12 may 2011

What’s the Story?

David Law writes about how brands can profit from coherent storytelling…

I have just finished reading a fantastic article in last month’s UX

Magazine. ǃ˙UX? WTF?ǃ˘ I hear you say. Well, it stands for ‘User eXperience’ and if you are unfamiliar with the term, just think of it as a sort of ‘Brand engineer’. Their role is to examine every part of a business from top to bottom, kick its tyres then tear it all apart and then suggest ways in which to build it all back up from scratch in a better, stronger and fitter way to create a better user experience. A bit like rebuilding the foundations and plumbing and electrics without knocking down the house.

Fascinating stuff really.

I didn’t know exactly what UX was until a few months ago when we joined forces with the brilliant Warren Hutchinson to create SomeOne Else. We were working with Betfair and it became increasingly clear that as a truly digital brand many of the challenges we faced in enhancing their identity were inextricably linked with their user experience.

Since then we have been looking at how to underpin a brand’s user experience with its strategic proposition to create fully aligned identities for our clients.

This is where the UX Magazine article struck me. In ‘Why we need storytellers at the heart of product development’


Digital Strategist Sarah Doody argues that ‘Far too often, teams focus on execution ǃÏ the how and what ǃÏ before defining the product opportunity and unique value proposition. In a world where consumers are inundated with choices, products that want to be noticed and adopted must be rooted in the why. If you want your product to be heard by consumers, it must be grounded in a story that consumers can emotionally connect with.’

At SomeOne, we are consistently meeting people intent on starting up snappy new ventures dreamt up on paper focussing solely on the execution of what they aim to do as some sort of lift pitch – ‘we want to be Foursquare of finance’, ‘the bank for people that don’t trust banks’ etc.

This is piggybacking or mashing up an existing model in the hope that their hybrid version will strike gold, or at least a small percentage of the market leader’s profit.

These are brands full of purpose, focussing on the ‘what’ and ‘how’, but entirely lacking in a story, or why. This makes our job of creating a brand identity for them rather an empty experience as all we have is surface and no soul.

Doody proposes a new job description ǃÏ ǃ˙Product Storytellerǃ˘ ‘Part matchmaker, marketer, technologist, and artist, the product storytellers ask questions, find answers, and figure out how to distill a vision or idea into a product story.’

(You can learn loads from reading UX Magazine replacing the term ‘product’ with ‘brand’ by the way.)

The tendency would be to think ‘isn’t that what a brand strategist does?’.

Well, only in part. Brand strategists are usually agency side and mainly get to work at the very beginning of a programme. They identify a core proposition and values to launch or relaunch those brands, but not to keep telling the ‘story’ throughout a brand’s lifetime. Not only would ‘product storytellers’ identify the intended brand value, they would also share and evangelise the brand story throughout their organisations. This would also distinguish them from the Marketing Director’s role of how to share that story with the world or the CEO who came up with the story’s title.

The same issue exists in designing brands. More often than not, we are engaged for a set period of time with a list of criteria and deliverables in order to fulfill the brief, often dislocated from the other project teams (advertising, media and digital agencies etc).

We may help create the first chapter, but the rest of the book is left to write itself. One answer is brand guardianship, but this itself is often viewed as ‘policing’ by clients and not storytelling.

Having a storyteller client side would not only facilitate the development of a brand story, but also encourage collaboration between groups and ensure that every interaction a consumer has with a product or brand maps back to that story.

The best known example of this has to be Steve Jobs at Apple who snugly fits Doody’s proposed job creation. ‘Product storytellers think about the

whole, and they see the big picture. But they also can go deep because they understand that the product’s true value lies in the details of its interactions and every touchpoint that a consumer has with it.’

Every board should have one ÇƒÏ as well as a subscription to UX magazine!


  1. Caroline Horton says:

    I plan to steal all of SomeOne’s brilliant ideas without paying a penny.. is this allowed? Please feed me with ideas.. oh please!

  2. Caroline Horton says:

    Also, this is a nifty little blog. I do like it and a really nice article too

  3. Hi there. Nice article.

    I agree with your ideas on brand storytellers. However I think your point on UX design could go considerably further. In fact I would say that Brand designers and strategists should be considering the very real possibility that UX design could replace their role.

    If a brand offers no retail environment or sells no tangible product (eg Facebook, Skype, Spotify), then is a brand consultants really the best person to set that brand’s direction?

    If the role of UX designer is to research users’ motivations and create a service/interaction that not only reflects the consumers’ needs, but also meets the organisation’s objectives. Where can a brand expert offer value?

    It’s an interesting proposition don’t you think? I’m excited to see how your agency is bringing together brand and UX experts. Perhaps one discipline will simply become the other in time.

    • David Law says:

      Interesting comments and thanks for the positivity!

      Martyn – your points are excellent. Of course the role of UX is broader than the picture I painted for this article. Likewise I think that Chief Execs would feel that they do a bit more than just come up with the story title.

      What I would say though is that where, as you say, the brand has no tangible product, the role of brand-led marketing is actually key as a differentiator – the customer is not interested in how the service is put together but just that it works well and services them in a way that ‘speaks’ to them. So I would say that while UX can ask all the difficult questions in ‘engineering’ the product/service, only branding can bring it all to life in an engaging way.

      I do agree however that UX and brand do need to better understand each others role which is exactly what we are trying to do – especially with clients like Betfair.

  4. Maria Paula Martinez says:


    I found interesting this article and in general the topic,
    I consider that as a design and brand strategist we need to evolve the way of brand strategies are build from the beginning and consider UX as a
    core of the process.

    Currently i¨•m part of a Master course at Brunel and my research is aimed to identify the role of experience design to deliver valuable content for users and and as an outcome i would like to establish a framework for this emerging approach.

    So my question would be you think nowadays experience design needs to play a major role in the brand communication?


  5. John Lowdon says:

    This is a nice thought. I think as a designer who has tried to achieve the ideals of branding with smaller budgets in recent years (due to relocation), I am always looking for ways to achieve the best possible, continued brand culture that lives on past the initial design process.

    In the case where there isn’t a possibility to employ these individuals, brand champions and advocates can help tell the story outside that particular organisation. Collaborations, project partners and social media campaigns for example can help tell the story on an ongoing basis, it just needs to be part of the strategy.


  6. Jenmacc says:

    I really like this idea of placing a greater emphasis on the story of the brand. Genuine authenticity and transparency are key to developing a brand that resonates (see what I did there!?) today.

    If service or UX will be rooted in this story allowing them to be the key differentiators that creates that essential emotional connection between brands and consumers, brand needs to create a ǃÚmultilogueǃ٠as opposed to a dialogue. They need to be facilitators to consumers communities within a set or stage that will be reactive to consumer demands. So I wonder is the story ever evolving and changing based on the consumer perceptions or the brands?

    Also, IǃÙm not a fan of job titles in general but I do like the idea of being down the pub with your friends trying to explain what you do as a ǃÚbrand storytellerǃÙ!