More on Storytelling

“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.” ―

Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings

The more I read about storytelling, the more fascinated I am on the use of this technique in place branding. I recently completed a book entitled “*Personality Not Included” authored by Rohit Bhargava. The focus is on why companies lose their authenticity, and how the ones that are great brands get it back. There are a number of important lessons with reapplication potential to place branding. For example, the notion of “getting your best Ambassadors to do the work for you” is one every community can leverage to their advantage. The key is to identify them and enable their success. There is also a great discussion on how to be unique. This book is well worth a complete read.

The section I want to focus on though is the “Lessons From Storytellers”. Rohit provides a great overview of the concepts used by storytellers to effectively communicate. These concepts can, and I believe should, be used by place marketers to help set their communities apart in the minds of potential capital investors.

Rohit talks about the importance of a good well articulated backstory. This is the story of your community’s history. The goal of a backstory is to establish a foundation of credibility. It explains why you are in a position to make compelling claims about what investing capital in your community can deliver. It is not the “sell”, just the set-up. Rohit’s analogy is that a backstory is the appetizer to the main course of your community benefits story. In a backstory you want to establish an emotional connection with your audience quickly, you want colorful characters and a way of telling it that creates an image in people’s minds. In short, you want to bring your community history to life in a memorable way. For example, rather than simply identifying the top companies in a given industry located in your community, tell the story of how the industry evolved to its current strength. Talk about the trials and tribulations, the visionaries that never gave up, and the notable success that was achieved. Then talk about your current assets and expectations for future industry growth. The backstory helps provide context, and a good one sets the audience up to want to learn more.

The other idea Rohit puts forward is that there are five primary backstory types told by companies. Each is relevant for communities as well. I’ve taken Rohit’s descriptions and modified them for place branding.

  1. The Passionate Enthusiast. This is the story of a driven individual who takes personal passion and directs it into building a successful business that becomes the foundation upon which the community grows.
  2. The Inspired Inventor. A tireless inventor creates something new and different by not giving up on his or her vision, and as a consequence reshapes the community.
  3. The Smart Listener. A new company is created by listening to customers, partners and others. It becomes so successful that it is the seed corn for a new industry.
  4. The Likeable Hero. A dedicated individual overcomes all odds to make his or her idea work. The success inspires like-minded individuals to locate in the community and creates a strong industry capability.
  5. The Little Guy versus The Big Guy. The classic David versus Goliath story where a company takes on insurmountable odds and finds a way to win; thereby, creating a vibrant economic base for the community.

For most communities, the backstory can be told by selecting one of the five models. You will want to slect the one that makes telling your community backstory easy. Then, you need to ensure you think through 5 elements – characters, challenge, vision, conflict and triumph. Each of these elements is important for a successful backstory.

Think about the backstory of Brand America. It is told as the story of a group of patriots who were victorious over a much better resourced opponent and in the aftermath created a country where all individuals can pursue life, liberty and happiness. A story of freedom that has endured the test of time.

A good place to start defining your community’s backstory is by visiting your local historical society or museum and studying the business history. You might be amazed at the colorful past and intriguing characters at the heart of today’s success.

I believe every community has a backstory that can be told. But, it does take some work to figure it out and then tell it in a memorable way. Backstories speak to the “right brain” of your audience. They engage the emotion. Your primary “sell” will speak to the “left brain” and be laden with facts and figures. To ensure your community story stands out and is remembered, it is important to engage the “right brain” of your audience. A great backstory will help you do that successfully.

For more on storytelling, read my previous blog posts – “Every Community has a Story, What’s Yours?” and “Creating Memorable Experiences”.


What has your experience been in using storytelling to promote your community? Leave a comment on what you found worked and what didn’t work.

Leave a comment with your thoughts.

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12 Comments so far

  1. Alan 'Brand' Williamson

    February 25, 2010

    Fabulous Story

    Looking forward to hearing your continuing story of Brand America. How it faltered trying to export its brand of freedom using military might under false pretexts. And how the current brand leadership, an Obama-led administration, is trying to recover its leadership position by giving ‘Hope’ to the Home of the American Dream.

    I’m also interested in hearing the backstory of how Brand America inspired its sub-brands to build their own powerful branded backstories: New York, Las Vegas, New England, Disneyland, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street and so on.

    And how Brand America’s sub-brands could come to rescue its country brand at its hour of greatest need.

    From New York in the east to Silicon Valley in the west, your country brand needs your branded backstories as never before.

    Ed, it’s time for you and your colleagues from this great nation, to re-tell the story of Brand America and its primary sub-brands to the rest of the world.

    I for one can’t wait to hear them and be inspired by them!

  2. Kay Lorraine

    February 26, 2010

    My favorite backstory is Wally Amos of Famous Amos cookies. There are actually two backstories here. The first one is the story of how a poor black kid, raised by his Aunt Della who baked incredible cookies, worked his way up from the mailroom to become the first black agent at the William Morris Agency. He discovered Simon and Garfinkle. Eventually he opened a freestanding cookie store in LA with backing by Marvin Gaye (one of his clients). It became the beginning of Famous Amos cookies.

    He sold the brand in the 80’s to a group who began using cheaper ingredients. Wally, incensed that his name was being cheapened, tried to start again but was prohibited from using his name in any way. His name was his brand, you see. So eventually he began an entirely new company “Chip and Cookies” here in Hawaii. They target school fundraisers and he uses the proceeds to fund his real 35-year passion which is literacy for children. His nonprofit, “Read it Loud!” encourages parents to read to their kids. And his cookies are terrific, too!!

    Now, there’s a backstory!

  3. Kevin Lane Keller

    February 28, 2010


    You are “spot on” for the power of stories for place branding. Given their experiential nature, it is a real natural. These kinds of narratives can help to build functional and emotional benefits for a location.

    Brand America and all its constituent parts could certainly gain from employing such tactics.

    This Web site is a real gem. It brings high quality perspectives to a very important topic. Kudos to you for all your hard work. It will have a great payoff!

    Kevin Lane Keller
    E.B. Osborn Professor of Marketing
    Tuck School of Business
    Dartmouth College

  4. Shelley Rosen

    March 1, 2010

    This is a great analogy for story telling- companies versus cities. Whether the archetype in the story is one of the five outlined or not, they all have one thing in common -the need to grow. The level of growth needed must be overlayed to the timing, intensity and urgency of the story. For towns or cities that were great once and are not great now, the need is even greater to include the dimension of growth. Since 2009 was ‘flat is the new growth’, let’s face it, all towns and all companies need a little more!

  5. Dean Barber

    March 2, 2010

    The best stories — whether fiction or nonfiction — are based on conflict. Man vs man. Man vs. nature. Man vs. himself. Man vs. slobbering aliens from outer space. You get the idea.

    The Japanese have a saying that “business is war.” And they are right in the sense that business is about competition and prevailing.

    As a former business editor, I learned that the best stories (those that are read) told about where some high flyer was up and crashed (Bernie Madoff) or someone who was down (or little money) and reached great heights. These are compelling stories.

    Virtually every part of the country has thought-provoking stories about a company or a community that has overcome great obstacles. These success stories write themselves and reveal something inherent about a community. I would suggest you find them.

  6. Sara Dunnigan

    March 2, 2010

    Wow – great post. I struggle sometimes with being in a community with such a rich history. How do you give props to that story without sounding like a history teacher. Like prospects really care about that! This gives it context as a series of events and a collection of people whose actions and influences have shaped where we are today. good work. I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time.

  7. Howard Forman

    March 5, 2010

    A good brand tells a good story. In fact, the idea behind a brand is to tell YOUR story in a very brief concise manner. So, your brand should “say it all!” This takes a tremendous amount of effort and resources. You need to brand yourselves so your name says it all. Michael Jordan did it. Oprah did it and you can do it to. If you would like to learn more about rebranding yourself, feel free to visit my website and contact me.

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