Brand Storytelling And The Art Of Making Myths

Harun-al-Rashid Brand Storytelling Myths

Myths are by nature clichés; that’s what makes them work. They’re easy, we get them instantly and their message shoots straight to our heart – whether we want it to or not. That’s how they capture us and how they can guide us. Besides, iconic always beats ironic, at least, when it comes to building Ueber-Brands.

Making Myths: What To Respect

Given that ‘mythmaking’ sits at the core of our book and our principles for building modern prestige or Ueber-Brands, we think it’s worthwhile to share some very practical insights on how to evolve a history into a clear brand story and ultimately into a compelling brand myth. Clearly, this topic is endless, and there are lots of very good books as well as seminars out there, so here we will just alert you to the four most important aspects based on our learnings, each of which would definitely warrant a deep dive on its own.

1. The Need To Listen

The first important point: only if you’re a good listener will you ever be a good storyteller or mythmaker. Sometimes this is called the Harun-al-Rashid principle: ‘You’ll only hear the unheard of when you take yourself back – and listen’. According to myth, Harun-al-Rashid, fabled caliph of Baghdad in the 8th century and key protagonist if not author of The Book of one Thousand and one Nights, would regularly venture out at night, in disguise. The reason: he wanted to understand how to lead his people, and he knew that he could only find out what really motivated or concerned them if he listened to their stories. So he did. And so should any marketer, trying to understand and build his or her brand’s story and develop its myth. Angela Ahrendts and Christopher Bailey did it at Burberry, where one of their first acts was to hire a cultural anthropologist to talk to employees to help them understand and record the brand story, of which they would then jointly write the next chapter or better chapters – as well as marketing and mythical Ueber-Brand history.

2. The Name As A Title

Nomen est omen – it’s all in the name. Or better, it should be. The more evocative your brand’s name, the more connected to its myth, the better. Your name is your header. Just think back to Invictus. Not only will almost everyone, even non-Latin speakers, understand ‘invincible’ and connote ‘victorious’, but because of the use of Latin you’re also immediately transported to the world of ancient Rome, gladiators and larger-than-life heroes. Mythical indeed. The same goes for Napapijri, a European active and casual wear brand building its myth around polar expeditions and adventurous explorations. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone able to trace the name back to the Finnish term for polar circle. But it definitely sounds exotic – somewhere between Native American, Sami, Inuit or Japanese – as well as the fact that it links to ‘knapsack’ and phonetically mimics a journey from the familiar (nap) to the unknown (pijri). Not so bad for a brand that wants you to feel venturesome and connected with the myths of the poles. ‘Mykita’ on the other hand, the hot-as-hell optics brand from Berlin, goes a completely different route. The name literally means ‘my Kita’, with ‘Kita’ being short for the German ‘Kindertagestaette’, the place where the brand resides as well as the origin of its mythical rise, an abandoned kindergarten. No matter which way you go, connotative (Invictus), associative (Napapijri) or denotative (Mykita) the more the name sparks people’s imagination the better. In that sense shooting for all three certainly doesn’t hurt. By the way, a semiotic analysis of your brand and your name is never a bad idea, especially when building a myth.

3. The Importance Of Struggle

‘As a storyteller you want to position the problems in the foreground and then show how you’ve overcome them’, says Robert McKee, one of the world’s best-known screenwriting lecturers from LA. Painting a rosy, streamlined picture is the farthest thing from a myth. It’s boring and banal. Stories, and especially myths, have to connect with life if they want to help us ‘reach beyond’ or ‘guide us’. Life is messy, a continuous struggle. That’s why strong myths always have a great deal of adversaries for the protagonist to overcome. Only then do they ring true, can we believe in them. Plus, it is of course so much more suspenseful, attention grabbing and memorable, which is the cardinal point for any Ueber-Brand.

4. The Question Of Truth

At last, the key question: must a myth be true? Yes and no. The core and everything that’s material to the claim you’re making must be. But you can embellish. Actually you must dramatize, because otherwise you are just recounting history. You want to stylize and elevate your brand to a position beyond time and place, and that means you have to move beyond, where reality meets mythology. A pretty good example in this respect is Bacardi. Their ‘Untameable’ campaign does chronicle the brand’s true history, but it also takes it to a higher, mythical level by using it to present themselves as a force of irrepressible passion.The question remains though if that fits with their product, rum, which is usually connected with a more fluid, relaxed energy. A negative example is definitely the much-hyped Himalaya salt. The whole idea of it being purer, healthier and tastier turned out to be more than dubious, and its customers suddenly felt much more ashamed than advanced. The same is true for The Body Shop, which had to live through allegations of foul play on pretty much every level after its founder, Anita Roddick, died in 2007. Consequently the brand could never regain the mythic Ueber-Brand status it once had and has been languishing ever since.

Excerpted from: Rethinking Prestige Branding: Secrets of the Ueber-Brands by Wolfgang Schaefer and JP Kuehlwein, in partnership with Kogan Page publishing.

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