The Business Of Storytelling

A framework for developing compelling brand narratives

[Abridged] Concept Bureau Storytelling Presentation from Jasmine Bina

[Click here to download the full deck of slides and watch the accompanying video recording where I walk you through my framework.]

A lot has changed in the world of brand storytelling, especially in the last 5–10 years, but the frameworks we use to develop our brand narratives remain dated. We’re essentially using old tools to reach new audiences in new markets, and it doesn’t make sense. The challenge is twofold:

  1. Aggressive Evolution. We’re living in incredibly dynamic landscapes. Regardless of the market you’re in, change is happening at an ever-increasing rate. New entrants, bandwidth technologies, legal policy, generational personnel, emerging territories — this is not the industry or climate our parents grew up in. It is certainly not the climate that our familiar brand frameworks were once created to address.
  2. Inconsistent Behaviors. Where once you could count on the major behaviors of a generation to be consistent across age, time and psychographics, we now see a proliferation of sub-cultures and idiosyncrasies with millennials. Geek chic, bro culture, riot grrrls, foodies and hipsters are just the tip of the iceberg. Behaviors have fractured across all dimensions, and what remains is the overarching ambitions and mentality that begat them.

Taken together, these two factors necessitate a new framework, not just for brand storytelling among millennials, but any brand strategy that will resonate with an increasingly informed and empowered audience.


Watch a recording of my workshop and an in-depth look at the Active Story Framework for your own brand here.


My work with startups, established brands and B2C companies reaching millennial audiences allowed me to develop a new approach for decoding the fabric of a brand, and I was recently fortunate enough to share it during a workshop.

You can watch the video and get access to the full deck here .

The Active Story Framework

I call this the Active Story Framework because that’s exactly what it is — active. Each of the three elements propels you into the next and forces movement.

Build A Defensible Territory: Building a defensible territory as part of your brand story will 1) take you to a part of the landscape where your competitors will be unable to follow, 2) allow you to sing your siren song clearly, reaching the very target audience that is crucial to your success, and 3) allow you to be specific… because you can’t be a generalist today. If you’re not specific, you’re not valuable.

Create Meaningful Tension: There is a push and pull action that drives conversion. You ‘push’ your audience by tapping into existing (but often hidden) behaviors and either align or oppose their collective belief systems. You ‘pull’ by leveraging macro movements that resonate with those core beliefs.

Change Hearts and Minds: Your voice is key, but voice is not marketing channels or tone. Voice is tactics. Voice is gestures. Voice is actions, because when it comes to millennials, actions will always speak louder than words. Through your secret language, you have the one-on-one conversations that audiences demand in a such a noisy, static-filled environment.

All three of these elements together force movement.

They force you to make the hard brand decisions key to your success in a crowded, hostile market.

They force you to always land on the right side of the line between core market and mass market — regardless of what stage your company is in or which market you need to reach.

And most importantly, they force your audience to react, decide and convert.

What powerful brand strategy does

Think of this as a tapestry. When you look closely at the individual elements of a brand strategy, it’s hard to see what you’re really creating. But when you pull back and look at all pieces collectively, an image emerges. That image is the brand identity that your followers are looking for. A strong brand strategy gives that image resolution.

But what matters even more than that, at least in practical terms, is the power to solve problems with a strong strategy. A decent brand strategy will take 3 problems and solve them with 3 solutions. A powerful brand strategy takes those 3 problems and solves them with 1.

Don’t miswrite your own story

You can’t live outside of the story framework. You can fit into a current cultural narrative or oppose it, but you cannot exist outside its realm. We are all human, and we are all looking to make sense of the options presented to us in the marketplace. Stories help us do that.

Whether you’re an incumbent CEO or a startup founder, the worst thing you can do is miss the great story that’s sitting right under your nose.

Your hunch led you to a product. It wasn’t just a need. It wasn’t merely good product-market fit. Most leaders and entrepreneurs subconsciously see something bigger when they take the reigns of a company, and under that subconscious draw is a story. The real story. The story that wins.

Use this framework to find it.

Brand Strategy

3 Stories We Tell Ourselves: Pain, Villains and Fuck You Money

(Photo credit to the awesome Craig Cameron Olsen) 

The stories we tell ourselves, both as a group and as individuals, have immeasurable impact on our beliefs and behaviors. Brands trying to reach millennials should know who they’re talking to in this regard.

Every generation has its stories. There was the brave selflessness of the Greatest Generation spanning 1910–1925 (just ask Tom Brokaw, he’ll tell you, but don’t ask 2 Dope Queens), the cautious optimism of the Baby Boomers and the idealistic “just do it” consumerism of Gen X. Millennials, however, stand apart.

Not only do we tell ourselves a greater number of collective stories, but our narratives have become more fragmented as today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings find themselves moving through the in-between spaces of the gig economy, non-marriage and a changing American Dream.

The cemented goal posts of our parents are moving for the first time, and we spend more of our lives between jobs, between adolescence and adulthood, between impermanence and permanence than ever before.

It’s from within those ‘in-between’ spaces that some of our most compelling generational stories have emerged.

Three of those stories — pain, villainy and fuck you money — are actually old stories (even that last one), but perhaps for the first time shattered and put back together in a new form. They matter because they shape us, and since a story reveals just as much about the storyteller as it does about the world, we need to ask ourselves why we created them in the first place.

Perhaps even more importantly, there is no right or wrong. All cultures have a framework for viewing life experiences. These are ours.

Let’s start with the easy one.

Pain — To suffer is to succeed

Familiar with this one? Yeah, me too.

If you’re not suffering, you’re not doing it right. If you’re not working 12-hour days and burned out by Wednesday, you’re not living up to your potential. You’re not doing something worth doing.

Although we may think this is a newly popularized ideal stemming from the sudden rise of entrepreneurship, our Zuckerberg-esque heroes and the glamorization of the hustle we see in movies and content, it’s actually much older than that.

It comes from our puritanical pilgrim roots as Americans, and it was a lot more hardcore back then. It was life-and-death — a somewhat severe focus of Protestant work ethic that neatly parlayed into the pervasive “Manifest Destiny” that shaped so much of who we are as Americans today.

The ideas of pure intention, complete self-sacrifice to one’s service and a god-given edict to tame the land that threatened our lives daily, were all strong forces that never left the American identity. Each of us has played Oregon Trail and watched movies like The Witch. We don’t just get it, we revel in it.

So deep is a story like this, that I’d argue there’s no way to escape it without changing the very fabric of Americanism itself… and that’s not happening. What we have instead is a modern incarnation that every generation before us has morphed into their own, and now we have ours.

Pain happens in the extremes, so let’s look at the extremes to see how we continually perpetuate the pain story.

SoulCycle is about perseverance and suffering, all in the name of getting to the front row. It’s a cult-like, pain-centric movement that mirrors other new, extreme fitness faiths like CrossFit and ultra marathoning.

Elements of bro culture and startup culture overlap with the romanticization of all-nighters and impossible deadlines. WeWork stocks bathrooms and front desks with mouthwash, toothpaste and toiletries while Silicon Valley execs get caught (and sometimes die) using illicit drugs to keep up.

Arianna Huffington has built a profitable Sleep Revolution platform that “sounds the alarm on our worldwide sleep crisis”, and in my opinion, further canonizes the story of pain. Every great phenomenon has its high profile detractors, after all.

But these are all obvious.

There are still different forms of pain to consider. Look at the self-deprivation of The Minimalists and the popularity of Soylent — smart guys telling you how cool it is to give up the comforts of life.

Anytime you see celebs and CEOs relaxing on vacation, it’s simply the other end of the same spectrum. Work hard, play hard. The higher the stakes on one side, the higher they become on the other.

There’s a pattern here. When it’s no longer the elements that threaten us, we seek to develop power of will through extremes. Without a physical frontier to roil against, we create mental ones.

Call it the virtue of turmoil. Nobody likes the love stories that didn’t almost end in heartbreak. I’ve never seen that movie.

The opposite also rings true — it doesn’t count if it’s easy. That’s because we measure ourselves in experiences.

Our self-worth and identity is gauged by what we’ve been through. For millennials, those trials and tribulations are markers of suffering that go beyond what we’ve seen in previous generations. Less from the outside and increasingly from within.

Villains —When heroes become unfamiliar

Think Dexter’s Dexter Morgan, Breaking Bad’s Walter White, or The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano. We didn’t just love them, we identified with them. People mourned Walter’s death with mock obituaries and funerals. It got real.

We wanted them to win. Despite all our cringing and gasping, it felt good when they got away with murder. No matter how conflicted we felt, we quickly resumed rooting for them by the next episode.

These aren’t anti-heroes who lack traditional qualities of valor and moral ascendancy. Nor are they good guys who sometimes do bad things. They’re consistently heartless characters that cause chaos and destruction.

Although there’s discussion on what truly separates a hero from an anti-hero or flawed protagonist in media, it seems we’ve actually started to glorify villain protagonists.

The generation before us had Hitchcock, who deliberately created complex heroes that were hard to love, but that’s as far as it went. Meant to be disorienting and uneasy, Hitchcock’s characters pushed the boundaries, but they never crossed them.

Our millennial characters are different. These are clear villains with harmful tendencies, but if you dig down deep, you see their original motivations are very human and relatable. Walter was the humble, under-appreciated middle class parent trying to make a living. Tony, also a family man, just playing out the only life he ever knew. Dexter living with uncontrollable urges, which he offset by killing bad people.

Our total embracing of these characters creates a new kind of obsessive fandom. These are stories of misunderstanding and gray moral code. Stories of standing on the slippery slope between right and fair. Stories about how, as a post-Hitchcock generation, we’ve learned to make peace with the messy discomfort in this in-between space.

There’s a lot to be said about how socio-economic inequality, eroding faith in public institutions, or a general millennial malaise have created paths to this new character… but there’s more to it.

Every generation has the power to choose what they see in themselves. Baby Boomers saw Superman, Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee — a somewhat mixed backlash to the whitewashed, suburban idealism of their parents.

Millennials continue that shift to a further degree. Heroes, in the traditional sense, stand guard between right and wrong. That kind of black and white life view no longer rings true for us.

I’d argue that a clear right and wrong, at this point, even feels uncomfortable.

We live in the gray area. It’s complicated. It’s polarizing. And it doesn’t form a consensus.

Our heroes are an embodiment of the world we see ourselves in. Not right or wrong, but somewhere in the middle.

Fuck You Money — The formidable task of finding your passion

The most significant story on this list is the quest to find oneself. This one’s a biggie, and I think most of us live within it.

Fuck you money, for those who are unfamiliar, is having enough success and cash to be able to (metaphorically) say “fuck you” to the people who failed, hurt or ignored you along the way.

Up until this generation, success was seen as largely formulaic. Whether that’s true or not is irrelevant. The fact is that there were rules and structures that once existed, and people believed in them. Things like graduate school, babies, the corporate ladder and buying property were inherent truths in and of themselves.

What happens when those things move around or disappear? You get a new story.

For years I fought with my parents about my career ambitions. My father wanted me to become an artist, my mother just wanted me to stop stressing out, but I wanted to be a successful business owner. I went to college, then grad school, then set up my first LLC.

Looking back, that formula was not the best one, nor the fastest, nor the smartest. Definitely not the easiest (and absolutely not the cheapest).

But my career was my life. It was me. When my parents questioned my decision, I felt it to be a deeply personal attack on my identity.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that for my parents, and the parents of most millennials, a career didn’t mean the same thing. Granted my parents are immigrants, but for them, work was a means to an end.

Yes, they wanted to be successful as well, but their jobs had a lot less bearing on their perceived self-worth than it did on me. Work, for them, was something they had to do in order to live their real lives outside the office.

Millennials like me have chosen a different story entirely. Work is synonymous with identity because we believe in a financially post-apocalyptic world that decided to change right before we got here.

Our story is a dramatic, self-important reinvention from the ashes that remain. A survivor story. I believe this too. It frames my good times and my bad times, and lays the groundwork for single-minded career ambitions.

Now that leaves us in a tough position.

Finding yourself and finding your passion are inextricably tied. The pressure to find one’s passion is immense, even though there’s no guarantee this meshing of life and career will make us happier. For many, it can feel like a burden.

It perpetuates the belief that passion already exists within and it’s our job to follow it — a belief that Cal Newport and others have already started questioning.

It’s go big or go home. It’s backpack through Europe to discover your destiny, then come back to America to change the world. It’s do it on your own, like that suffering, solitary hero trying to navigate troubled waters.

I’ve heard enough entrepreneurs and CEOs daydream out loud about fuck you money to realize that for many, this quest is underscored by a sense of comeuppance.

We may not believe that right or wrong exist, or that fairness is a reality, but we do believe in our right to enforce that balance when our turn is up.

Just like the superheroes we created, we deserve to set things straight in our own, deviant way.



The trifecta here, incase you haven’t already seen it, is that all three of these stories fit snugly together. They reinforce each other, and over time become stronger. The virtue of suffering, the villain’s misunderstood journey and the ultimate reward/ retribution flow into each other. Take one piece out and the other two become weaker.

As brands and communities work to engage millennials from the outside, they have to first reconstruct the millennial mindset from the center. What are the stories that make sense of the world we live in? What notions help propel us forward?

Stories help connect the dots, and it’s fascinating to see what narratives emerge when those dots suddenly become mutable. The narratives we tell ourselves today have to wrangle a huge psychographic spread, especially as we mature into the next stage of adulthood.

“Everyone is a hero in their own story”.

That’s one of my favorite quotes. If you consider it from that point of view, everyone makes sense, regardless of age, time or country.


How New Luxury Is Undermining The Old Guard


As New York Fashion Week wraps up and rolls into London, I’m realizing that my consumption of luxury, and even the very definition of it, has drastically changed. As someone who both studies millennials and counts among them, I’ve always felt this shift happening but this year was the most striking.

I watched most of my fashion shows via select model or celebrity snaps, not even the snapchat handles of the designers themselves. Even then, my favorite highlight was watching Kylie and Tyga hang out with Luka Sabbat in a hotel room after a long day of front row runway snaps. I wanted to virtually spend time with certain people that were there.

Sure our consumption behaviors have changed and modern celebrity is melting into design in new ways, but when you dig in, it’s clear that these are mere signs of something much bigger.

‘New luxury’ is evolving right before our eyes, and it has very little to do with the familiar concepts of luxury we grew up with.

New luxury — the sought after brands that are eating away at traditional luxury market share — is not defined by high price points or restricted access. In fact, many top tier and even old school names like Louis Vuitton are now catering to middle class audiences and social media pretty much leveled the access playing field a while ago.

We’ve seen the classic signals of price point, privilege and aspirational appeal dissolve into something very different.

I define new luxury as those brands which engender such fierce loyalty, people would rather buy their products than more established and often expensive brands… regardless of how much money they may have to spend.

By that definition, things like workmanship, cost or history may be important, but they are no longer deciding factors for the millennial consumer.

So exactly how does new luxury create authority against these bigger brands?

New luxury brands create their own language.

There are written languages and visual languages in old luxury that we’re all familiar with. New luxury reinvents both.

Look at print ads by Chanel, Max Mara or Dior. They’ll pretty much all look the same. Their digital sites read the same. Their point of sale imagery is synonymous, whether in Sephora or Macy’s. Their videos and short films capture the same polished aesthetic and wistful themes. It’s all classic luxury language buttressed by decades (if not centuries) of building on a singular identity.

Now look at a new luxury brand like Milk and you’ll immediately tap into a very different discourse.

In a sea of gold black and red, you will always be able to spot the sterile white Milk kiosk in Sephora. In fact, you’ll be drawn to it. Models faces are captured at odd angles, whose looks range from androgynous to tomboyish to ultra feminine.

This isn’t just good point of sale marketing. This is a conversation. You’re immediately forced to identify or dis-identify with the brand and its subjects.

Milk’s visual language is so specific, that you either get it or you don’t. And when you get it, you fully realize that the 10 girls behind you didn’t. You speak a language that others aren’t privy to, and that’s the modern reincarnation of ‘access’ in the world of new luxury.

To put it simply, good brands create tension. (I wish I could take credit for that insight but it belongs to Seth Godin… and I’m sure many others said it before him.) Milk forces a reaction that binds you to their identity.

They aren’t priced or packaged like a luxury brand, but they command the same authority and loyalty from luxury consumers that might have otherwise spent money at a Chanel or Dior makeup counter.

New luxury creates diversity, not hierarchy.

You want to be rich, you want to wear diamonds, you want to go yachting with models and you want to summer (not vacation) in a beachside Italian villa. Perhaps we all want the trappings of wealth, but old modes of luxury always create a distance between you and that future vision.

That comfortable distance is what aspirational marketing is based on. Your aspirations are meant to draw you to the brand without alienating the people who are wealthy enough to actually buy it.

Problem is e-commerce and globalization of manufacturing erased many barriers to entry, while the sudden proliferation of subgroups like hipsters, bro culture and skater boys created communities that old luxury couldn’t authentically touch — but new brands like Warby Parker, Herschel and LRG owned them seemingly overnight.

Old luxury is still aspirational and on some level expects the mass market to identify. New luxury, however, works to resonate with your values today. It’s what allows new luxury brands to get very specific with their tone and authentically speak with like-minded consumers.

That means growth is happening sideways, not hierarchically. From athleisure to lifestyle to haute couture, diversity of brands within each category is growing at a far faster clip than new categories themselves.

New luxury values community over affinity.

While old names try to go broad in their appeal, fashion startups like Wildfang are deliberately working to resonate with very specific communities. And how do they do that? Not by speaking to the the things we like, but instead, as they put it, acting as the “front door of this revolution.” Wildfang is looking to “liberate mens wear” for the “tomboys”, “female robin hoods” and “shapeshifters” they’re speaking to.

Not only is that a new language, it’s a shift in what constitutes identity. Consumers no longer band around the things they like, but around the people they are.

Rich is not an identity for today’s millennials. Rich is an aspiration, something we may strive to be, but it is not who we are. Even jetsetting, worldly and affluent are weakly defined attributes for today’s consumer. The signifiers of that world — handcrafted leather wallets, monogrammed loafers and foreign watches — are merely things.

True, there are still thriving markets for the incumbent brands that sell these goods, but they’re no longer universal identifiers. Previous generations may have rallied around an affinity for them, but today that is not how we organize ourselves.

You can look outside of luxury and consumables for plenty of examples of this. Soulcycle isn’t a meaningful brand because people like to gather around intense cycling workouts. It’s a brand because people have a life view about what grit and perseverance and pain mean, and that’s what brings them together.

Crossover communities like rap and Gucci are the strongest because they deliberately celebrate overlapping values. That shared perspective of lifestyle, not affinity for certain products, is what defines them. If wealth and upper class stations are evaporating as lifestyle markers, old guard luxury brands are in a tough position.

This isn’t anything new. When Cristal’s managing Director Frédéric Rouzaud made disdainful comments about rappers naming his product in their songs back in 2006, Jay Z called a boycott. Today, Kanye designs for Adidas (not to mention all things Yeezy), Angela Ahrendts went from Burberry to Apple and Fetty Wap models for NikeLab. These aren’t mere collaborations. They’re examples of how community has overturned affinity.

Yet although the community is a defining factor, one major story element creates a unique counterbalance.

New luxury tells the story of the individual, not the group.

As a generation (at least in the US) the story of the individual has taken priority over the group. It sounds a bit abstract, but it’s easy to see it everywhere.

Groups like boy scouts and little leagues have seen a sharp decline in recent years while parents opt to register their children in any number of individually enriching activities like coding camps or afterschool math programs. A big part of this is the push for STEM, but I’d argue that on a bigger level, ideas of community service and charity have taken a back seat to entrepreneurship and the honor of personal pursuits.

Increasingly in sports, it’s not the team win that matters so much as the social stardom of individual players. Everything from American football to Olympic gymnastics reflects this.

The consumer parallel is that before we’d seek acceptance from the group. Today, we self-identify with others who already know who they are. We don’t ask for permission. We declare our identities as riot grrrls, foodies and chic geeks. What traditional luxury brands fail to understand is that story and history are two different things.

Why does this matter? Because it forges a very different connection to a brand.

New luxury earns its authority by taking risks.

Brands can no longer declare their authority as ‘luxury’. Grandiose runway shows like the Chanel Fall 2010 Couture Collection that was punctuated by an imposing 40-foot gold lion, or Dior’s 2014 Spring/ Summer Collection which took place in an 18th century mansion covered in floor-to-ceiling flowers perhaps show that old school names are working harder and harder to own their territory.

Meanwhile, smaller, more nimble brands are working to earn it. They take bold, risky steps in both their product design and marketing to create an image that only audiences who “get it” will understand. It’s pull rather than push. In a world that is more fragmented than ever, a pull strategy is an extremely competitive advantage.

And that’s one way to earn authority in the world of new luxury — deeply resonate with who people are now rather than what you think they hope to become.

In many ways, what’s happening in luxury is very similar to what we’ve seen happen in any number of other disrupted industries. What fascinates me about this sector, however, is the millennial mental shift that ushered it all in.

I think the biggest changes and brand stories are yet to come.


This article also appeared on Luxury Daily.