What do J. K. Rowling, George Lucas, and J. R. R. Tolkien have in common? They all know how to build universes.
And by “universe” I don’t mean galaxies and nebulae. In storytelling, universes are the arenas where countless stories can be told. (Think Marvel and DC.)
So how does this help marketers planning their 2018 strategy? I’d argue that next year you need to think less about brand stories and more about brand universes. Why? Because this approach solves three problems that brand storytellers face—quantity, identity, and authenticity.
If the task of brand storytellers was to simply tell a story, that would be (too) easy. You tell a tale and then your work would be done. But, of course, it’s never as simple as that. You need to tell many stories to keep reaching audiences across time and space.
It’s hard to describe how vast the Middle Earth universe is. If you’ve already read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Silmarillion, why not check out the twelve-volume series The History of Middle Earth compiled and edited by his son?
George Lucas’ Star Wars universe is also vast and has the potential for limitless spin-offs.
The Harry Potter universe includes seven main books plus the extension of Fantastic Beasts and the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child—and there’s more to come.
In fact, these universes are so fertile they inspire libraries of fan fiction, i.e. user-generated content. All brands have the potential to create arenas for their customers or end users to tell stories. As Kyle Harper has previously written in the Content Standard, brands like Adobe and The UPS Store have managed to do this well in the B2B space, where their universes comprise the cool projects their end users are doing.
So if you can create a universe, you create a space for stories. But not just any stories, right? They have to be brand stories, that is, they must have a particular feel or identity.
Image attribution: Greg Rakozy
If you want to tell lots of stories, you need to make sure they are all brand stories. This doesn’t mean slapping a logo at the beginning or the end. The stories have to be connected to your brand and to each other.
Tolkien’s stories all take place in Middle Earth. The extraordinary depth and breadth of this world is what makes his brand so unique. Or take the Star Wars universe. According to Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, “[the Force] surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” Actually, it’s what binds the Star Wars universe together. No matter what happens to our favorite protagonists, from Anakin to Luke to Rey and beyond, we know that as long as there’s the Force, it’s Star Wars. It’s also what makes me put out my hand and gesture—Jedi fashion—whenever I enter automatic doors. That’s great brand storytelling right there.
The unique trait of the Harry Potter universe is the combination of two coexisting worlds: the wizarding world and the Muggle world. The former remains mostly hidden and the latter corresponds to our world. In that sense, the wizarding world could exist. Why not? Maybe there really is a Platform Nine and Three-Quarters.
Building fantastic worlds while being authentic might seem contradictory. It doesn’t have to be as long as you’re consistent and thorough.
Speaking of an alien society in The Phantom Menace, George Lucas said, “The whole culture has to be designed. What do they believe in? How do they operate? What are the economics of the culture? Most of it doesn’t appear in the movie, but you have to have thought it through, otherwise something always rings very untrue or phony about what’s going on.”
Brand storytellers don’t want to come across as phony, right? So how do you make your stories authentic?
You can start by being logical and consistent.
“Part of what fans really enjoyed about the literary world [of Harry Potter] was that there was a logic that underpinned it,” says J. K. Rowling. “There was always a logic to the magic.”
Logic and consistency matter. Tolkien had to rewrite the chapter in The Hobbit that featured Gollum to make it more consistent with Gollum’s later portrayal in The Lord of the Rings.
To get real authenticity, you need back story. A good place to start is the Iceberg method, described by Shannon O’Neill in the Content Standard. In his non-fiction book, Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway said “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
During the years from the inception of Harry Potter to its completion, Rowling describes how she generated “a mass of material” that would never need to be in the books. This material included drawings, tables, and histories that would never be shared. She created the material partly for “her own pleasure” and partly because she also enjoyed reading books with that level of authenticity.
Take a look at the appendices at the end of The Lord of the Rings. We find family trees, calendars, annals, timelines spanning thousands of years, summaries of middle earth philology along with pronunciation guides for the various languages spoken by the inhabitants. The completeness of the world gives Middle Earth its solidity—its authenticity—as well as its magical identity.
Image attribution: Artem Sapegin
Building a Tolkein-esque world is probably a bit fantastical for your average brand. But where brand storytellers can follow the footsteps of masterful world-builders is in understanding how a shared back story can unite content and communications over time, allowing you to produce infinite variations while staying true to your brand’s identity.
The good news? Half the work has probably already been done. Look to your company’s mission and vision, your history and your reason for existing. How do these elements create an arena where stories can flourish? How do they influence the content you create and the stories you tell your prospects and customers?
At Skyword, for example, the back story that unites our content is a shared understanding that interrupt advertising is rapidly losing its effectiveness and that great stories can build genuine connections—between brands and their audiences, and simply between people. Not only does that underpin the products we create and the services we sell but it gives our marketing team a stage on which we can tell stories on topics that vary from change management to psychology to, well, Middle Earth.
So take your time and have a bit of fun. The universe—your universe—awaits.
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Featured image attribution: Herman Sanchez