We keep hearing that the best brands tell the best stories. So what do the world’s smartest brand stories achieve that the also rans can only strive for? And why do their audience members respond in the way they do? Luke Clark takes us on a hero’s journey through a world of personal spaces, to find out.

How does a brand story work and what do the best ones achieve? It’s the sort of question a journalist like myself might ask someone off the cuff — and leave them scratching their head.

The reason it’s a head-scratcher is that there’s never just one way to tell a great story ­— and no way to guarantee that if you or I followed this method we’d have the same result. Storytelling works because it plays into human dynamics — and because when it works, we seldom bother to think about why. Being fun and memorable is enough of a result in itself.

However this time I thought some deconstruction was called for. In the spirit of reverse engineering, I thought, “Okay, let’s start with a great brand story and ask, what is it doing and why does it work? Even better, let’s make it a video that’s well-worth watching anyway — then we’ll break it down. I promise this won’t hurt a bit.

1. A great speaker nails the first line

“I want to tell you the story of the time I almost got kidnapped in the trunk of a red Mazda Miata.” So begins the excellent TED 2016 presentation by Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb.

With 2.6 million views and counting, and a star-billing at this event alongside Al Gore, Gebbia’s presentation is rightly considered TED Talk gold — and is one I’ve watched several times. First up, Joe is super likeable — watch the first few minutes with even a day’s worth of skepticism and you’ll see why people invested in him.

Secondly, it’s is a great first line. There’s no product. There’s a mystery. We have a hero, and stakes. And like many winning teams, we have the colour red. Game on.

2. Your story should personalise the company

Put simply, we like brands that help us to relate to the struggles of those within them.

What Gebbia does in his story’s first beats is to share a small memorable account of the ‘origin story’ of his company — including the very first person to whom he offered that initial airbed for the night, a young guy who was enroute to the Peace Corp the next morning.

And of course, he throws in a splash of story theme: it’s a brand after all. “I’ve always believed that turning fear into fun is the gift of creativity,” he says.

So far so good. But while quirky and charming, Gebbia hasn’t yet shared anything startling as a brand story. Then he delves deeper.

3. The quest and its first failure

Anyone familiar with the archetypal ‘Hero’s Journey’ famously defined by American literature professor Joseph Campbell, knows that when it comes down to it, there is a popular ‘mythic structure’ that humans love when it comes to their stories.

The Hero’s Journey was the subject of Campbell’s famous 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It posited the notion that as humans, we inherently side with a hero who goes off on a quest. It’s why so many storytelling brands, from Star Wars to Toy Story, use the 12-part structure for their epic tales.

A key part of this structure is to see a few pratfalls. We like it when our hero falters at the first post — nothing like sharing an initial failure to get people to relate to your struggle and root for you.

Gebbia mentions the failed pitch that he and his partner first gave to those with seed capital. “Here’s what we pitched investors: ‘We want to build a website where people publicly post pictures of their most intimate spaces — their bedrooms, the bathrooms — the kind of rooms you usually keep closed when people come over. And then, over the internet, they’re going to invite complete strangers to come sleep in their homes. It’s going to be huge!’”

“We sat back and waited for the rocket ship to blast off. It did not.” Cue laughter and a general easing of the audience. The laughter is not only a great ice-breaker, it will later give the speaker permission for a learning moment or two

“No one in their right minds would invest in a service that allows strangers to sleep in people’s homes.” Why? Because, he notes, as children we learn that “strangers equal danger”.

4. Accessing the core problem-solving

Next up is where for me, the brand story gets interesting, by zeroing in on the real problem-solving which separates success and failure. Exposure to real-world breakthroughs gives us a precious seat at a table where few of us will otherwise sit.

Faced with their setback, Gebbia and team went back to basics. “When you’re faced with a problem, you fall back on what you know. And all we really knew was design,” he explains.

“In art school, you learn that design is much more than the look and feel of something. It’s the whole experience. We learned to do that for objects. But here, we were aiming to build Olympic trust between people who had never met.”

“Could design make that happen? Is it possible to design for trust?”

5. Help people to feel your challenge

We love the ideas — but can we relate to them? At around 5:08 in the video, a spark of empathy is lit.

Gebbia asks for a show of hands from the audience: “I want to give you a sense of the flavour of trust that we were aiming to achieve. I’ve got a 30-second experiment that will push you past your comfort zone.”

Those who give Gebbia a thumbs up are asked to take out their phones, unlock their phones — and pass them to the person to their left. A fissure of nervous laughter ripples through the audience. Yet still, everyone manages the task — a good sport, Joe hands over his own unlocked phone. We’re all in this together.

“That tiny sense of panic you’re feeling right now…” Cue more laughter, because he’s correct, “…is exactly how hosts feel the first time they open up their home. Because the only thing more personal than your phone, is your home.”

We not only get it — now we also feel it. We imagine our unlocked phone, and our precious home, in the hands of a stranger. And we feel the stakes that Airbnb was up against. The quest is well and truly on.

6. Make a deeper connection to your product

Having established “the trust challenge”, he goes on to the product exposition part — often a risky area for any brand story. Yet Joe gets away with it, because he’s sharing the story through the lens of experiences real people have had with his brand — and zeroing in on the point at which his company changes people.

Just like Star Wars or Toy Story, this is going deep. “The sharing economy is commerce with the promise of human connection,” he expounds. “People share a part of themselves — and that changes everything.”

Gebbia goes on to offer up bigger questions that hint at a purpose statement for his brand. “What if homes were designed to be shared from the ground up? What if cities embraced a culture of sharing?” We have seen the golden lights — and the chances are we like where we’re headed.

7. Deliver a personal payoff

Why is Gebbia’s brand a success and other competing platforms less so? A lot of it comes down to how his company delivers the payoff. Airbnb delivers trust by connecting us to the promise and benefits of a sharing economy — and the desire to be respected by those within it. In other words, Joe and his team have created community.

“I’ve learned that you can take the components of trust, and you can design for that.” Boom.

So what is a brand story?

  • A brand story personalises the company — we remember the story when there’s a person attached.
  • A brand story introduces the key problem — and makes you feel that problem.
  • Then crucially, a brand story delivers a pay-off.

This pay-off is something bigger than product, bigger than company, bigger than both of us. It’s something universal.

The pay-off in this case is a utopian ideal like the sharing economy — making you sense for a moment that what the company does in fact is universal, and worth striving for. Because it’s something we all want.

Why do we love brands? Because through their products, they tell us stories.

And why do we love their stories? Because when their stories speak to our own personal stories, we’re reminded that we’re not alone.

And that folks, is a moment we’ll remember and share.