Brand Architecture That's Actually Useful

Many companies struggle with a clear articulation of their “brand.”  Those in the business of defining brands have not made it easy: brand pyramids, brand architectures, brand voice, and other buzzwords dominate the discussion.  All serve to obscure the real purpose of brand definition.  Put simply, a brand is the story of your product and company, and done correctly it can bring clarity to your business and how to communicate to the world.

Let’s talk about stories

We spend our life telling, listening to, and watching stories.  It’s how we communicate with each other, done so intuitively we hardly think about it.  Few people outside those in the entertainment business give any real thought to stories as a construct: what makes a good story, and how a good story is structured.  Fortunately, there is no shortage of aspiring screenwriters, and there’s a cottage industry of how-to books catering to this niche.  Pick one up and read it..I’m partial to Save the Cat, a classic of the genre.  

What you learn is just as the purpose of a product or service is to solve a problem, the purpose of a story is to communicate how a problem is solved.  A simplified story structure is: We learn about a problem in a way that makes us care about the problem and solving it. We meet the protagonist, the hero who must solve the problem, and the antagonist, the person who prevents the problem from being solved.  The story unfolds through a series of events detailing the protagonist’s struggle with solving the problem.  As the story reaches its conclusion we are happy…the problem has been solved, mission accomplished, and we see how great the world is as a result.  

If you were to summarize a story in a sentence and explain it to others, the structure tends to intuitively follow the same format: there’s a problem, the good guy solves it against the bad guy, and the world is a better place for it. Luke Skywalker fights Darth Vadar and the Galactic Empire to bring peace and freedom to all. Dorothy is transported to a strange land and must return home by defeating the Wicked Witch and finding with Wizard of Oz, etc.  While those stories give us no practical advice to solve real-world problems, plenty of stories do, and that’s how we learn new things. Learning about destroying the Death Star is no different from someone teaching you how to keep warm by starting a fire.  

What stories have to do with brands  

A brand is simply the protagonist in a story of a problem being solved.  By listening to the story, we learn why a specific brand should be used to solve a specific problem.  Our job is to tell that story.

The best brand stories have the same story format as the best movies:

  • Part 1: We present the landscape.  Our world holds some promise but a big, fundamental problem exists.  Sometimes, a villain is the source of this problem.

  • Part 2: Enter the brand. It is here to fix the problem.  We paint a picture of the future world, where the problem is fixed.  It’s a great future, and we all want to be part of it.

  • Part 3: We explain how the brand is making the future happen.

Let’s look at overused examples from Nike to illustrate.  Watch this:

And this:

Both advertisements are classic examples of the Nike story.  We are in a world where there is a promising future.  It’s an open road and preparations are happening for the big game.  But there is a problem: the kid is out of shape or the competitor is an underdog and not favored to win.  But this person can succeed, they can triumph in spite of all odds.  Because they put in the work, they train, they want it more. All thanks to Nike.  Then, victory: Michael Jordan kissing the trophy.  

The classic Apple 1984 ad fits the same format:

We have a monotonous, bland world full of mindless drones.  But there is a glimmer of color and positivity--Apple--out here to change that.  Apple destroys Big Brother (IBM), and the world is liberated.  Creativity and freedom for all.  

What’s important to note about Apple and Nike is the future worlds each brand creates resonates on a deeply personal level.  It’s why they’re so memorable, and why the brands have so much power.  

Nike’s brand could have been about “shoes for when you exercise”, or even worse, “protective covering for your feet”.  Instead, Nike portrays a far more important, impactful story.  There is a problem: I am not the person I want to be.  I want to be more athletic, I want to be stronger, I want to feel better, I want to improve myself, I want to achieve my potential.  There is a solution: Nike.  Nike is the protagonist of this story.  Nike, in the words of their mission statement, so boldly displayed on about.nike.com, is to “Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.” The asterisk reminds us that if you have a body, you are an athlete.  Visit about.Nike.com and watch the ambient video playing beyond that statement.  It is impossible not to want to work out and be those people when you see people from all walks of life training, improving, excelling.  That ambient video is the equivalent of Ewoks celebrating the Death Star’s demise.  It is the future, and I want it.  Nike makes that future happen.  Every Nike ad, like the ads referenced earlier, is the story of Nike bringing to life that future--Nike is helping make an athlete great, and you can be great as well, just buy Nike.  Just as Apple has always been about unleashing your creative potential--to Think Different.  The functional, mundane thing each company sells--sneakers, or a phone--aren’t what people are buying. They’re buying the future those products enable, the problems those products solve.

Take a look at every recent ad for a major brand, and you’ll see the same formula again and again. 

Coca-cola is not soda: it brings happiness and joy to a bland world.

Expedia is not a booking app: It turns frustrating travel into the perfect vacation.

The list goes on and on…

What this means for your brand  

Not every brand can be Nike, but every company can have a brand with a story that’s just as compelling.  Think about your business.  If every prospective customer uses your product or service, how will the world be better as a result? Explain that world and sell that dream.  Your company’s purpose is to make the future happen.

Next, articulate the problem.  Why isn’t that future happening today?  That’s the problem your brand solves.  And finally: is there a big, bad thing that prevents the problem from being solved?  That’s the enemy.  An enemy can be a company (think IBM in the 1984 Apple ad), an attitude (sadness and dreariness for Coke), or even a general industry or societal issue (all the things that make travel difficult).

Don’t worry about communicating all this in a fancy video ad.  Just try to write it down in three simple slides:

  • Slide 1 is the landscape: the world we are in—for example, everyone wants to compete and achieve, in the case of Nike.  

  • Slide 2 is the problem—we are not all naturally gifted, and maybe there’s an enemy. 

  • Slide 3 should communicate the brand’s desire to achieve the perfect future hinted at in the first slide, where the problem is now solved.  This slide should feature one sentence, which is the brand’s mission.  

Congratulations! You’ve defined your brand’s story and have all the power that comes with it. You have a purpose—a reason why people go to work every day, and a reason people should do business with you beyond the mundane.  And you have direction for how your company can evolve in the future--because as long as any new product or business you launch fits your brand’s story, your new direction is poised for success.