Do You Have the Right to Tell Your Brand Story?

February 6, 2017 Jonathan Crowl

brand story

Telling a brand story is more nuanced than it sounds. There are, after all, countless stories to share with the world, and brands aren’t limited to factual accounts of their own company histories. Increasingly, brands are asking their marketing teams to connect their company story with the larger stories of the world.

A marketer may be asked, for example, to create a campaign that highlights environmental concerns and positions the brand as a supporter or hero of that cause. Or the company may want to tell a story of a person seeking out clean drinking water, as a way of highlighting that particular brand’s efforts to combat poverty around the world.

This is something brands have been doing for a long time, and new digital channels only enhance a company’s ability to weave their brands in and out of complex narratives. It’s natural for marketers to stop themselves mid-process and ask a tough, scary question: are we the right company to tell this story?

No matter how great a story is, there needs to be some way the brand can use it to tell its own story, even if the connection isn’t immediately obvious to consumers. That’s why the story is being told, after all. But brands risk overstepping into story appropriation if they venture too far away from their own narrative, or if consumers see a false sincerity in the story they’re telling.

Great brands stories can be seen all throughout the Super Bowl in any given year. This year, a big-budget ad from Budweiser offers the perfect example of an ambitious brand story that connects to a much larger story about America—and accidentally tests what consumers might find acceptable.


Find the Heart of Your Story

Stories are most effective when they elicit emotional reactions. It doesn’t always have to be saccharine or sad: while you can create compelling narratives by inspiring consumers, you can also do so by simply being funny. Whatever path you choose, the end result has to make consumers feel something. If you’re someone who changes the channel when those ASPCA commercials flood you with images of abused shelter animals, you understand the end goal. While those ads are upsetting to many viewers, they succeed because that’s exactly what their content strategy goals are. They want you to feel so upset you take action by donating or supporting the cause.

This is where the Budweiser ad “Born The Hard Way” succeeds on the most fundamental level. It tells the inspiring story of an ambitious young immigrant, who comes to a nation of immigrants in search of the American dream. Budweiser has always made patriotism a big part of its brand—this is the same company, after all, that renamed its flagship beer “America” for an entire summer—and this advertisement falls in line with everything before it. The emotional connectivity is there as viewers identify with, and root for, the hero of this ad, who will one day come to St. Louis and open a brewery that will change beer across the country.

In the one-minute ad, the protagonist faces life-threatening situations and is confronted with doubt and afflicted by discrimination—but he never gives up his vision for a beer brand that could change it all. It’s clear that his story has been cleaned up and adapted to best serve the brand’s interests, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a good, heart-pounding story, packed into a mere 60 seconds.

Balance Story and Sincerity

One interesting twist in the story of this brand story is the context of its publication. As the first ad slated for the Super Bowl, this commercial has been in production and the approval process for months. So the timing is interesting given that immigration has become such a divisive and pressing issue—in fact, you couldn’t pick a more polarizing time to come out with an immigrant story for a brand advertisement. As such, the ad is at risk of being politicized, and drawing criticism from both sides of the argument: while some may deride the ad for appropriating a hot-button issue to advance its own business interests, others could slam Budweiser for attempting to make a political statement.

Another point of criticism could be the company’s bending of the facts. As noted in Slate, Adolphus Busch was not a penniless immigrant, but a well-to-do young man from a wine merchant family. He had the money to get himself started in America—and, contrary to the ad’s portrayal, he didn’t face discrimination on the scale that was portrayed, having moved to a city with a large German population.

Do these potential stumbling blocks ruin what could have been a great ad for Budweiser? Not necessarily. The fictional liberties taken are nothing grievous, and even if politics muddle the impact of its story, the company can simply stand behind the fact that they wanted to tell a compelling origin story, and that this history is rooted in the truth. It’s all about heritage—the company wants to use this content strategy to show its long history as both a beer producer and an American company.

More than anything else, though, the Super Bowl ad’s success will be measured by its impact on consumers: its reception during Super Bowl Sunday, its online video reach, the conversation it creates, and the ad’s ability to drive other related campaigns as part of a larger narrative push.

Slate argued that in a different year, this ad may have won an award. Instead, the political climate may push those awards in a different direction. But that doesn’t change the ad’s impact on consumer minds and attitudes: as long as the company is using story to strengthen its relationships with consumers, any award is secondary.

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