Your Brand Is Not the Hero of the Story

05/28/2014 04:48 pm ET | Updated Jul 28, 2014

Let me play you Scene 1 in a movie I often see. I will play the part of the skinny content marketing dude. The part of the brand marketing executive will be played by John Goodman or Brad Pitt -- whomever you like better.

INT. MEETING ROOM

BRAND MARKETING EXEC
We have this video and we want it to go viral.

SHAWN
Would love to help if we can. Let me see it.

Exec plays video on his laptop -- a montage of perfectly lit images of a food container timed to a pulsating techno track. We see a tracking shot across the side of the container, an aerial panoramic shot across the top of the jar, a spoon removing a dollop of the jar's sweet insides in slow motion. The montage ends with an extreme close-up of the product label as lightning flashes around it.

BRAND MARKETING EXEC
What do you think? It perfectly captures the
epic tastiness of our new line. Cost us $100K.

SHAWN
(searching for words)
It looks tasty.

[END SCENE]

I've been in this movie many times -- alone with brands that confuse shameless promotion with providing something of value. Brands that spend too much money and too much time creating infomercials, then wonder aloud why the views don't pile up.

Your brand is not the hero of the story. You might consider casting it as the hero if you have a really good story and your brand can play the part. But the story comes first, and all allegiance must then be paid to it.

And what do we know about stories? They have beginnings, middles and ends. They have conflict. They have a hero (or an antihero). They reflect something intrinsic about our humanity. There is also a funny irony about stories: They don't sell, but if they do their job well, people will buy.

In this new age of social, spontaneous communication, brands need to learn how to become more storytellers, less pitchmen. Lessons are learned from Hollywood. Every major summer blockbuster that is released is essentially a product line being launched across multiple verticals. However, the centerpiece of the product launch is a big, beautiful story whose job is to entertain. Leave a movie audience inspired, and they will want to ingrain that movie into their lives with the toys, branded food products, soundtracks and clothing they buy.

Hollywood gets this. So do brands. That's why they have historically hitched a ride on Hollywood's stories instead of creating their own. Those days aren't over, but it's no longer the only pathway to a consumer's heart and mind.

Brands are the new Hollywood, but they need to brush up on their storytelling skills and trust that the strength of their convictions will lead people to their products. Brands' products should be the manifestation of a company's values. Those values should be the subject of all sorts of wonderful stories that comprise your company's narrative. Some may star John Goodman (if you can afford him). Some may star Brad Pitt (you probably can't afford him). Some may star an employee. Some may feature your customers -- or people you wish were your customers. Insist that your brand audition alongside anyone else, and have the courage to realize when your brand is not the hero.

The great bluesman Lonnie Brooks told me something another bluesman told him. He was speaking with Junior Wells about trying to win over a cynical nightclub audience. Junior said, "Anything that comes from the heart can't help but touch the heart."

Social media is social. We're looking to touch one heart at a time. With one great story at a time.

[FADE TO BLACK]