How Brands Can Tell Great Stories

So, I just watched a keynote presentation from Greg Owsley, former marketing chief for the fabled New Belgium Brewery. The talk he gave was at The Statewide Sustainability Roundtable in Colorado Springs last November, and focuses on what he calls the “6 R’s of Storied Social Change Marketing.”

Essentially, they represent a set of guidelines that will help marketers tell more compelling stories through their campaigns. I’ve embedded the videos from his talk, but have written this post as a succinct summary that adds a few thoughts of my own on the subject of storytelling as brand marketing, specifically because I think it supports my stance that marketers need to be building more human brands.



Greg’s first point, which is one of his best, is that brands (especially big ones) get tied to the idea of selling these big ideals, like “Freedom” or “Empowerment.” But, in reality, these are often ineffective because they’re extremely conceptual making them difficult for people grasp and relate to their own lives. Furthermore, we all have different definitions and associations for words like “Freedom” and “Empowerment.” What brands must do, instead, is tell specific and compelling stories, containing the following elements:

  • Roots: must have a foundation built on key “truths”
  • Relevancy: must express the facts in a compelling manner – one that grips the intended audience
  • Reverb: must latch the relevancy to a greater social tension or cultural myth
  • Remarkable: the message and its imagery must stand out, by being remarkable, memorable, provocative and disruptive
  • Rally Cry: there must be a call to action that gives the subject an objective
  • Ripple: must integrate marketing streams to create a supportive or additive framework for the campaign or story

I love everything Greg is saying here and think that he uses great case studies to illustrate his point. However, there’s some elements that, perhaps lie a little bit deeper, that brands can gain tremendous benefit from understanding how to incorporate into their storytelling and identity formation.

First, because brands focus on crafting these highly polished stories and identities for themselves, they don’t connect with people because they don’t feel human or real. This goes back to my notion of building more human brands.  Humans are incredibly multidimensional, experiencing varying states and levels of emotion on a minute-by-minute basis of every day. This state of constant emotional flux defines our lives, yet brands avoid it like the plague, instead, trying to tell stories that are overly-polished, fit and clean. Except the problem is that these don’t connect with consumers, because our wiring tells us, very clearly, that they’re manufactured.

Instead brands need to be turning to elements of paradox, creative tension, conflict and even unknowing as a means to develop their identities and tell their stories, because it’s how people experience the world. Just think of how many times you feel ‘conflicted’ throughout the day? Yet brands rarely incorporate elements like this into their stories.

To use Apple as an example, which I hate doing, they have taken the notion of ‘unknowing’ and incorporated it brilliantly into their identity. On a practical level, no one ever knows anything about their products until the day they’re released. This unknowing creates tremendous enthusiasm and anticipation, just like a great writer does with the climax of their story. On a more subtle level, this secrecy and unknowing allows us to form our own beliefs about how the brand’s products will impact our lives. Suddenly, Apple becomes more things to more people – in many cases a gateway to connect with one’s own inner child by enabling creative pursuits.

In any case, these messier components of unique human experience – conflict, unknowing, tension, paradox, etc. are the meat for great stories, and brands would be wise to leverage them in this convoluted marketplace as a means of authentically connecting with their customers.

Big thanks to Steve Wilton for sending me these talks and engaging in a stimulating conversation about the ideas!


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