What brands can learn from the General Election’s narrative problem

What’s the big deal about brand narratives? I think there’s a salutary lesson from this year’s UK General Election that shows us why they matter.

Okay, so the chants of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” to the tune of Seven Nation Army gave a good soundtrack to a campaign that confounded many people’s expectations, and there were undoubtedly a number of factors that contributed, but one stands out for me (and I’m grateful to Steve Howell for an all-too brief insight into the Labour Party campaign and comms machinery… I’ve taken that glimpse and run away with it).

Labour didn’t just have their messages ‘right’, they had a narrative. Just like we do, for any brand we work with, it was a story, structured with an arc. A big purposeful story, one that can still be captured on a page of A4; a story that lands on a payoff, a moral. A lesson – in the form of a universal truth.

Narrative should come first. Craft the story, and the messages will appear, as key beats in the story. The turns-of-phrase and sound bite-able nuggets will bob to the surface.

Maybe the Tories wrote something down, too. Maybe they even called it a narrative, too. But, if they did, I’m going to suggest they made one of the fundamental flaws.

In a (brand) narrative, like any great story, there are characters. Just as Joseph Campbell’s monomyth structure – the Hero’s Journey – there is a Hero, and a Mentor (and a Villain, and some other parts, too).

The first thing we talk to brand owners about, when we introduce the Hero’s Journey, is that the brand is not the Hero. The brand is the Mentor. The audience is the Hero.

So ditch your hubris. The brand’s job is to empower the Hero in their quest, like Obi-wan empowers Luke, like Dumbledore empowers Harry. And once we’ve got that clear, we can start to talk about journeys, and struggles, and conquests, and magic gifts, and the moral of the story.

How do I know the Tories had a narrative problem? Because it’s clear that whatever big story they might have been trying to tell, they put themselves (or the Prime Minister) in the role of the Hero. Strong and Stable. There was no room for the real hero… us. We were either not in that narrative, or we were as unempowered, meek and subservient at the end of their story as we were in the first chapter.

And Labour? They put us in their story. We were the ‘held back’. We were the Hero(es). They (and Jeremy, perfectly cast as the Dumbledore / Obi-wan) – the Mentor. Offering their support on our journey. For the many, not the few.

Now, Labour’s narrative might not be for everyone, but then what story (and what brand) is?