July 10, 2023

Sapiens, narrative theory, and a text that changed everything

It all started with a text from my brother. Have you read Sapiens, yet? You will like it. I hadn’t. I hadn’t even heard of it. I pretended I had. I messaged back saying I hadn’t, but I’d definitely heard of it, and loads of people I know seem to be reading it at the moment 🤥 I didn’t feel good about lying, but my brother has a patchy recommendation record, and wanted to nip it in the bud. I didn’t fancy another ‘Battleships: the film’. And then, over the next few weeks more and more people - people whose taste I firmly admired and respected (I’m including my brother in this, for the record) - began recommending Yuval Noah Harari’s seminal book to me. Then one day, it arrived at my house. It was a present from my father, along with the note: YOU will like this, more than anyone I know.  You’re welcome. And everyone was right. I did love it.

For years I had been contemplating the notion and power of storytelling - particularly the role of storytelling of brands. And by contemplating, I mean: boring my colleagues, friends and family with when we went to the pub. I had become preoccupied with developing a form of brand strategy and a professional IP around the application of narrative theory: on the idea that a brand does not exist as an objective reality in the world, but rather exists in the collective imagination of humans as a series of stories. I had become fixated on providing consultancy that the stories a brand tells has a tremendous impact on human behaviour and society - and a brand's ability to create and share these stories is a crucial factor in their long term success. I was rejecting the premise that advertising was a short term, frothy exercise, or ‘noise’ (a term I rather dislike). Nothing was ever just noise. Everything said, mattered somewhere, somehow. I had become convinced that brands had risen to a status in our society as the great storytellers of our time - that brands were today’s orators - and that this carries a responsibility. Or at the very least, that this concept should reframe how we think about constructing brands and brand storytelling. 

And here I was, being gifted an evolutionary and  sociological explanation for it. Harari argues that narratives have allowed for the organisation of communities in society, and that by believing in the same stories people can work together, trust one another and build connections that transcend the limitations of traditional relationships. Well I was arguing that narratives have allowed for the organisation of communities around brands, and that by believing in the same stories people and brands can work together, trust one another and build connections that transcend the limitations of traditional consumer / business relationship. And that with the rise of social media, and the proto-platforming it provided each of us, brands were able to create stories that proliferated in ways intangible before; brands were able to influence reality in a way they had never been able to do before. Whereas once TV shows influenced culture around the water-cooler, the rise of content created the rise of brands being able to influence culture around the “whose-cooler” platforms online. And on top of this, as postmodernism and deconstructivism took over online, everything a brand did was suddenly imbued with narrative. A brand’s logo is a story, and represents something more than a beacon or icon for saliency; but a symbol of its cultural perspective and relevance (look at Burberry this year, for example). How a brand speaks to its employees is a story of its values and authenticity. How a brand channels its positive energy back into society is a story; what a brand chooses to ignore is a story. A brand is no longer the story of its goods or services, and the campaigns to market them. A brand is a culmination of its story woven together, again and again and again. And when you think of brands like this, the world of ‘brand’ becomes a lot more interesting. Just like that we have entered into the ‘narrative age’. In the 90s we had decadence. In the 00s we had celebrity. In the teens we had minimalism. And in the 20s we have narrative. 

And much like Harari asserts, now we know this to be true, our responsibility isn’t to look for the next age, but to use the power of narratives to create the best possible future for everyone today, and tomorrow. And this is particularly true with the rise of dehumanising possibilities; as societies face new technological, ecological, and societal transformations, narratives will be needed to address these changing realities. Brands will need to use their platforms to create narratives to provide guidance and inspiration for adapting to emerging technologies, ethical dilemmas, and the redefinition of what it means to be human. And this is as much to help us negotiate the new technologies, as much as it is to help us remember the beauty of being real, of being human.  

And so, today, we find ourselves in a world where brands matter, and the narratives - the stories- they tell have never been more significant. Great brands are born from great stories, and great brands have the ability to intertwine with the fabric of our collective imagination, shaping cultures, and inspiring change.

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