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Brand Storytelling On You:

Why your favorite brands tell us more about you and why digital media is only helping.

Scott Loughran

MCDM at University of Washington


We are a consumer society. With the average US household income at just over

$63,000 dollars annually, we spend approximately 79 percent of our earnings before

taxes. Taking in to consideration that we pay an average of 34 percent of our income in

taxes (How Much Tax Do We Really Pay?”)- we spend more than we make. The question

is not why we spend more than we make or what we spend our money on, rather what

can we learn about ourselves by looking at the things we consume. According to the US

Department of Labor (“How The Average U.S. Consumer Spends Their Paycheck,”)

Americans spend more than 65 percent of their income on goods and services. These

goods and services consist of the things we need, expect and want to sustain life and a

level of living we have grown accustomed to through various experiences. Our reasoning

for these purchases are driven by different elements. Individual products or companies that

supply us with said goods and

services are chosen through

multiple variables that change

from individual to individual.

The component that may

possibly be most influential in our

decision making process is the

brand. Look at the call-outs on

Image 1: “Where Does the Money Go?”

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Image 1 and say the title out loud. What do you see in your head? A person, place or

object? Perhaps your brain shows you the brand you associate with this group. That brand

may not even necessarily be what you affiliate with consumerism, such as “Transportation”

may display an image of the bus you use to get to and from work. “Insurance, Pensions”

may be the face of your broker or financial advisor. Despite not seeing a glaring image of

Honda or AIG logos, your are seeing a brand. You are envisioning something, someone, a

point in time or an emotion that you associate with that product. This is part of your story,

the narrative that has constructed your identity from your first memory. Just like you,

brands have stories as well. Some of their stories have the makings of a good conquers

evil novel while others have constructed their stories along ideals or a lack thereof.

Everyone has a story. McCrone and Bechhofer suggest, “Who we are, who we are

judged to be and under what circumstances, depends on how well or badly our claims are

judged by those around us,” (p. 1246). This implies that not only do we have stories, but

that we are all in a subconscious kind of way, storytellers. I propose that our stories are

something we use as a measurement tool to align ourselves with brands that tell stories

similar to our own, reinforcing the vision we have of ourselves. As the digital media space

has grown with the likes of Facebook, YouTube, Yelp and more, we have extended the use

of these brands to building our personal brands as advertised on the internet.

What Is A Brand?

The American Marketing Association’s defines a brand “as a set of values implied by a

product, service or experience and is not only a symbol or signifier, which is usually an

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artifact such as a logo or logotype” (de Asis, 2007.) This definition identifies that a brand is

more that the red-hot iron a farmer presses against their cattle or the symbol we assign to

a company or product. Brands and consumers establish relationships through interactions,

evaluations and nuances from other peoples experience who then share through story or

through intimate exposure (Woodside, Sood & Miller, 2008, p.99). Skotadis and Pugh

(2008) suggest there are three ingredients which consumers use to asses a brands’ value:

- Performance

- Relevancy to Society

- Story

I suggest that the elements of “Performance” and “Relevancy to Society” are merely

contributing factors to a brands story. For example, if we were to look at a sports franchise

as a brand, how the team and front office perform at their designated tasks largely

sustains the argument for if their story is “good” or “bad.” If this team was based in

Oakland, CA and historically has been supported by a fan base from the Bay Area of

central California, it also would not make sense to measure their relevancy to a market in

Washington DC. The geographical separation of the teams’ “home” and the market make

the team irrelevant to the local society of greater DC. From this we can conclude that the

story behind a brand is a larger contributing ingredient than originally assumed by Skotadis

and Pugh (2008).

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The Construction of Identity

Fearon explains that “‘identity’ means either (a) a social category, defined by

membership rules and allegedly characteristic attributes or expected behaviors, or (b) a

socially distinguishing feature that a person takes a special pride in or views as

unchangeable but socially consequential (or, of course, both (a) and (b) at once)” (1999, p.

36). Along with our definition of “brand,” we can start to see how brands can have their

own identity and how people use brands as a piece of the personal identities which they

construct. Our social identity therefore “is the product of agreement and disagreement; it

too is negotiable (Jenkins as cited in McCrone & Bechhofer, 2008, p.1245)

Examining Digital Media

The term digital media is very general and very fluid. As new technologies and

distribution channels are introduced to the world, the argument of “What is digital media,”

will evolve. The tools and technologies we use to communicate are not what they were 50

years ago or even five years ago, nor will the be the same five years into the future. A

definition that helps us understand this general topic:

When a data source is transmitted by a host or creator, received and

interpreted by a machine (i.e. computer, television, cell phone, etc.), and

then presented to consumers in text, audio or visual context formats.

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This can be a newspaper presenting its’ content via a website, the blog of a

corporation or a friend, podcasts, a television series, movies, music, social media

sites and profiles, phone applications and much more.

Digital media today has an extreme relevance to brands as to how they are presented

by the owner and how they are interpreted by the consumer. Companies who have

historically been widely accepted by the

masses and have not necessarily

struggled with traditional media are lured

to digital media because of its capability

to be a niche and popular, engaging and

controlling, classic and different all at the

same time. In Image 2 we see Coca-

Cola’s Facebook Fan Page of which

3,629,963 people belong to. Coke has

been very versatile through the years in

its traditional marketing but here we see

one media which incorporates ten Image 2: Coca-Cola Fan Page - Facebook

different medias. From this page alone fans can engage in conversations about Coke,

make a comment for the world to see, download a “Spin The Bottle” iPhone app,

subscribe to RSS feeds, play a music game and record their own mix to share it with

friends, view photos, videos and download music. A couple of years ago, each one of

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these medias could be made available online individually, but the advancements social

media has brought to the digital media family allow for this sort of aggregation. Fifty years

ago, three of these medias existed (photo, audio and video) but each one would have had

to be distributed individually and possibly never would of had over 3.5 million impressions

from one channel.

This digital space has created more than a successful distribution channel for

branding efforts and consumer engagement (however, these accomplishments alone are

extremely valuable to consumers and corporations). Digital media’s success is due to

consumer participation, namely in the exchange of stories between brands and those who

interact with them. It’s granted

consumers a voice to share cheers

and jeers about the brands they

are using. One popular example of

this is a video of US troops in Iraq

sharing their frustration with

Hewlett-Packard’s technical

support. They sent the video via

Image 3: Military takes action against HP

email to a company called Break Media which after receiving the soldiers’ video posted

“A couple weeks ago we sent this video to our friends at CNN Showbiz

tonight. After playing it they immediately got a call from the people at HP

wanting to right their wrong. Then we posted the AOL Hell video and heard

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the same kind of thing happened. So from now on if you ever have a bad

customer support experience, record it and email the audio to We'll post it and hold big businesses accountable!”

This voice would not be possible to the average consumer if it were not for digital

media collectively. It provides relatively easy and cheap (if not free) tools to let everyone

with access the ability to create and distribute content. With that ability, brands have to

fear the negative voice of proactive consumers, as well as harness the positive narratives

of others. This relatively new found voice produces a new type of storytelling; one that is

fluid and subject to everyone with an internet connection and a little bit of zeal. This type of

narrative provides opportunities to engage in a different conversation which allows them to

connect differently with a brand (Crutchfield, 2009).

The Story

Stories have carried various sources of information since communication was invented

(we will save that subject for another day.) Stories, at their root, are a source of data left to

be interpreted by a receiver, much alike the definition we established for digital media. This

could possibly be a large contributor to the popularity and success of digital media in a

whole; it doesn’t change the historical transaction from storyteller to audience, it only

expands the breadth of the audience and allows them to participate more. Digital media

storytelling provides engagement, and when an audience can become fully engaged it

provides “transportation,” a theory explained by Keller (2006, p. 9). “The key psychological

ingredients of the transportation experience are assumed to take place regardless of

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modality of communication.” This transportive experience is when the receiver can

mentally immerse themselves into the narrative world, as if to be experiencing it in the first

person. There becomes an association made between the consumers identity and the

identity of a character as developed by the author, and those experiences that the

character goes through which gives us the insights to who the character is, can be married

to the maturity of the consumer in reality (Green et. al., 2004, p. 319 as cited by Keller,

2006, p. 10).

This transportation theory has tremendous insight into how a brand must approach

their story. Keller (2006) states,

“This illusion of an intimate knowledge of a character in a fictional world gives

us an opportunity to use their experiences as a way of gaining

understanding of our own life. In addition, we are likely to evaluate a

character using the same criteria that we use when evaluating people that

we come in contact with on a daily basis. Not only can we use this in

evaluating our own personal behaviors, we can develop new strategies and

insights into the behaviors and thoughts of others” (p. 10).

Could this also be true in how we evaluate brands and our relationship with them?

When I was a teenager, I would leave the house on a Friday night to my Dad yelling,

“Remember who you are and what you stand for.” What Dad was really saying was

remember your brand, think about what characteristics people associate with your name,

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and don’t do anything stupid enough to tarnish their opinion of me. These characteristics

have an narrative behind them as we mature through life’s experience, these experiences

coming from a story originating from our past. So does a brands story, developing from its’

origins and its process of evolution to the demands and expectations of current markets.

Communities are built upon people with an agreed upon set of values, expectations and

experiences (i.e. Craigslist is a community with sub-communities of recyclers, bargain

hunters, job seekers and much more) which come from having individual stories with

similar attributes.

Woodside, Sood and Miller suggest these similar attributes are archetypes, a group

of assumed characteristics due to word association (i.e. Outlaw archetype suggest rule

breaking, nonconformity, dangerous characteristics,) and that consumers use brands to

build archetypes which are used for their own personal narrative (2008). A simple example

from my childhood is the

Adidas brand; it sparks

images of Run DMC and Hip

Hop culture collectively. The

things I love about Hip Hop

lie in its’ roots, a avenue of

expression through music,

Image 4: Run DMC’s is a synonym for Adidas

graffiti and breakdancing. When I see the Adidas logo or three parallel lines running down

someone’s pant leg or sleeve, I measure that person against my ideals of Hip Hop culture.

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If I wanted to validate myself to the Hip Hop community, I could use the Adidas brand as

part of my conscious or subconscious narrative because I partially believe people would

authenticate my existence in the community do to this archetype.


“It occurs to me that precious brands are always first-person brands. So if

you want your brand to be precious, stop calling it 'it' and start calling it 'me'

or 'us' or 'our'.” -Andrew Doyle, Chairman, Holmes and Marchant

Brands have to do more than just tell their story to truly engage consumers.

Harnessing several of the many different distribution channels that digital media provides

will only be as successful as to how much of the narrative a brand turns over to the

consumer. In a very literal way, this is Word of Mouth (WOM) marketing (Woodside, Sood

and Miller, 2008). Think about how we use the word “tell” in our everyday narratives. Just

as a storyteller says, “Let me tell you a story...” we use the same structure to introduce

people to a brand, “Let me tell you how good/bad that cell phone provider is.” “Did anyone

tell you that she is the nicest person here.” “Tell me all about Paris when you get back.”

This single word holds the power of WOM marketing, when someone else other than

those who have a financial interest in the brand tell us the pros and cons of a brand, the

facts appear honest and authentic. Empowering consumers to construct that narrative for

you is what builds that community, giving consumers another resource that adds value to

your brand (Crutchfiled, 2009).

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The necessity for that story to be

presented to the community on a

collaborative platform is another key

ingredient to a brand story being

accepted by the community, and the

current platform for consumers is digital

media. Nykoliation (2008) explains “Brands

Image 5: Construction of Brand Story

are being shaped as much by non-traditional messages as

traditional ones. Integration is no longer about creating matching luggage. Breakthrough

creative ideas are communication ecosystems, not campaigns. Digital is critical, not an

option.” Stories are like a baseball field. You can’t take out third base and expect fans to

get why, just as an author cannot expect readers to stay engaged if they never reach a

climax because they want their story to be different. The structure and platform is all a

“brand author” can contribute, which is the historical perspective of the brand and the

channels of digital media you employ. When you hand to story to the community, they will

humanize the story, giving it authenticity and character that only the community can give.

They will contribute the archetypes for the brand, which is what most consumers will base

their decision off of when they choose whether or not to purchase.

Stories must be constructed for a brand to become an archetype, a classification

which increases a brands relevance to society. To accomplish this, a brand author must

evaluate its’ acceptance of the following:

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1) Storytelling consciously and subconsciously allows archetype fulfillment, in this

case by consumers using brands as symbols and props as tools to build personal


2) Corporations depend just as much on the personal stories of its’ community

members to legitimize itself than it does on the history of the brand.

3) Digital media is not an option, but an essential piece to the development of the

brand story, just like the plot or characters of a story.

4) Censorship will assassinate a brands story. The digital media community will not

allow you to form its’ words into a voice of praise and you have to be committed to

taking the bad with the good. Explicit material censorship is okay.

5) Authenticity and truth will always find its way inside of the digital media space.

Contribute, engage and stimulate the community that is going to build itself around your

brand whether you like it or not.

When the following can be agreed upon, you are ready to build or restructure your brand

story to one that will be accepted and flourish in digital media. The advancements in these

technologies allow people to only draw closer to the brands that they love enough to use,

as an archetype in constructing their personal identity. Even when your audience may not

fall in love with your original story, a brand cannot afford to forget that this new form of

digital media storytelling allowing for a brands story to evolve. In those special

circumstances when a brands’ story becomes iconic and timeless, the story will still ripen

over time as authentic and unique contributions are made by the community, who wrote

the story in the first place.

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