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