What makes a company a brand? What elevates a startup from a group of people with the same idea to a ubiquitous name in the marketplace? Branding is the key to an enduring identity, and the foundation of a powerful brand is a great story.
A good story isn’t easy to write. For every timeless Academy Award winner, there are dozens of single-summer blockbusters and box office flops. While the struggles of a growing company should, in theory, provide ample material for storytelling, reality is rarely kind.
In the early chapters of a company’s story, its agility and drive is a double-edged sword. A founder’s initial vision soon gives way to customer requests and overnight feature additions. Products bow to the limitations of reality and get shaped by market forces. While great companies thrive under this kind of pressure, their brand image often takes a backseat to their survival.
As the company grows and the market catches up, staying one step ahead of the competition often means getting caught up in a constant state of iteration. Selling incremental upgrades and regularly announcing new features is great for business, but those efforts can dilute an early focus on value. Products easily end up with an impressive but ultimately inane list of features without a clear purpose.
Great Stories Create An Emotional Connection
In order to stop treading water and establish a more permanent position in the mind space of a competitive market, a company needs a strong identity. An identity is a clear persona of what a company and its product represent.
Without an identity, a company is transactional and easily replaced. With an identity, a company can build long-term relationships. People don’t just want to buy software and hardware, they want to buy change, growth or momentum. They want to be part of a movement. They don’t want to be left behind.
That’s where a timeless story comes in. Stories can tap into customers’ most fundamental motivators: their emotions. As marketers, we can learn from the best of literature and entertainment to craft powerful stories.
Here are six universal elements found in all of the greatest stories:
1. Clarity Of Purpose
A company without a purpose or a mission is just a group of people working on the same thing. Many entrepreneurs invent products and some create businesses, but very few people actually build successful companies. A company is more than the sum of its parts, and it grows out of enthusiastically shared goals and values. This common mindset helps each individual differentiate right from wrong and yes from no. They help the group achieve collective purpose and productivity above and beyond the total ambitions and efforts of each member.
A sense of purpose pays dividends outside the office, as well. Your customers want to believe in something: They want to share in your enthusiasm and ambition. A strong purpose speaks to the essential human needs of empowerment, creativity and community. Inspire both your team and your customers with a purpose they can relate to and grow your product to reach that ideal.
2. Setting And Context
Every story needs a setting. In literature, setting and context help us relate to characters, entering their minds and experiencing the story from their perspective. Likewise, in marketing, customers need to hear where they fit in. Whether your setting describes a world that’s rapidly changing or in need of radical change, painting a vivid picture of that world helps draw your prospective customer into it—and into your brand.
3. Protagonists And Antagonists
Rebellions are interchangeable until one has a Luke Skywalker. Evil empires are forgettable unless they have a Darth Vader. The most iconic stories have memorable heroes and equally memorable villains. While explicitly painting your business competitor as an evil villain may come with a host of public relations and legal risks, any abstract idea can be given a form and a face.
Successful brands have rallied against tradition and complacency, or sometimes against needless waste and missed opportunities. Brands cast themselves as a variety of characters, from the young upstart to the old stalwart, from the urban sophisticate to the rugged outdoorsman. By giving a face to themselves and their battle, these brands shape their followers into their own image, spreading their message far and wide. Inspire your customer to take your side on your own journey to market domination.
4. Secrets And Mysteries
You wouldn’t be in business without some trade secrets and competitive advantages. Ben Horowitz, co-founder of Opsware and a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, is known to ask, “What do you believe that nobody else does?”
Building on that, what do you know that no one else can see? Invite your customers into your inner circle by revealing some secrets, but keep them listening by preserving some mystery. Whether it’s you (and your customers) against the world or not, every great story has a set of codes and secrets that galvanize the movement, building momentum and belief in the mission.
5. Agents Of Change
When heroes embark on their journeys, they’re shaped by positive and negative forces around them. These forces—whether they’re friends, enemies, a changing world or the passage of time—are agents of change, necessitating and guiding their growth. You’ve faced agents of change in your journey to market, perhaps some of the same market forces and entrenched conventions that challenge your customers. Now it’s your turn to be a guiding light for them.
People love happy endings. At the end of each story, we expect to see a new hero, transformed by the journey they’ve undertaken. Your customer wants to catch a glimpse of their promised land—the new world they can look forward to.
Developing a comprehensive, consistent story for your company is not a simple, one-time task. It’s an evolutionary journey that takes months, if not years, of thoughtful patience and polishing. By crafting a deep thoughtful narrative, you can capture the imagination and attention of customers for years to come.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.