Brand storytelling, or brand faketelling?
Some of the advice online about how to write a brand story or how to be authentic is enough to make me want to pluck my own eyes out with a spoon. After all, some of it sounds sooo……fake.
There must be those who listen to this advice because what you see when you read their brand story is so unbelievable that it’s almost impossible to read to the end. I find myself asking, is it true, or is it completely baloney, and would I actually buy anything from these people?
You could argue that it doesn’t really matter because if the service or product is good, does it matter if the founding story behind it is fake?
I mean, what is it to be authentic as opposed to living a lie? Does it matter what our story is - surely we can fake it till we make it until we reach some modicum of success.
For me, I like a genuine founder story that while reading I’m actually touched by and feel a connection, even though simultaneously knowing I’m being sold too. It’s clever, perhaps because I’m from a marketing background, I know the formulas and techniques. I know the telltale signs when I’m being reeled in, but I can enjoy the ride, and appreciate and admire the skill, the writing and the crafting of it at the same time.
In Forbes ‘How And Why To Build Brand Authenticity” Michael Georgiou argues that in order to build brand authenticity there must be a connection and that customers connect to a brand emotionally. He goes on to argue that “An authentic brand is one that decides to be transparent and consistent in its messaging and branding initiatives. It has business values it remains true to, and most essentially, it is honest.”
So, perhaps honesty is the best policy then. Perhaps faking it till you make it isn’t the best way forward in the end.
Frankie & Benny
However, the story of Frankie & Benny gives pause for thought, there was an emotional connection even if it none of it was real.. Frankie & Benny is a UK chain of New York/Italian cuisine and is well recognised throughout the UK. It has a familiar brand logo and for many years was proud to demonstrate its authentic service supported by a warm and welcoming family brand.
They were a perfect example of brand storytelling at its best, with a strong link between their food and the Frankie and Benny backstory.
It turned out that Frankie and Benny, the warm and brotherly twosome weren’t all as they seemed, in fact, they weren’t even real people. Their story was fake, from the founding of the business back in 1995 to how they actually started out.
Yes, you heard right, 1995, which doesn’t coincide with their founding year, cited as 1924. The story is special, all about how little 10-year-old Frankie Guiliani left Sicily and became best friends with an American boy his own age, Benny, and took over the family business in 1953 combining their love of Italian and American food.
As Cherry Crane argues in her article Frankie & Benny’s…Who? This was the type of story we all love to hear, how a humble beginning led to fame and fortune, and the purity and honesty of the brand carried them through from its inception to worldwide success. Everything about it screamed authenticity and truth. Two boys who believed they could make it through hard work and determination - and they did.
Except none of it was true.
The real story was a little less glamorous. The Frankie & Benny chain was founded in 1995 and not 1924 in the UK and launched its first restaurant in Leicester, UK, later a drop in sales would lead to some restaurant closures. Since then the ‘Benny’ has now been dropped from the brand name, and it’s just Frankie’s. But did it matter?
Crane argues that although the brand eventually became outdated and irrelevant, she still admires their tenacity, and the brand they created, because despite being fictional, the brand told a story we can all relate and aspire to and goes on to say -
".....I find it admirable how F&B has continued to maintain a strong brand personality throughout the use of their story. They tell this story throughout many aspects; from the food, the aesthetics, to the staff. Whilst it may be out of date for some, I like the fictional yet fun idea of eating somewhere that was once run by a small Italian family trying to succeed in life — it’s humbling.
Yes, it’s humbling, even if it isn’t true. The question is can you create a story around yourself that’s a lie if you think it’s what people want to hear - if it fits, if it catches the zeitgeist?
Back in 2017 Fifteen ran an article on brands with fake brand stories. One of them was Hollister. Prior to that, another story on the Hollister brand had been reported by Business Insider, “Hollister's elaborate history was completely fabricated by the company” back in 2015.
Hollister was well-known for its lifestyle fashion brand but became equally famous for its fake brand. Its origin story, similar to F&Bs started out in 1922 in California. However, just like F&Bs, it turned out later they weren’t in fact founded in 1922, but 2000 by Abercrombie and Fitch. The story certainly captured the imagination -
“John M. Hollister was born at the end of the nineteenth century and spent his summers in Maine as a youth. He was an adventurous boy who loved to swim in the clear and cold waters there. He graduated from Yale in 1915 and, eschewing the cushy Manhattan life suggested for him, set sail for the Dutch East Indies, where he purchased a rubber plantation in 1917. He fell in love with a woman named Meta and bought a fifty-foot schooner."
"He and Meta sailed around the South Pacific, treasuring ‘the works of the artisans that lived there,’ and eventually settled in Los Angeles, in 1919. They had a child, John, Jr., and opened a shop in Laguna Beach that sold goods from the South Pacific—furniture, jewelry, linens, and artifacts. When John, Jr., came of age and took over the business, he included surf clothing and gear. (He was an exceptional surfer himself.) His surf shop, which bore his name, grew in popularity until it became a globally recognized brand,” https://www.fifteendesign.co.uk/blog/fake-authenticity-brand-storytelling/
It was all made up. And once again I admire their storytelling skills. It takes some skill to create a story that sounds so authentic you can actually imagine that person as real, that starts to embody the brand, the clothing everything because somebody put that much time and effort into it.
Interestingly, at the time, Fifteen cited a BBC article from 2009 which had argued the difficulty in a brand having a fictional backstory.
"To make up a character like that, you'd think, well, that was very deceitful. In fact, it is only part of creating a lifestyle brand, a kind of cultural myth that consumers can really engage with," academic director of the Oxford Institute of Retail Management, Jonathan Reynolds, told the BBC. However, he noted it was all a "moot point" because teenagers didn't really care.”
And that IS interesting, because depending on the age group you’re targeting, whether it’s generation z or x, who will care the least if a brand story is fake?
We could make sweeping generalizations about whether an older generation would care more about whether a brand story is genuine or not, and that a younger one might not care so much. If the brand is relevant, and in tune with current values and trends, will they care a jot about whether the founder’s story has any truth to it at all?
Jump to 2021 and HBO’s Fake Famous. In Naomi Fry’s piece in the New Yorker, “Fake Famous” and The Tedium of Influencer Culture” the programme’s writer and director Nick Bilton argues that most influencers
Bilton’s influencers include an aspiring actress, a fashion designer, and an assistant to a real estate agent. Bilton’s assistants, hired to inflate his 3 protégées into the big time are a combination of ‘casting directors, stylists and social media consultants.’
And yes I know what you’re going to say, these are individuals, Instagram would-be famous influencers, not businesses with a brand to maintain, but how many low-key brands and small businesses including coaches, copywriters and consultants have you seen get a brand makeover with glamorous photoshoots and fresh new copy with help from their mentors? How many times have you wondered whether or not they were genuine?
Is any of it true, or is some of it partially, or completely fake? Are they who they say they are, and does it really matter if you're the client, and they’re getting you the results you want, I mean, after all, all they did was take a shortcut to fame, it doesn’t matter surely if they’re good at what they do.
As Bilton describes it those who want to be influencers, successful brands that are internet famous and in-demand are changed and morphed into something different, what happens is “The repackaging of individuals into a more commercial and skilled version of themselves with makeovers and photoshoots.”
Bilton also argues that really big influencers like Kim Kardashian “expedited their climb to the top of the social-media pyramid by purchasing followers, in order to inflate their engagement metrics.”
Back in the 1990s and 2000s, we had big brands creating fake founder stories that smelt, tasted and sounded authentic, but were in fact fake, but did anybody really care? Would I still eat there? - Yes, I probably would. They made a shed load of dollars and did it really harm their brand?
Today with the power of social media, it’s all done slightly different - we don’t just have the fake story, we have the fake influence, the slavish followers, the photoshoots that repackage them as inflated versions of themselves - with a story that’s been cherry-picked to enhance their brand Some of it may be true, some of it make be fake, or perhaps all of it will be fake. Do you really care, and is the generation it’s aimed at going to care? The truth is, probably not.
In conclusion, would I fake a brand story for a client?
I mean If I’m crafting someone’s brand story, bio, or about page, does it really matter if the client asks me to massage the truth a little to make them sound more interesting?
Listen, I don’t mind making a story seem more interesting, it’s often the case that people simply don’t like talking about themselves, as long as what I’m working with is essentially true.
The bare facts can be boring, and if you want to grab the attention of an audience that’s got other brands vying for their attention, it’s my job to make the facts sound amazing, I’m there to sell, to make my client look good, I work with words and helping my clients to make money, to get results. But no, I won’t lie - that’s my call, but what would yours be?