Brand Strategy / Catalytic Thinking

The brand as… narrator?


“The world that can not be seen or heard must be narrated.”

Dr Oliver Sacks speaking in a TV documentary about people living with sight and hearing deprivation.

What these words have to do with brand and marketing is something deep, something fundamental – and something I want to debate with you…

Let me begin by saying that I’m not trying to draw a parallel between those living with significant sensory disability and the world of brand and marketing. That would be disrespectful. But the phrase itself really started to trigger something in my head…

Can a brand be a narrator?

We’re used to brands as story-tellers. Some of the best brands have fabricated a story around themselves in order to give the consumer something tangible to understand and access.

The story might be one of joy, of reliability, of heritage or of innovation. And that story is part of the brand DNA, created and maintained by the army of employees, marketers, brand managers and consumer advocates that the brand draws near.

However, a narrator is both part of, and simultaneously outside of, the story. It is the narrator which helps us to make sense of the great novels of literature, lending form to the proceedings, filling in gaps in understanding and providing linkages between the scenes.

The narrator is neutral, often factual, all-seeing and omnipotent within the confines of the story.

But to me, a narrator is more than the teller of the story. Without the narrator, the story would still happen, but we wouldn’t be given the tools to be a part of it. We would have no connection.

It is the narrator that helps us to make sense of the world in which the story is set.

Could – should – a brand act as narrator between itself and its consumers?

Could a brand position itself to be so all-encompassing as to be a narrator to people’s lives?

Certainly Facebook (and to an extent Twitter) allow people to curate their own lives. Some would argue that the users also narrate their existences as well. But, in these cases, the brand is the platform, not the actual narrator.

So can a brand ever be a narrator? What would that look like? How would that connection work, given that the narrator draws together disparate strands to form a coherent whole?

And could we, as marketers, make this happen?

Could we be the instrument of that narration and, if so, how would this change the way we work and/or view our profession?

Is this brand journalism, the sharing of stories designed to connect consumers to brand in an engaging and relevant way?

Or is this something else – a different outlook entirely?

Being honest – I don’t have the answer. But it’s something that I’m thinking about at the moment and I would love to hear your views on the subject.

So please, comment below or get hold of me in any way that you see fit. I would love to explore this and see where it takes us…

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8 thoughts on “The brand as… narrator?

  1. i think certain brands do position themselves as a narrator. Look at Apple. The story is that there are Apple people… and everybody else. The narration is that your life is better and more technicolor as an Apple person than it would be if you were not. Before you owned an iPhone you were one thing. After you owned an iPhone you were a better you. Contrast that with a Blackberry, which some feel is a better productivity product, which positions itself as a tool without a story about who you are because of what you have.

    • Interesting… Do Apple narrate or do they provide the tool for narration?

      I concede that their products do provide connection from an individual story to a societal context, but are they telling the story or giving you the tool for you to write the story?

      My guess might be that they’re an enabler rather than a narrator…

      But if they’re a narrator, what are they narrating outside of their product context? Or is that story enough?

  2. I believe you have to split Apple the brand from Apple the company and Apple the manufacturer . Once you have that you end up with a Company writing a narration about the fact that your life is fundamentally different because you have product they manufactured identified by their brand. I can name others that do the same thing so my question is: Do you differentiate between the three pieces? If not then the brand is the narrator. If you do then the company is the narrator. Virgin is another brilliant example in that some of their products are not even their own which means you drop the manufacturing component leaving the brand and the company… which most people don’t differentiate between.

    As for narrating outside of their product context… both Apple and Virgin do. The narration is that the very act of having their product doesn’t just change the aspects of your life those products touch… it changes everything in your life! Starbucks does something similar as does Prada. Look at the Prada menswear show (up on their site right now). They are not selling clothes. They are selling a new world and you as a new you because you have their product and the narration of the brand is deafening…except for those shoes… who the hell thinks those were a good idea?

  3. I’m not an Apple person, so I don’t think that I differentiate between the three areas. Thinking about other brands/manufacturers/companies, I tend to think that the complete conglomeration of all areas makes up the brand. But then I look at brand as integration between all areas and the consumer anyway…

    I like your Prada example, I shall think further on that one.

    I do wonder, however, if the core here is that the examples quoted are introspective in terms of the relationship of the brand and the individual. Is narration (or should it be) an act that moves from introspection to extrospection? (not sure that’s a word, but I think you’ll know what I mean)

  4. ex·tro·spec·tion [ek-struh-spek-shuhn] –noun
    the consideration and observation of things external to the self; examination and study of externals.

    Turns out it is a word. Don’t know if that is what you meant but I get the idea.

    Most brands do not take on being a narrator although I find it interesting those that I can think of that do are some of the most powerful brands out there. For those that do I think the element that makes the brand the narrator is when the brand says that the externally expressed story of your life is fundamentally different when you use their brand. That is a powerful statement and one that screams to the discontented to try it just on the off chance that it is true. It also creates a gateway drug situation because, in many cases, the fulfillment is impossible because of the brand can’t deliver but the narration keeps calling that perhaps you just are not doing it enough or correctly enough to reap the benefits. When the brand does fulfill on the expectations then you end up with the holy grail of marketing… rabid fans.

  5. Marvellous – and there I was thinking that I’d invented a new word… The OED can rest easy…

    Interesting to see the term “gateway drug” appear – not something that I had particularly considered!

    I’m still working this one through in my head, and am still having trouble processing the Apple example – yes their products can be a gateway to experience, but are they narrating?

    Could narrator brands actually be the ones which aren’t hawking product, but rather those acting for the social good, behavioural change and, principally, in not for profit areas?

    Is that where narration in its truest sense lies?

  6. I think you hit it when you say brand as narrator is when the brand is hawking a lifestyle but I think you are making a personal moral judgement when you add in “social good” and “not for profit areas” as the places “where narration in its truest sense lies”.

    Look at some of the gangster rapper brands. These guys are hawking listen to my music to be like me. Bling is the thing and moral turpitude is good. Their brand narration has no social good and profit is king even at the expense of the people around you.

    So I think the place to look is when a brand says, “Use product marked by my brand and your perceived world EXPERIENCE will be different in specific ways”. If they say that the brand is acting as a narrator.

  7. Ah-ha – something has just become clearer…

    Are you looking at brand narration as brand journalism/a narration of the brand?

    I think I’m coming from the place where the brand is narrating the world, and within the world sits their brand/product/service. Would/could/should that happen?

    This is starting to bend my brain in new and interesting ways.

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