Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and Donald Trumps’ climate change-disputing tweets are just some of the biggest recent fictions that have gained millions of followers around the world.
And while politics and cinema are riding this fantasy wave, the branding industry has lately been obsessing with being authentic and truthful. Nothing wrong with that. Indeed, more power to companies that embrace authenticity and truth. Yet they are forgetting that telling and believing made-up stories is also part of the true human nature.
Why should brands use fiction? How could it work with facts in building brand narratives?
As brands nowadays strive to become more human-like by telling the facts, their storytelling is becoming less about the story and more about the truth.
We see companies imitating human qualities, aiming to be like real people and speaking to people’s truth. Firms are now transparent and vulnerable. They talk in a human voice and show flaws. Branding professionals are advised to rely on specific facts to connect better with consumers.
This mainstream human-mimicking philosophy has worked for some brands and product categories, yet it is not applicable to all. The sustainable outdoor clothing designer Patagonia and online search engine Ecosia have built their brand narratives well upon transparency. From the start, Patagonia has made their supply chain visible and Ecosia has been disclosing how they spend their finances on eco initiatives. However, this transparency approach would not be the ideal solution in branding art exhibitions where room left for imagination can work wonders.
Businesses have come to believe only facts are a sign of humanness, but fiction is not. That is actually far from reality.
People have always invented myths and fictional characters. Just think of Greek mythology. Fiction is still part of our modern life also. We hear, read and watch made-up stories every day. The Marvel superhero franchise is an example of that, one which also shows our fascination with superhumans and their extraordinary abilities. As we cannot have those superpowers in reality, we believe the stories that offers us to become extraordinary.
Fictional narratives, which promise us to be better, often give brands their strength. Microsoft offers to help every person achieve more. Nike promises superhuman athleticism with its sports products. Both Nike and Microsoft also feel real because of their fiction and not because they are identical to a person. Their authenticity stems also from their aspiration for perfection. Such brands become great over time because they present a brand story that is beyond the literal facts of an offer and people pay premium for that.
So why then ignore the power of imagination and made-up stories?
As the world invests more in being human, the people-imitating strategy will become a norm and a must-have. Other points of differentiation will be needed. Facts can also sometimes turn overly serious. One such distinctive factor could be fiction - a delighter offering consumers escapism.
Companies would then need to infuse their brands with imaginary elements and stories to stand out. Nike demonstrates this well as it drew upon mythology for its name (Nike is the Greek Goddess of victory and speed) and swoosh logo (inspired by the goddess’ wing) to create athletic aspirations for people. Brands also need to embrace their fictional nature and be playful with it in their storytelling. Some companies could use fantastic tales and characters to develop a sense of mystery, fun, weirdness or ambiguity to strike a different emotional chord for consumers.
We believe brands in the future could gain a competitive advantage if they develop narratives, rooted in an honest truth at their heart, but that also tell a memorable and compelling fiction.
Tony’s Chocolonely, a Dutch company that produces 100% slave-free chocolate, shows that in action with its brand essence “crazy about chocolate, serious about people”. Its brand myth combines a playful approach about people’s passion for chocolate together with a transparency of their supply chain and social responsibility. Even Tony’s chocolate packaging design and typography are influenced by the Wonka bars, which are in turn inspired by the made-up character Willy Wonka - the owner of a chocolate manufacturing plant in the children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate factory. This integration of fun and imaginary bits on top of a social mission is what distinguishes Tony’s from other Fair Trade businesses.
All of this should not mean that wе dismiss facts nor that we push full-on fantasies. A different sense of human truth will work for different brands. For some, more fiction will be better, for others - more facts. Nevertheless, both are needed.
Brands’ future superpower will be to know how to complement fiction with fact and where fictional stories will prove more effective to draw customers in.