Between every press release, pitch, tweet, post, photo and event that your brand puts out there, one thing glues everything together: storytelling. As natural pattern-seekers, we humans string together the messages we receive into meaningful stories, helping us make sense of the world around us. A goal of public relations is to ensure that, when audiences string together a brand’s messages, they form stories that are as engaging, consistent and positive as they can possibly be.
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Storytelling is essential to all levels of communication, from a single tweet to a company mission statement. Stories exist at all different levels — for the brand, for each campaign, for each product, for each press release — and the consistency of these stories is vital each brand’s success. As Robbie Vorhaus has wisely stated, “…in business, whoever tells the best story wins.”
Indeed, acknowledging the importance of brand storytelling is much easier than the process of implementing it. This is a problem easily solved, however, since good stories are made up of a few very simple building blocks. One of the most pervasive of these is a form known as the three-act structure.
The Three-Act Structure
By dividing stories’ timelines into three separate parts — or “acts” — we can be confident that the story is structured in a way that elicits interest and engagement from its audience. For brands, the three act structure serves as a guideline to decide what brand information to include in the brand story, and how to arrange it. Simply put, the structure goes as follows:
- Act I – Background, context and establishment of the problem
- Act II – Struggle to solve the problem; the action.
- Act III – The problem is resolved.
Those who criticize the structure simply overlook its simplicity, versatility and elasticity. A look at the structure’s roots gives us insight into how universally applicable it truly is. Long ago, Aristotle introduced it to the world with this writing:
“A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end.” (Poetics, 1450b27)
Playwrights adopted this into three acts, as a way to format their stage performances. Since then, Aristotle’s idea has found its way into books, movies, television shows, trilogies, journalism, political anecdotes and more. Understandably, this structure has a lot to teach us about brand storytelling.
Your Brand’s Story, Act I
It’s difficult to make a story engaging without sufficient context and background information. Where does it take place? Why is it important? What is the theme? What is the problem that’s to be solved? What’s the history? The goal of the first act is to answer these questions, anchoring your audience in the world of your brand.
The first act of your brand’s story should define the problem(s) that it intends to solve. Why should people use it? In its fullest form, it would lay out its mission, intent, history and the characters behind it.
The Heritage section of Ford Motor Company’s website tells Act I of their brand story very well. On its main page, we can form a solid image of who Ford is, what they stand for, and where they come from:
“The Model T Put the World on Wheels”
“Henry Ford created the Village Industries program to bring jobs and prosperity to small towns.”
“In 1914, Henry Ford started an industrial revolution by more than doubling wages to $5 a day—a move that helped build the U.S. middle class and the modern economy.”
More information is provided on the history of the company, including information on the leading characters that brought it to where it is today. From this, we can conclude that Ford is about much more than cars. It’s about American middle class prosperity.
It’s not necessary for brands to make Act I as well-developed as Ford has. After all, few brands have historical and cultural currency that can even compare to Ford. But for newer, smaller companies, fresh tech start-up Rapportive provides an example of how to integrate Act I into even the simplest brand story:
“Rapportive was founded in 2010 by Rahul, Martin and Sam. We like to make things that are useful, interesting and beautiful.”
“We started Rapportive because we wanted to communicate personally with people. Lots and lots of people. It turns out we weren’t the only ones: users adore Rapportive, and pump over 20 million lookups through our systems every month.”
Despite the company being less than two years old, we are able to understand the brand’s goals and purpose, as well its brief history and the characters behind it. All within five sentences.
As a final example, Old Spice’s website provides an even simpler Act I than Rapportive. For products as commonplace as deodorant and soap, Old Spice brilliantly makes sure to communicate the problems that they’re hoping to solve (in a rather comical way):
“I have a case of the pit tsunamis.”
“I’ve lost my man smell.”
“My soap isn’t manly enough.”
And there’s more. With this simple page, we’re aware that Old Spice exists to solve the many distinct odor problems of men. For Act I, sometimes that’s all you need.
Your Campaign & Product Story, Act I
As with brands, campaign and product stories also have their own Act I. Why was the campaign or product created? Who are the characters involved (organizations or leaders)? Answering these simple questions can help to lay the foundation for a more engaging campaign and product story.
I’ve noticed that humanitarian and non-profit campaigns are better at telling Act I than anyone else (perhaps because they’re naturally inclined towards transparency). UNICEF’s Tap Water Project is a five-year-old campaign that’s helped to provide clean water to millions of children all over the world. The project’s About page provides a lots of information about the campaign’s history, partnerships, mission and goals:
Since its inception in 2007, the UNICEF Tap Project has raised almost $2.5 million in the U.S. and has helped provide clean water for millions of children globally. Now in its fifth year, the award-winning UNICEF Tap Project, a nationwide campaign sponsored by the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, will return during World Water Week, March 20–26. The first program of its kind, the UNICEF Tap Project has become a dynamic movement that affords everyone the opportunity to help provide the world’s children with safe, clean water.
This type of transparency was also exemplified by the hyping up of the new Old Spice guy. Old Spice didn’t try to pull a veil over the fact that they were selecting a new figurehead, but instead openly acknowledged the fact that Fabio would replace Isaiah as the “new” Old Spice Guy.
As with most other stories, the precise end of Act I is often difficult to determine. To provide a point of agreement with critics, it’s rarely even necessary to do so. But communicating the basic elements of Act I in your brand’s story provides your audience with a context that will keep them anchored and engaged throughout the rest of it.
Next up, I’ll be breaking down Act II of your brand’s story — the meaty action. Stay tuned.
Please debate, supplement and respond to this article by commenting below.
Links in this Article
- The Pattern-Seeking Fallacy – A Smart Bear – By Jason Cohen
- Modern PR professionals: the persuasive storytellers – SlideShare – By Bob Pickard
- Storytelling and PR – All About Public Relations – Interview with Robbie Vorhaus
- Why 3-Act Will Kill Your Writing – Truby’s Writers Studio
- The Lord Of The Rings – Wikipedia
- Get creative and give reporting a beginning, middle and an end – Press Gazette
- Joe the Plumber – Wikipedia
- Ford Motor Company – Heritage
- Ford Motor Company – Innovators
- Rapportive – About
- Old Spice – Problem
- UNICEF Tap Water Project
- UNICEF Tap Water Project – People
- UNICEF Tap Water Project – Where Your Money Goes
- New Old Spice Guy Fabio’s YouTube Channel
- What’s Wrong With The Three Act Structure – Writer’s Store – By James Bonnet