It's often the characters we remember the most when it comes to the stories we love, which means it's essential that you think about the characters in your brand stories, and the roles they're playing in your narratives.
That's why the third chapter of Story Masters 3 with Gastón Tourn is all about character roles. Who are your protagonists? What role does an antagonist play? And where does your brand fit into all this?
Gastón answers all these questions and more in this article. Originally an episode of CMO Convo, now available in written form for you to enjoy.
The importance of character development in your marketing stories
Hi, Gastón. Another chapter of Story Masters unfolds before us. How are you doing today?
Very good. I’m particularly excited about today's topic. Characters are so important. I won’t give away any spoilers, but it's gonna be a very exciting conversation.
There's lots to explore, but let's start at the top. In literary criticism, we often give characters quite clearly defined roles within the story – you have the protagonist, the antagonist, the guide, and so on. How important is it to have those kinds of character roles defined within a marketing story?
It's important to have roles, but at the same time, it's really important not to be stereotypical. We're over traditional structures where there’s one protagonist and one big bad antagonist. Those kinds of structures are quite naive, and they wouldn't work well in today's world.
What is a constant though is the idea of change. Change is the most important element in any story, but it's also the most important element in character development. You want to make sure that in your story, no matter what role the character plays, there is an element of change within that character.
The character that starts out aggressive and bullish should show a more vulnerable side by the end of the story, and vice versa – characters that are vulnerable and perhaps not very strong should show their strength in a different way later on in the narrative. Of course, it has to be a bit more nuanced than I just described it, but there needs to be a change in order for us to connect emotionally with a character.
And that change needs to make sense within the character. You can't just have them transform at the flip of a switch; it needs to fit the narrative and make sense with how you've laid out the character initially, otherwise it's going to feel unrealistic.
Making your brand a trustworthy character
We’ve talked before about the willing suspension of disbelief; one of the best ways to break that is to have characters act outside of what we expect them to do based on what we know of them. That's why we say “acting out of character.” It's a turn of phrase that's based on this idea that characters behave how we expect them to based on what the storytellers present to us.
We also talk about characters in real life, right? We don't talk just about characters when it comes to fiction or movies. We also say, “Oh, he's such a character!” What does it mean to be a character? It means that you have a very interesting, distinctive personality. Brands operate in a very similar way. You want people to say, “That brand is such a character,” because it means that you have a distinctive identity; you have personality traits that people can relate to.
It's important that you give your brand some personality traits, but also leave room for it to change and develop in a natural way. You can’t have your brand change personality overnight or do something that feels completely out of character because people won’t buy it.
We’ve seen a lot of examples of brands that have done this. A recent one is from BrewDog. They tried to play the activist character with regard to the World Cup, but people aren’t taken in by it anymore because they’ve seen how they operate, and it’s bringing up questions about how much we should trust that brand.
It’s similar to any human relationship. If you have a friend that’s always saying they care about climate change, but then you see them flying everywhere and not really caring about the environment, you're not going to trust them.
In marketing stories, there's a lot to be learned about human psychology and literary criticism because they’re both ways of exploring how human relationships operate. That’s important because, in the end, marketing is all about building human relationships.
Whenever it comes to brand development, you want people to understand who you are and what you do in no more than two seconds. If your character is not well defined, it's going to take a lot of effort from that potential customer to understand who you are, and they’re not going to do it.
Again, it’s the same as in human relationships. If you go to a nightclub, people are unfortunately not going to take a lot of time to consider whether you could be a potential match or not. You have just a few seconds to make a good impression. Of course, we shouldn't just focus on first impressions, but if we're honest, first impressions do matter. That’s because as human beings, we need to make some cognitive shortcuts in order to operate in the world.
Having a well-defined character – as a professional, a human being, or a brand – helps you to navigate those mental shortcuts and make the right impression on your potential customer.
How to develop your brand’s personality
We also need to talk about developing the personality in a way that feels natural. The danger of using, say, focus groups to shape your brand personality is that you try to please everyone and you end up coming across as really flat. That’s the last thing you want. To stand out, your brand’s personality needs to be distinctive.
You need to recognize that your brand personality is not necessarily going to please everyone. You just need to please your specific target audience – and even then, you might not please everyone within that audience.
Of course, you don't want to piss everyone off, but how people relate to different personalities is subjective at the end of the day. Humans don't have focus groups controlling their personalities, and people who do – like certain celebrities and politicians – come across as really boring. It's the same when it comes to brands.
Completely, and particularly in tech and startups, there’s often an obsession with A/B testing everything. However, I don't think all your brand messaging should necessarily be A/B tested.
It’s just like building trust as a human being. Imagine presenting different personalities to please different potential friends – it comes across as disingenuous. You can’t trust someone who’s saying contradictory things in order to please different types of people. In the end, that becomes your personality – disingenuous and untrustworthy.
I'm okay with A/B testing direct-response messaging that comes in closer to the moment of conversion because there's a lot to be learned at that stage, but when it comes to your identity, you need to stand for something. Patagonia didn’t A/B test their way to caring about the environment; they always stood for that. I think it's important that you make those big, bold bets as a brand.
Patagonia is a great example of a brand that's been talked about a lot recently in terms of actions fitting the personality. It's easy to think of that as being a natural evolution – as you said, they've always stood for the environment so, amazing as it is, their decision to donate the whole company to fighting climate change makes sense.
When it comes to a newer brand, how do you decide on its personality? Should it be based on an amalgamation of the founders' personalities? What kind of exercises should you be undertaking to think about what the brand personality is?
Brand personality, in my opinion, is always between who you are as a brand and what your audience cares about – you need to find that sweet spot. It can’t be 100% what your audience cares about, and it can’t be only who you are. It's always that negotiation, just like any human relationship.
As a human being, you can’t go into a social setting like, “This is who I am. I don't care what anyone in this room thinks!” To a certain extent, you need to negotiate your identity based on the context. Likewise, with brand development, you need to understand and reflect what your audience cares about and what's culturally relevant.
That being said, for early-stage start-ups, the founders’ story is really important. Understanding why the founders decided to create a business is probably one of the first steps you want to take as a CMO. That's going to help you clarify the purpose of the business and the purpose of the brand in the world, but you also need to understand what’s relevant and what's going on globally at that point in time.
As an example, I joined Curio as the CMO a month ago. Curio is the app to listen to news and insights from the world's top publications like The Economist and The Guardian. The founders' story is all about sparking curiosity, opening up new perspectives, and how they discovered that by providing those new perspectives, they can help people understand and empathize with each other. A lot of that founders’ story is incredibly relevant to the brand.
Cultural trends also play a part in how we define and tell our brand story. People are getting frustrated with clickbait and how media outlets at large are getting increasingly clickbaity, rather than providing in-depth journalism. When I'm developing the brand identity, I think about how to connect the two. I want to connect that founders’ story with what's going on culturally at the moment and make it relevant to our audience.
The elements of a good brand personality
What are the elements of a good brand personality, and what should people be looking to make sure their brand personality does?
Being distinctive is super important. Any sign, symbol, or human communication needs to be distinctive in order to stand out. I’m not going to get too technical, but Saussure, one of the founders of modern linguistics, says that for any sign to be distinctive, it needs to be different from its opposite. It's not about what the sign means; it's about being distinctive in a system. That's vital in branding too.
The second thing that’s quite important is to spend time designing your brand’s personality to be clear and knowable. People are not going to give you a lot of time to explain yourself, so you need to be clear for people to understand you quickly.
There’s a great quote from Robert McKee (he wrote Story – an excellent book that I recommend everybody reads): “A character is no more a human being than the Venus de Milo is a real woman.” Essentially, the Venus de Milo is just a super clear and knowable version of a woman.
It’s the same with your brand’s character. You need to make it simple in order for others to understand who you are. That doesn't mean there's not going to be any nuance to it, but there have to be some clear traits that people can associate with.
If I ask people what they associate with Patagonia, it's easy for them to answer that question – that's what makes it a great brand. If you ask someone what they associate with a brand, and they don’t know, that's a red flag. It means that you need to spend some time making those brand personality traits super clear.
For sure. It's a really good exercise to ask other people what they think of the brand, beyond just its products. People often talk about them in terms of personality traits; they might describe them as funny, friendly, cheerful, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, drab and dull. It shows that people really do have a personal connection with brands they like and brands they interact with.
Choosing the right protagonist and antagonist for your brand story
Your brand isn’t the only character in the stories you're going to be telling. Other characters are going to be involved too – let's talk about them. You have the brand and you're telling a story, who are the other characters that are going to be involved, and what kind of position should they have within that narrative?
Before we get to the other characters, another important element of the brand’s personality is its purpose. It's about what your brand wants. That question – what does your brand want – makes your brand part of a journey that pulls in other characters.
Usually, there’s some antagonist in the story – something that you're fighting – then there's also a protagonist who’s leading the story. There are other important roles too, like the guide, the mentor, and the ally.
The brand is never the protagonist. That's a mistake I see quite a lot in marketing storytelling. The main character of your story is your customer or user – whoever your potential audience is. The antagonist is the problem your protagonist encounters. What are they fighting against or fighting for? As a brand, you’re just there to be the ally who's helping them overcome that antagonist.
The antagonist doesn’t have to be a person – it can be something internal. Think about brands like Headspace; the antagonist in their stories is the mental health crisis; it's what's going on with anxiety. But is not Headspace. Headspace is the ally who helps the protagonist to defeat anxiety issues.
It's really important that you don't make your brand the protagonist because people are going to not connect emotionally with that. Brands are abstract concepts. People are much more likely to connect with a human being, like a real customer, so your story should focus on your customers, with your brand playing a supporting role.
We're very anthropocentric as a species, so even stories that on the surface appear to be about animals are really about people. Take that famous short story by Virginia Woolf that’s told from the perspective of a dog – the whole story is centered around how human beings interact with that dog.
Very occasionally, you can make yourself the protagonist, for example when you’re telling the founders’ story or when it’s something a bit more tangible like, “As a founder, I created this company or this product because I want to overcome X obstacle.” Mostly though, if you make it too much about yourself, it will come across as a bit braggy and you're not going to connect with your audience.
Again, it’s like any human interaction. If your friend is always talking about themself, it’s incredibly annoying, whereas if they’re telling stories about common problems that someone else is facing and how they’re overcoming them, it becomes much more interesting.
This narrative of the protagonist, the guide, and the antagonist is at the core of some of the oldest storytelling we know of. It's King Arthur and Merlin. It's Odysseus and Athena. It's Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. These elements and this way of telling the story have resonated throughout history, and they cross a lot of cultural boundaries, almost as if they’re built into our DNA.
There's a great book about it by Joseph Campbell. It's called The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He lays out elements of the hero's journey, as he calls it: how the protagonist travels through it, how the antagonist affects them, and how the guide helps them along their path. Those elements can be really helpful when it comes to thinking about how your protagonist moves through your marketing story to overcome challenges.
Yeah, it goes back a lot to the quote I always mention from John le Carré: “‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not a story, but ‘the cat sat on the dog's mat’ is a story.” I love it because I think it's very simple, but it kind of tells you why the antagonist in particular is so important. It's crucial, particularly in brand storytelling, to ask yourself who the dog is.
There are two big mistakes I see in marketing and brand storytelling: one is there's not a dog, i.e. there’s no antagonist, which makes your storytelling pretty bland; the other mistake is making your brand the protagonist rather than the ally. It’s super important that you clarify who the antagonist is and make sure that the story is focused on a human being, and that you're just the ally helping that human being overcome challenges.
In modern fiction and postmodern fiction, there's a lot of focus now on internal antagonists as opposed to external antagonists. Usually, internal antagonists lead to way more nuanced narratives and far more interesting stories. As marketers, we can learn from this and share stories of our customers overcoming their own challenges.
Absolutely, and the antagonist doesn't necessarily have to be this really big, evil, malicious thing either. The antagonist can be quite a minor issue in someone's life. It could be something like just not being able to manage your time properly, and the ally is time management software that's going to allow the protagonist to manage their time better. It doesn't have to be an epic battle between good and evil.
Completely. You can even build a kind of rapport with your audience by showing that you sometimes face the same problems that they do. A really good example of that comes from Pepsi.
I'm from Argentina – a nation of soccer fans. It was the 2014 World Cup. The final was Argentina versus Germany, but for Argentina, the only important thing about that match is that it took place in Brazil – Argentina wanted to win in Brazilian territory. At the end of a very close match though, Argentina lost against Germany in the penalty shootout. The country was, of course, devastated.
The next day, Pepsi brought out a brilliant out-of-home campaign. It was literally everywhere in Buenos Aires, and it had just one message: We know how it feels to be a runner-up.
It was genius because the antagonist was clearly Coca-Cola, and they put it out there, sharing that sentiment of coming in second place and empathizing with how the country was feeling that day. I think it was a brilliant example of storytelling to build empathy, particularly in that critical moment for the country.
Making your brand an ally
Just because your brand isn't the main character in the story doesn't mean it's not an interesting character. You can still present the way that you help the protagonist in an interesting way. Popular, memorable allies and mentors in film and literature tend to have a lot of character and take a unique approach to teaching the protagonist.
People remember Karate Kid's Mr. Miyagi, and “wax on wax off” because of the way he's teaching the protagonist. That's important to think about when it comes to your brand's role within the narrative
A brand that does this well and has been doing it well for a long time is Nike. They're very good at positioning their customers at the center and making their achievements and struggles really compelling. The way that Nike inserts itself into those struggles and helps the protagonist overcome them is also really smart. It’s varied too because they're always changing how they do their messaging, but it’s still always worth paying attention to.
Completely. Nike shows internal antagonists incredibly well too. They tend to focus on the protagonist’s self-told limiting stories, and the message is don't restrict yourself – just do it. Everybody can relate to that. Your worst enemy is the restrictions you place upon yourself, but if you just believe in yourself, you can overcome them. That's why it's such an inspiring story and why as a brand they have resonated so with so many people.
Best-in-class protagonist-driven brand stories
Which other brands should people be looking to as examples of great protagonist-driven stories?
I think a lot of Google's storytelling is really inspiring, but I particularly love some of the Google Translate stories. They’re incredibly powerful and they make you look at a pretty functional product through a completely different emotional lens.
I recommend everyone watch Maher’s Story. Maher lived in Iraq. He was a translator for the US Army, and he was able to get that job because he learned English using Google Translate. Maher and his family were persecuted by a lot of groups that were not in favor of the US intervention in Iraq; his dad was almost killed at one point.
By using Google Translate, Maher built new bridges with a different culture, and he saved his family and himself by immigrating to America. In his new home, he's found that Google Translate allows him to integrate much better, by letting him translate every single word.
Not only is this an inspiring and emotional story, it’s all true. This is another piece of advice for brands: if you already have customers, don't create fictional stories. Go to your real customers and users. They're always going to inspire you on a level that not even your wildest imagination could.
And one of the best things about Maher’s Story is that it's told in his words, so it fits into the narrative that Google is telling with Google Translate. The fact that Maher was able to learn from Google Translate is what’s allowing him to tell this story in the first place.
It's done very, very well, and you don't even see the Google logo until the very end. You see Maher’s notebook; you hear him talking about Google Translate and how he's used it, but Google is not the main part of the story at all. The focus is entirely on Maher and his journey. Then it gets to Google, and you're like, “Wow! Look at what Google can do!” You feel inspired and emotionally connected.
We've been talking quite a bit about emotional connections today, and that’s something we'll be diving deeper into next time, so I'm very much looking forward to that. Gastón, are you looking forward to it as well?
Absolutely. The emotional side is what really makes a story tick.
Definitely, so if you want your customers to laugh, cry, and everything in between, make sure you come back for the fourth installment of Story Masters.
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