Over the past decade or so, we marketers have taken to calling ourselves “storytellers” and our work “storytelling.” We insist that, to survive in a competitive market, your brand must tell a great “story.” The idea holds water, but we’ve been reckless with that sacred S-word. We’ve led ourselves and our clients to believe that storytelling is a simple and inevitable outcome of brand strategy.

But the act of creating brands that tell truly impactful and enduring stories challenges, frustrates, and incites anxiety in brand builders every day. It’s much more challenging than we often admit. The hardest part about telling brand stories is that we can never write the whole story. Here’s what I mean by that – Think about two fundamental concepts of a story: a plot and characters. What are the plot points in your brand’s story? And who are the characters with major roles in it?

We can’t answer these questions. Because we can’t predict what problems or opportunities will arise as plot points in the future, or who will play crucial roles in the brand’s story as it plays out for decades.

We can’t write the brand’s entire story for it. But we can set the stage for the story to adapt to culture and events while remaining true to the crucial tenets of the brand. We can create unshakeable story foundations by taking advice from one of the great storytellers of our time.

David Mamet, renowned playwright of great works such as Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo, claims that the foundation of every great story is built from four questions:

  1. What does the protagonist want?
  2. Why does he want it?
  3. What happens if he doesn’t get it?
  4. Why now?

If we give our brands the role of protagonist, and apply these questions, we’ll build stronger foundations for brands to tell powerful and flexible stories. Our brands will become a character on a journey – one with a defined goal, defined stakes, and defined reasons why it matters. Our brands can make decisions and adapt to anything that arises in their paths. Their stories will be more flexible and they’ll stay true to the purpose and goals at their core.

Take Patagonia as an example.

  1. What does Patagonia want? To preserve the world’s natural beauty.
  2. Why do they want it? Because they believe the world should remain healthy and beautiful.
  3. What happens if they don’t get it? Future generations won’t get to enjoy the world’s beauty as we have.
  4. Why now? Because we’re reaching the point of no return. We may be the last generation that can stop climate change.

Of course, this works for inherently adventurous brands like Patagonia. But what about more practical, everyday brands?

Like Walmart:

  1. What does Walmart want? To lower the cost of living for everyone.
  2. Why do they want it? So that people can live better lives.
  3. What happens if they don’t get it? People will have to spend more money on their basic needs and less on the things that make life good.
  4. Why now? A dollar today doesn’t buy what it should. People feel that, even with a full-time job, they don’t have the income necessary to live the lives they want.

Using these questions as a framework for brand storytelling can expose the powerful stories that lie at the core of every brand, from the exciting to the everyday.

Today’s strongest brands have so effectively built those four questions into their identities that consumers know the answers subconsciously. They’re able to view the brand’s actions as steps that either progress towards or pull away from its goal. They can watch the story unfold in real-time and cheer the brand on as spectators or support it in its quest as paying customers.

It’s time for brand builders to be more intentional with the word “storytelling.” We can use David Mamet’s questions as a checklist to ensure that our work meets the expectations of a story. If we set the stage with these questions, we’ll develop more gripping stories that will rally customers and talent to join our brands as they march towards their goals.

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