Four Storytelling Genres of Brand Re-invention

This article was originally published on PSFK.com – a leading online magazine for trends, marketing, and design.

It seems everywhere you look established brands are in the midst of radical and ambitious re-inventions.

Beyond just new logos and taglines, brands are struggling to maintain relevance in the eyes of more sophisticated and savvy consumers. Brands often need to re-address the value proposition and create a more responsive and meaningful customer experience. Regardless of circumstances, a brand always has a story – a past, present, and future where its coming from and where its going. The key is to keep that story fresh without confusing or alienating your core audience. Our job as leaders and marketers is to tell a story that people can identify with, and locate themselves into.

It may be helpful to walk you through a few examples and teach you about four basic genres of brand re-invention that may guide the path forward.

Lets start with an example of who’s doing it well (at least at the advertising level):

Gatorade was a true pioneer when it introduced the idea of electrolyte sugar water for enhanced athletic performance back in 1965. Yet through the years, the core product line lost relevance, especially in the eyes of many hard-charging athletes. Competitors like Vitamin Water and Muscle Milk created more niche performance products. The core line of Gatorade became more of an everyday beverage for youth then something that serious athletes would actually use.

Enter G2 series, Gatorade’s attempt of brand re-invention. It’s actually developed a series of three products that tell a story – Prime, Perform, Recover – that is of greater relevance to the needs of athletes. Each of the three product lines is specially formulated for that stage of the sports equation. Prime gives you pre-game fuel and B-vitamins. Perform is for in-game performance, with half the sugar of original Gatorade. And Recover delivers muscle-building action through a high-protein formulation.

They’ve produced a series of advertisements that include the origin back story of Gatorade, along with an expanded notion of what the brand can do and become.

In contrast, here’s the example of Tropicana OJ’s brand redesign.

First of all, who said there was anything wrong with the original packaging design? Pepsico was so convinced, and hired the legendary talents of Peter Arnell to lead a redesign. The result? A swift and immediate revolt from consumers – who were shocked and recoiled at the very sight of the new packaging. Granted this wasn’t as sacrilegious as changing the product formulation (think New Coke).

Yet, the old package of Tropicana OJ was a familiar image and comforting companion part of many families morning ritual. Instead the brand reinvention storyline, seems to have served more the designers need for ego-machination and self-importance, then some explicit consumer need or genuine brand evolution.

Watch this video for a painful example of this cautionary tale. The lesson – Your brand story should always be in service to your audience.

The Four Different Genres to Consider

Genres are like categories of storytelling. Think of when you’re browsing through Netflix and debating what movie to watch. You might be in the mood for a romantic comedy but your spouse wants a psychological thriller. We each respond differently to the various story genres. Yet the genre tells us a lot about the kind of storyline to expect, which is why Netflix organizes its movies via genre. It’s equally why identifying the genre of your brand re-invention is so critical.

The literary critic Herman Northrop Frye explored the typology of narrative genres. He emerged with a core set, you might call the Four Seasons; Romance, Tragedy, Comedy, and Irony. These archetypal genres play an important role in the history of literary traditions, media, and the cultural psyche. Frye argued that most stories about the human experience fall into one of these four general buckets. There’s some great insight to draw on when it comes to the process of re-invention.

1. ROMANCE represents a “back to origin” story through re-commitment to core values and re-interpretation of the past.

This is a very popular genre that guides many if not most brand re-inventions. The Obama political campaign was based on these principles. While the message was built on change, it was always in the context of fulfilling our ancient promise and manifest destiny as a nation. Those famous Moleskine notebooks is equally a story of an almost defunct brand with legendary origins, brought back from obscurity and re-packaged for the new context of culture creatives.

Another great example is that of Apple. Just last week Apple replaced Microsoft as the largest market cap tech company in the world. Yet back in 1997, Apple was in a different place. When Steve Jobs returned, it was on the brink of bankruptcy, and a strong acquisition target. Jobs re-ignited the fire – by reminding people of the company’s DNA and its legacy for free-spirited ingenuity. Its no small coincidence, that equally in 1997 Apple launched its groundbreaking Think Different campaign. It announced first to itself and then the world, that it remembered who it really was.

2. TRAGEDY is the classic redemption storyline.

We love it when our heroes fall from grace only to get back up for another chapter. It’s how Donald Trump and Martha Stewart got a second chance and each became ever bigger global brands. And it’s what both Toyota and Tiger Woods are now desperately praying they can accomplish.

Domino’s Pizza is an example of a big brand success to give us hope. The brand hit rock bottom last year after two employees posted a YouTube video with distasteful food pranks played on unsuspecting customers. The scandal that ensued but Domino’s in the brand reputation hot seat.

Fast forward to the spring 2010. Domino’s current campaign is a mea culpa to the world. In the ads, executives acknowledge how they lost touch with the quality and taste of their product. In turn, they listened soberly to customer complaints and have re-formulated their pizza into something they can be proud of. They’ve also created a marketing campaign with incentives for people to come back and give them a chance. Two medium pizzas for just $5.99 each! I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.

3. COMEDY is a genre of playful brand reinvention, a retro-forward revival anchored in nostalgic terms.

Think Mini-Cooper or Volkswagen Beetle. Both successful brand reintroductions were the result of celebrating a certain ethos, lifestyle, and icon of a different era. Taking a cultural moment in history and reinterpreting the brand to today’s context.

Sometimes the comedic angle can backfire. Just ask Oldsmobile, who’s attempt to refashion the brand for a new generation only alienated its core demographic, eventually defuncting the brand.

Check out this video and see for yourself how the story gets lost in translation. There is in effect no new story to latch onto. No reason for young people to believe in the evolved storyline.

4. IRONY is the act of transforming into the antithesis of what you once where.

Sometimes the best way to defy critics is to embrace and become the opposite of what you once where. As the biggest corporation in the world, Walmart was long criticized for aggressive corporate practices. It became the poster child and lead target for environmentalists and activists around the globe. Through an ambitious re-branding campaign, Walmart is re-fashioning its image as a global leader on the issue of sustainability. Its new tagline, “save money, live better” recognizes consumers want a brand story that lives beyond just the rational value proposition.

Ironically, a brand perception study by BBMG in 2009 reveals the ambiguity of brand re-inventions. The survey asked 2,000 Americans about big brands and their perceived environmental and corporate responsibility practices. The best brand in America? Walmart. The worst brand in America? You guessed it. Walmart. Even the best executed brand re-invention will lead to competing storylines. Your story isn’t powerful unless you have both believers and non-believers. Of course, over time you want to tip the scales with more believers than non.

Exploring the Convergence of Genres

These four story genres are not mutually exclusive in the course of a brand re-invention. Consider Microsoft’s coordinated efforts with support from legendary Crispin Porter + Bogusky.

Think back. Do you recall those weird ironic commercials with Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates? At the time, we all scratched our heads, wondering WTF? In retrospect, it was a stroke of genius – intentionally designed to create cognitive dissonance, and confuse the mind, in the face of growing negative associations with the Microsoft brand. It was an act of brand story theater, a metaphoric reset button, which created a blank slate canvas on which new brand story associations could then be introduced. The Genre of Irony when effectively used can literally turn things upside down.

Then came the “I am a PC” campaign which the followed in the Genre of Romance which suggests you should proud and embrace who you are. Follow your dreams. Even when misunderstood. Make no apologies. Interestingly, next came the Windows 7 re-launch, which used a “we listened to the people” message line, to embody more the Genre of Tragedy and its redemptive story arc as an acknowledgment of previous less than stellar Windows releases.

Different story genres are appropriate at different times, just like you’d pick a certain movie to match your mood. The key is to focus on believability, and what will make people receptive to consider an evolution in your story.

Checklist for Believability

  • Why should people care about the evolving story?
  • Can your audience personally relate/identify with the new story?
  • How will you overcome the risks and fear of adoption?
  • What shows or proves that your re-invention is for real?

So when it comes to brand re-invention, you have to determine the context in which you’re telling your story. Is it a time to apologize or a time to re-commit? These are the nuances that all brand stories must tease out. Lets just hope some enlightened executives at BP are listening.


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