into the same image as the Cheers corner bar – a place where you feel welcome and at home. Image transcends product and goes right to emotion. Some of the best advertising examples are the iconic “You Deserve A Break Today” McDonalds commercials (named jingle of the century by Advertising Age) which helped to explode that company’s growth. Click here to see how their ads focused on stories of people and relationships, and only secondarily on food! This one is heavily focused on part of their core market – kids!


“The brands that tell us their story earn our loyalty,” says Vincent. In the tight competition among ultra premium ice creams, Ben & Jerry’s wins customers not just because their product is great, but because they have created an image through their story as a company that cares about people and the environment. They are the cool little hippie company from Vermont taking on the Big Guys (an enduring Rocky-like theme), naming the ice creams for rock stars and giving money to save the Amazon rainforest. When consumers buy Ben & Jerry’s, they also buy into the image and feel they are helping the little guys win while saving a tree in Brazil and showing others they are cool.

That is a powerful story to seduce buyers with, and it has continued to work well despite their sale to giant Unilever. They maintain that image by keeping the same folksy stories on their website, with nary a mention of their owner. The same is true with “little guy” Tesla fighting the big auto makers, despite Elon Musk’s millions.

What story can you associate with your brand? It doesn’t have to be your major story unless it works. It might be a minor event in your history or that of one of your employees. We once successfully created a winning image for a very dull mayoral candidate out of the fact that on one day in his life when he was an Assistant Attorney General for Bobby Kennedy he rode a school bus carrying one lone Black girl to an elementary school in Birmingham through a screaming crowd. It was enough to turn dishwater into crusader and win him the election in a landslide.

Find something or someone that will resonate with your target buyers. It could even be a spokesperson’s image, a worthy cause or event (George Clooney for Darfur, Willie Nelson for Farm Aid), or how you make customers feel (Nordstrom’s tire story is a classic – Google it if you haven’t read about it.) You can even create your own popular spokesperson, like Flo from Progressive Insurance.

That narrative story will surround your brand like a halo, making people want to be associated with your company, not just for your products or services, but because they want to be associated with that image -- it makes them feel good about themselves. And ultimately, when the difference between the buyer’s first and second choice is ”just an inch,” making buyers feel good can tip the scale for you.

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