The Suspense In Your Brand Story

I’ll be speaking at Social Media Day Halifax on June 22. This post is a sneak peek at part of my talk about brand storytelling.


When it comes to brand storytelling, the fact that your company exists isn’t enough. That’s not a brand story. Sorry to break the news.

Lots of companies exist. Millions even. How many of them do you know? And how many of those do you care about?

I’m guessing the number is relatively low. You might have had to think about it for a minute — after all, most people will reflexively say, “Why would I care about a company?”


Now think about your favourite book or movie. You probably have a quick response, or maybe you took a few seconds to debate with yourself about which one is actually your fave.

Now think about the story in that favourite book or movie. Is there suspense in it? I bet there is.

Whether it’s a thriller, a romance or a high literature novel, suspense is the building block of a good story. Suspense isn’t only a jump scare in a horror movie – it’s bigger than that. Suspense means that something is at stake.

  • Will the good guy get the girl, or will the rich jerk win her heart?
  • Will the former spy expose the secrets of her government, or will powerful forces erase her existence first?
  • Will the family find happiness in a better tomorrow, or will they continue to languish in poverty?
  • Will the undercover FBI agent complete his mission, or will he join the gang of surfing bank robbers who have become his friends?

Pretty much every story has some form of suspense – an anticipation that something good or bad will happen. That’s because in a good story there has to be something at stake.

Why? Well, if nothing’s at stake, why would you care?

A story with nothing at stake lacks drama. The same is true for brand stories.

Your existence is not a brand story. A litany of your products or services is not a brand story. There’s nothing at stake there. There’s no suspense.

So how do we take that building block of creative storytelling and apply it to brand storytelling? You need to find the drama in what your company does, and how you impact your customers or community.

Think about Patagonia, as one example. They launched a “Don’t Buy This Jacket Campaign” on Black Friday, the biggest retailing day of the year in the United States. Their message was counterintuitive to almost every retailer who wants consumers to buy more stuff. But Patagonia puts a clear emphasis on environmental responsibility, and they knew to live that authentically they needed to put down a marker. So, buy nothing.

They have followed that up with a campaign focused on repairing old gear. They even have a store where you can repair and sell old gear.

Patagonia also directly took on the Trump presidency about its decision to rescind federal protection of American parklands.

The Patagonia story has suspense – will consumers do the right thing and repair their jackets, or will they simply buy new gear and chuck their old stuff in a landfill? Or more broadly, will we stop our culture of relentless consumerism? The jury, obviously, is still out on this.

But it’s something that people care about – certainly something the kind of people who buy clothing and gear from Patagonia care about.

Or think about the story of FedEx. Today, it’s a global shipping and logistics company. But its success wasn’t always guaranteed. In the early 1970s, FedEx was struggling, down to its last $5,000. That wasn’t enough to pay for the fuel their planes needed the next week.

So, founder Fred Smith took that last $5,000 and flew to Las Vegas. He made a series of bets and came away with $27,000, enough to keep the company in the air for another week. They turned the corner and today FedEx is worth $45 billion and has 400,000 employees.

How can an employee, customer or investor not rally to that idea? It’s real and the drama is inherent. Smith’s literal “bet the company” move is part of American corporate lore.

That’s a great brand story.

Allan Gates

Allan Gates is the president of Bonfire.