September 1, 2022
Messaging

6 brand narrative frameworks that can help your brand stand out

A strong brand narrative is the ultimate tool for differentiating your business in a crowded market. Learn how to create one using tested narrative frameworks.

Stories are powerful. They have the ability to convey meaning in a uniquely memorable way. That makes them valuable tools for brands trying to stand out in crowded markets.

A compelling brand narrative is one of the most effective differentiators. It can set you apart from competitors, signal your brand values, improve the emotional impact of your messaging, and contribute to persistent growth.

The challenge is in crafting one.

In this article, we’ll explain why creating or refining your brand narrative is crucial, before showing you how to do it using a time-tested framework.

How to stand out and achieve success in a saturated market

94% of brands said they’d seen increased market competition in recent years, according to a 2022 survey by Crayon. 59% reported that their market was “much more competitive,” while only 3% claimed it was “less competitive.”

Screenshot of Crayons 2022 State of Competitive Intelligence Survey Report
Brands are reporting increasingly competitive markets

This increased competition results from the breakdown of the traditional barriers to market entry—such as the challenges of securing funding and building early momentum. 

Accessing business finance is easier than ever thanks to digital providers like Iwoca. SaaS tools like Slack and Asana make remote work more viable, meaning a costly office space becomes a “nice-to-have” rather than a necessity. Reaching your audience is easier than ever before, even on limited budgets.

Businesses can start up and thrive on a significantly shorter time-frame. That leaves existing brands with no choice but to build resilience against rapidly rising competition by effectively differentiating themselves. The alternative is to be emulated, undercut, encroached on, and eventually crowded-out. 

The only method of differentiation that’s truly unassailable—impossible to authentically replicate—is creating a unique brand. And the keystone of a good brand is a strong brand narrative. 

How brand narrative contributes to long-term growth

Brand narrative is the story that your brand embodies. It underpins every other application of brand, from your messaging strategy to the way you approach customer service. It’s your brand’s raison d’etre.

It should be the primary point of differentiation between your brand and the competition, because a unique brand narrative can’t be copied. More importantly, it’s one of the most powerful tools to use as part of a broader brand strategy designed to make a lasting impact on your audience.

The power of storytelling is immutable. It’s been part of the human experience since at least 30,000 years ago and is a feature of every culture. Stories resonate with us in a way that no other form of communication does.

This phenomenon has been studied at length, including by Dan & Chip Heath in their bestselling book Made to Stick which compiles findings from 10 years of research into what makes an idea captivating. In one experiment, they discovered that while 63% of people remembered the stories in a presentation, only 5% could recall statistics mentioned.

It’s clear to see why a compelling brand narrative is the ultimate differentiator in business. A strong narrative can explain your brand’s value proposition, build affinity in your target audience, and be uniquely memorable while doing it.

You’ll see the power of brand narrative applied in every market, but it’s particularly relevant in B2B SaaS where competition is high and differentiation is critical. 

Google’s work to build a brand narrative for their AdWords (now Ads) brand is a great example of the power a storytelling-led approach can have. They created a series of short-form video case studies, titled AdWords Stories, centered on conversations with small business owners. Each one talks about how Google AdWords helped them thrive, revolving around the interplay between the product and the customer. 

Screenshot of Google Adwords Stories Videos on Youtube
Google AdWords campaign showcases excellent brand narrative

The series of videos has amassed millions of views on YouTube. It’s backed by compelling messaging on their site, all geared towards strengthening the positioning of the brand as a “partner” who can guide you on the path to success.

Screenshot of Google Campaign about finding the right customers and helping business owners to succeed
Google positions itself as a partner using impeccable brand narrative

The narrative Google established with this campaign is clear—“we’re here to help small business owners like you succeed, and we care about what makes your business unique.” 

Mailchimp are an even better example to learn from because they entered their market without Google’s pre-existing brand power.

They dedicate a huge section of their site to customer stories in the form of articles, podcasts, and films. Showcased under the “Mailchimp Presents,” banner these stories form the backbone of their brand strategy. 

They act as case studies, social proof, and brand-building content all at once. Each story is a unique branch of Mailchimp’s overarching narrative, which can be summarized as “we’re passionate about small businesses, and created a tool that helps them compete with larger competitors.”

Screenshot of Mailchimp’s Narrative
MailChimp Presents embodies the company’s brand narrative

But, unlike Google, Mailchimp’s narrative had to extend beyond their product to build affinity in the brand as a whole. They achieved this by reinforcing the customer-centric narrative that the “Mailchimp Presents” content sets up with their founder story

Screenshot of Mailchimp’s Founder Story
MailChimp’s Founder story backs up their customer-centric narrative

This adds context to their raison d’etre. It’s endearing and relatable. Without it, Mailchimp would remain a “faceless” brand—just another tool vying for their audience’s attention. With it, they become a brand to care about.

6 brand narrative frameworks to inspire you

Brand narrative frameworks are the basis of most stories that capture our interest, including Mailchimp’s. They provide the perfect template for building a brand narrative. Consider them the skeleton of a story—the structure which props up the details. 

Just like stories, narrative frameworks range from simple to sophisticated. You can construct a convincing brand narrative using any framework, but here are six of the best to choose from.

Three-act structure

The three-act structure is one of the purest representations of a narrative. It splits a story into three distinct acts, or parts, often referred to as the Setup, the Confrontation, and the Resolution.

  • Act One: Establish the scene;
  • Act Two: Introduce conflict;
  • Act Three: Resolve the issue.

You can also think about the three-act structure as equilibrium, dis-equilibrium, and re-equilibrium. 

The fundamental concept is that something has disrupted the status quo and resolution can only be reached when a fundamental change has occurred. In fiction, this is typically achieved through character development. For a brand, the fundamental change is their product.

Five-act structure

The five-act structure, popularized by German playwright Gustav Freytag, takes the same basic concept as the three-act structure but adds further detail. It involves five distinct narrative beats.

  • Exposition: The setting and characters are introduced;
  • Rising action: Conflict arises and the status quo is disrupted;
  • Climax: The emotional peak where the story gets turned around;
  • Falling action: The outcome of the climax plays out;
  • Resolution: A new status quo is established.

At the center of this framework is the progression from equilibrium to dis-equilibrium and back again, but with room for additional narrative stages that add detail.

Before-After-Bridge

Before-After-Bridge is a simplistic narrative framework that’s particularly suitable for brands because it’s applicable to practically any format. It can form the basis of an entire brand narrative or a single social media post, and involves three stages.

  • Before: Establish the problem at hand;
  • After: Describe a world where the problem doesn’t exist;
  • Bridge: Present a solution to travel from the before to the after.

Unlike the three-act and five-act structures, the Before-After-Bridge framework abandons linear chronology in favor of a more effective hook. The After stage presents an opportunity to capture attention by describing the resolution before it’s actually reached. This means that brands can demonstrate their ability to resolve customer pain-points earlier in their narrative.

Problem-Agitate-Solve

The PAS formula is a common copywriting framework that’s also a great outline for a brand narrative. It’s similar to Before-After-Bridge but features a heavier focus on building emotional resonance.

  • Problem: Present the problem that your product aims to solve;
  • Agitate: Agitate the problem and increase the threat it poses while striking an emotional chord;
  • Solve: Position your brand as the solution to the problem.

The agitation in the middle beat can generate a particularly strong response when used to pre-empt and address the most common customer concerns. 

The Golden Circle Formula

The Golden Circle was coined by Simon Sinek in his TED Talk, “How great leaders inspire action.” It addresses how brands can delve deeper into their value proposition to cultivate more meaningful connections with their audience. The circle features three layers of self-awareness businesses are capable of, which can be translated to represent parts of a brand narrative.

  • What: What you do, sell, or provide;
  • How: How you do what you do in a unique way;
  • Why: Why you do what you do, and what greater purpose it serves.

While The Golden Circle isn’t specifically designed as a narrative framework, it can serve as a valuable storytelling template. However, this framework is different from the alternatives in that it’s exclusively self-referential—there’s no external conflict.

The Pixar story framework

The Pixar story framework is a legendary narrative template that supposedly forms the basis of Pixar’s stories. It revolves around equilibrium being disrupted, as most narrative frameworks do, but extends into considering repercussions more directly. It’s often presented as a series of prompts that, filled in, tell a complete story:

  • Once upon a time: The stage is set;
  • Every day: The status quo is explained;
  • One day: A conflict arises that disrupts the status quo;
  • Because of that: The first outcome from the conflict occurs;
  • And because of that: There is a subsequent outcome;
  • Until finally: There is a resolution, wherein a new status quo is established.

This framework is one of the most approachable because of how the prompts naturally lead compelling responses. With a greater focus on the fallout of the central conflict or problem, there’s plenty of room to inject emotional resonance. 

How to create a narrative that helps your brand stand out

These frameworks are all time-tested methods of creating a story that captures attention, builds emotional resonance, and sticks in the mind. But applying them isn’t as simple as filling in the blanks. 

There are three main steps to crafting and deploying a brand narrative.

Define your goals

A common thread shared by most narrative frameworks is that, at some point, conflict is introduced. It’s an unavoidable element of every story ever told. 

That thought translates to brand, too. Arguably every business in the world exists to solve a problem, small or large. When you set out to create a brand narrative, start with building a better understanding of what problem you’re solving, and for whom.

Sentry exemplify what a good understanding of a brand narrative goal looks like. 

Their product addresses the problem of undetected faulty code causing issues that affect application users—a problem that exclusively applies to app developers. Their brand narrative is oriented around these facts. 

Their homepage messaging specifically targets the pain-point and provides the solution. They describe their product as “developer-first,” and reference their popularity in the target market to demonstrate their good fit. 

Screenshot of Sentry’s Brand Narrative
Sentry’s narrative focuses on alleviating their customers’ pain points

Delving a level deeper, their brand narrative unfolds into who they are and why they exist. We learn about the altruistic beginnings of the product as an “open-source project” for the founders to use to “solve their own problems.” 

Screenshot of Sentry Origin Story
Sentry builds brand affinity by sharing their origin story

By knowing their target market and its struggles, Sentry created a brand narrative framework that is highly resonant and convincing.

Choose a framework

With an understanding of what your brand narrative needs to achieve, the next step is to choose a framework to help you develop it. Each popular brand narrative framework presents a different way to approach the process, but they can all lead you to a similarly effective conclusion.

Using Mailchimp’s overarching brand narrative as an example, we can demonstrate how it could have been reached through a choice of narrative frameworks. 

Three act structure

  • Act One: Mailchimp’s founders grew up immersed in small family businesses. 
  • Act Two: Early email marketing products are introduced, but they’re expensive and clunky, putting small businesses at a disadvantage.
  • Act Three: Mailchimp is created to level the playing field and help small businesses grow.

Problem-Agitate-Solve:

  • Problem: Email marketing software is overpriced, making it difficult for small businesses to keep up with corporate competitors.
  • Agitate: Mailchimp’s founders grew up in families supported by small businesses, and wanted to empower them. Without support, they’re doomed.
  • Solution: Mailchimp is created and small businesses are able to deploy email marketing to compete more evenly.

The Pixar Story:

  • Once upon a time: Mailchimp’s founders grew up surrounded by family businesses.
  • Every day: They worked with large corporate clients in their web development agency.
  • One day: Email marketing became a more important business consideration, but early products were expensive meaning small businesses were priced out.
  • Because of that: Small businesses were at risk of being out-competed by their larger competitors.
  • And because of that: Mailchimp was created to give small businesses the chance to compete.
  • Until finally: Small businesses were able to compete with larger competitors with better access to email marketing.

Each of these narratives is compelling and emphasizes Mailchimp’s unique value in a different way. When choosing a framework to help create your own brand narrative, try several out and pay attention to which one best represents how your brand solves the problem you’re addressing. 

Apply your narrative broadly

A brand narrative should bleed into every facet of operation. Applying it in your messaging is an obvious choice, but you can do more. 

McKinsey, for instance, often apply their brand narrative in content marketing efforts. Their McKinsey Emotion Archive is a clear example of a sophisticated approach to blending content and narrative. 

Screenshot of Mckinsey Emotion Index Page
McKinsey & Company’s Emotion Tracker exemplifies their brand narrative in action

Created during the COVID-19 pandemic, it charts the dominant emotions felt by people around the world. It’s data-driven, hugely insightful, and empathetic. In other words, it embodies the traits that McKinsey wants to represent themselves as having in their brand narrative.

The social media strategy used by SurveyMonkey, an online survey SaaS platform, is another great example of brand narrative in marketing. They playfully highlight their positioning as a tool that can get you answers to even the most niche questions with posts that reveal strange insights from self-run surveys.

Screenshot of SurveyMonkey Tweet Post
SurveyMonkey’s playful social media strategy showcases their brand narrative

Another logical application of brand narrative is in the environmental, social and governance (ESG) efforts that your business participates in. Patagonia embody this approach most effectively. 

They demonstrate their authenticity by committing to their narrative, with a self-imposed “1% for the Planet” tax. The funds they raise from this tax support environmental nonprofits, while also corroborating their brand story. 

Screenshot of Patagonia 1% self-imposed planet tax
Patagonia’s ESG efforts align with their overall brand narrative

This initiative effectively separates them from outdoor-wear competitors, highlighting them as a truly ethical business and appealing to their target market’s values.

Stand out by telling your story

A narrative should be the cornerstone of your brand strategy, especially if you’re trying to make an impact or build resilience in a saturated market. Without one, there’s nothing to tie together your values, product, and messaging. More importantly, there’s nothing separating you from the competition other than easily replicable “unique selling points.” 

The power of storytelling is put to work in all sorts of settings, from the cinema to the classroom. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be central to business, too. Work on constructing a brand narrative with the help of the frameworks above and you can take the first step towards effective differentiation.

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