How to Tell Your Brand's Story Like a Great Novel

One of the most engaging job interviews I ever had started with a simple question: “So, what’s your story?”

My long answer wasn’t right for an interview (besides, who wants to hear about my lousy choices in 1990s hair and fashion). But my short story—with a beginning, middle and end, along with a killer arc—landed me the job.

Consumers are asking the same thing about your brand every single day. What are you all about as a brand, and how do you tell your story effectively and consistently?

One hint might be from The Great Gatsby, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or even Harry Potter, among thousands of other great novels.

In an incredibly cool new study, researchers from the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide show how the greatest pieces of literature share common characteristics of exceptional storytelling.

In fact, by analyzing millions of words in more than 1,327 novels via a machine-learning algorithm, they chart the emotional experiences of readers and the secret formula for why a particular story is popular.

Beyond exceptional writing, it comes down to six types of stories, including rags-to-riches, riches-to-rags and the man-in-a-hole emotional arc—the tale of a someone who gets into trouble but finds a way out.

The researchers also crowdsource the emotional ratings for 10,000 of the most common words used in the English language—and they also build a fascinating graphic of how the emotional content of Twitter fluctuated over the past year.

Of course, your brand isn’t a novel—and you don’t have 300 pages and hours of reading to make a consumer adore you.

But over the course of a year—with thousands of social-media impressions and customer-outreach campaigns—you actually do have the ability to tell a long and engaging story about your brand.

You’ll simply do it every day.

Below are the lessons we can learn from F. Scott Fitzgerald and J.K. Rowling and thousands of other storytellers. The medium below is different, but the results are the same: total engagement.

It's an ongoing narrative about your company’s DNA:

1. Your brand should connect with consumers emotionally. REI accomplished this beautifully with the creation of Paul's Boots.

2. Your brand should be decidedly authentic and relatable to consumers. The #LikeAGirl campaign from Always has been smart and sharable during a period where women and girls continue to redefine the boundaries and perceptions of gender.

3. Your brand should offer the hope of change, wish fulfillment or escape. Ah, GoPro, the brand that means orgasmic fun in the endless sun. When introducing its new HERO5, the company took it up a notch. It's another chapter in their story.

4. Your brand should show a solution to a common or uncommon issue. And if it’s a disruptive solution, make that point every day. Humor helps, too. As the brilliant minds behind this ChatBooks campaign recently revealed.

Author Philip Pullman noted that “after nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

And they are certainly the things brands need in an increasingly noisy world.

—Michael McCarthy is the creative director for

5 Simple Fixes to Help Your Brand Tell Stories With Photos

Quick: What’s going to be one of the most important business moves you’ll make all year?

In the unlikely case you answered: “Changing my brand’s approach to using photography,” kudos all around.

Here’s an easy exercise: Go back six months, collect every image you or your team ever posted about your brand. Now, see if they tell a complete story of who you are.

The themes, angles, filters and storylines are probably all over the place, as if snapped by a collection of strangers who really don’t know what you’re all about.

Pictures tell a story. Your story.

The five ideas below, if implemented every day, will change the way the world views your brand.

1. Determine your brand’s aesthetic.

You probably know the why of your company, so this is where you ask: In a perfect world, what does it look like when you dreamed about it? Better yet, what does it look like when customers dream about it?

Several years ago, when I was grappling with inconsistent photography for Modern Luxury, I zeroed  I zeroed in on a look: sleek, clean and modern. I wanted beauty and attitude on every page. There was only one shooter—Greg Powers—who was accomplishing this for me regularly; he understood my vision.

So, I hired him to do all of the shoots in every single issue. Crazy, right? Well, instead of everything feeling the same, we collaborated to get a rich tapestry of looks on every page.

2. Be consistent but not repetitive.

There’s a big difference between consistency and sameness. The latter means you’re not breaking out of the same mold—like showing rows of cookies or cakes in your bakery every day.

Mix it up, but make sure the overarching themes of your brand comes through.

(One note: I know stock photography is everywhere, but try not to use it. If it doesn’t feel authentic to you, it’s not going to feel authentic to customers.)

For WeWork, the vibe is cool and interesting work spaces typically inhabited by young, good-looking people. The message: The gig economy and its happy workers are to be embraced. Join us.

The images are are consistently upbeat and cutting-edge—and they show life outside of work, too. It’s work lifestyle branding at its best.

3. Curate.

This is your brand: Think like an editor. Not every image deserves to be on Instagram. Choose the ones that show the best possible world your brand inhabits.

My friend Natalie Pinto does this exceptionally well. Her site, The Fashionable Broke, as well as her Instagram feed

have become must-visit spaces for 20- and 30something women looking for the next great look. Her images are mostly street fashion, and while her thousands of digital devotees may not realize it, she curates everything to a tee.

When I ran into Natalie at a party last summer, she even revealed the secret sauce of every image: a high contrast filter. The white balance of every image is kicked up a bit to make each image feel brighter—like the light that Georgia O’Keeffe always talked about in Santa Fe.

4. Show Your Products and Services in Action

A couch is just a couch, and an apple tart is just an apple tart—until they’re put into the context of life.

HomeGoods is smart with its use of photography. The company’s website and Instagram brim with rooms that don’t feel like out-of-reach dreams, but rather achievable spaces for the brand’s demographic.

The same applies to REI, a manufacturer of products begging to go outside and play. And play the brand managers do, with gorgeous images of customers embracing the company’s vision. It’s a lifestyle branding in action, especially on the company's social feeds

5. Be Creative.

Allow yourself the wiggle room to come up with images that push boundaries. Imagine the uses of your product. Stretch the reach of your services. Enter the world of your customer and simply show his or her life.

Los Angeles-based drink company Zevia reveals the California world we all want to inhabit. It's edgy, lush and a little risqué. The brand managers have taken lots of creative risks, and it shows on its Instagram.

—Michael McCarthy is the creative director for