Doing Branding Better:

The Story Universe

Written by Craig Wilson

Published — December, 2015


The true power of a brand’s identity is leveraged by relatively few. The challenge is consistently communicating value that actually manifests in the mind of the consumer uniquely. The illustration below depicts the result of good branding, which is the customer reaching the deductive conclusion that we want them to reach.


Figure 1. I'm a Great Lover (Marty Neumeier, The Brand Gap)

What then is the process by which this particular woman concludes that the protagonist in the story is a great lover?

In Marty’s example, the target audience is looking for a great lover, so the message, “I’m a great lover,” is delivered in a multitude of ways, which is largely ineffective and likely not truly the distinguishing characteristics that uniquely defines the brand. Sure maybe this fellow is a great lover, but in terms of creating true value, distinction, it’s pretty important to understand what the criteria is that defines a great lover in the first place. The perplexing phenomenon is that most brands employ a mix of vehicles (advertising, PR, etc.) to communicate one singular message that they believe is the distinguishing platitude to which their target consumer will respond, so what they do is say less and less, more and more. In the end undermining their intent to create distinction. 

To continue our analogy, what if we ask the woman what she deems to be a great lover, what are the characteristics that she particularly favors of the myriad attributes relative to the topic? Certainly there are nuances that she holds near and dear to her that quite possibly the next woman may not value. And, certainly there are potential partners in the world that fulfill those criteria more than others. By no means believing that one is better than the other, rather noting that personal preference deems “greatness.” It follows that further detail is required beyond the singular blanket statement for an accurate conclusion to be drawn. Therein lies the power of good branding: communicating the nuances that particularly define a brand’s identity. This is the secret of brand loyalty. The more defined we become, the more nuanced the communication the more clearly our customers can discern the difference between our brand and our competitor’s brand, not based on a general persona of the target audience, “women that want great lovers,” but based on detailed characteristics that define what a great lover truly is as defined by that individual. If my brand provides that mix of characteristics I’ve got a customer for life. If my brand is true to a core belief, there are customers that will likely find my brand valuable when they discern that detail.

The Story Universe is the tool that allows us to flesh out the nuances and characteristics so that we don’t reside at the topical level of brand slogans and taglines, in this case being a great lover. Rather we reside at the level of criteria that defines a great lover.

The Artifacts and Stories that Make the Story Universe

Moments in time, events, historical milestones, battles, championships, cultural movements, etc. are all defined by the stories leading up to them, the stories relating the occurrences themselves and the stories told about them after the fact. The stories often accumulate over time and evolve and are quite consistently embellished. They are passed along by first hand accounts and even more often by those one, two or more times removed. Regardless of the medium, regardless of the credibility of those relaying the story, regardless of how many degrees of separation from the eyewitness, the truth is, stories are pieced together through the interpretive lens of the recipient. In the case of brands, that means the consumer.

Brands are complex. They are made up of product, service, values, performance, geography, reputation, visual stimuli, actions, imagery, and personality. All of these attributes expressed, good or bad, through hands on experiences and rumor, what I collectively call stories. The landscape is vast, even for tiny brands that service just handfuls of clients. For the corner coffee shop, where its located, the pleasantness of the help, cleanliness of the bathrooms, the décor, ambiance, variety of product, quality of the product, all make fodder for stories, and each and every item is a potential story unto itself. It is the collective of these stories that defines the brand. Creates context for judgment. Enables consumers to discern. The intricacy of this tapestry is what customers draw conclusions from that precedes and leads them to creating a bond or not.

Every brand has its own footprint, big or small, brands vast with history and breadth of stories, or brands anew able to relate only a smattering of topical variety. The Story Universe should be considered an accounting of the history, the topics of interest, the areas of importance, and the values that have relevance to the brand’s reason for being, its core organizing principle. Every element that makes a brand unique should be accounted for in the Story Universe. Every aspect of the brand that can be explained to, or shared with, an end consumer that somehow expresses the brand’s core purpose must be charted, captured, mapped.

The Story Universe is exactly that, the entirety of the critical, defining artifacts that emanate from the brand’s core purpose, that exist solely because of the brand’s reason for being and the value set, the organizing principles, that drives the end customer experience, the product and/or service offering to which the consumer responds. It is organized as a universe, expanding outward from a central event. As the universe expands there is always a tether from the edge of the universe back to that defining, initial inspiration—the founding principle of the organization. Therefore, the essence of that founding principle is manifest in each and every peripheral artifact or story such that regardless of the number of these artifacts or stories that a customer interacts with they are getting the core message in some dosage. Over time, with more and more diverse experiences and exposure the consumer slowly begins to put two and two together and the core purpose, the founding principle, the organizing principle begins to become more and more clear and understood such that conclusions are drawn about the values that drive the organization as a whole. It is these values the consumer eventually bonds with based on their own beliefs and held values. It is the moment our woman in search of a partner deems “I understand you’re a great lover.”

Therefore, to construct a Story Universe is to take control of the totality of possible experiences your end consumer has when in relationship to your brand. However, only when you’ve clearly acknowledged and committed to a core reason for being, an organizing principle, can you then define the stories and artifacts that matter to you. Only then can you decide what type of quality you define as yours, or what service means to you, or the context that defines the actual business model. Only then can you map the totality of your Story Universe such that you see the balance across all of the possibilities your customer may encounter your brand.

Once you have charted your universe, once each and every artifact is accounted for, then you have a powerful tool to manage your customer’s experience. Because now you have a means to measure and direct the development of the communications and messages and content that your customers will interact. Considering now, in an active state, the Story Universe acts as a heat map tracking the involvement of your customer with your brand experience. If you’re only telling them one or two stories, well they will then not understand vast pockets of your universe that may be mission critical to their experience of your brand, mission critical aspects that may cause them to bond or no. By managing your customer’s experience from the perspective of the Story Universe you are assuring them the complete context by which to glean your purpose. The Story Universe is the tool by which the greatest efficiency is achieved in indoctrinating new customers.

Figure 2. The Story Universe

Understanding the inspiration that drives the organization as a whole motivates consumer behavior. By knowing your purpose by piecing together seemingly disparate experiences and bits of information and knowledge, customers are armed with the context to make deeper and deeper commitments. This is absolutely how a successful relationship between your customer and your brand can be predicted. Because there are specific people in the world that believe what you believe, that want what you do specifically the way you do it. It’s not about targeting a particular customer segment. It’s about clearly articulating your perspective and then sharing the nuances of that perspective so that your customer, who is looking for the product or service that you provide, will understand your worldview. If there’s agreement on that worldview, and your product or service performs and meets expectations you’ll have an aligned platform upon which to forge a long-term sustainable relationship with that person as your customer.

To learn more, see all about the book here.