Three things the Brothers Grimm can teach us about storytelling and branding
I was a mere three years old when my ears and imagination first took in a Grimm’s fairy tale. I was sitting next to our elderly downstairs neighbor—and German immigrant—Mrs. Schaeffer, who would babysit me every-so-often. To keep my hyperactive keister planted, she would read me stories from a tattered volume of the Brothers Grimm. I’d listen for hours as she read me the sometimes-harrowing fables in her thick German accent.
Once, when I went back upstairs to my parents, my mother offered to read me Snow White. Having just heard Mrs. Schaeffer read it, I corrected my mom: “Mom, it’s Snow Vite.” My mom still chuckles about that to this day.
Most people don’t know that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm didn’t actually write their famous fairy tells—they meticulously collected, transcribed, rewrote and edited them over the course of some 40+ years. Accomplished linguists, culturists and lexicographers, the brothers published their first book of tales in 1812. To them, it was a true labor of love and devotion to their German culture. The first edition only saw a trickle of sales, but each subsequent volume worked its magic and grew in popularity. By the 1870s, the book was second only to the Bible in popularity in Germany.
The Grimm’s work is still very present in our lives today—in fact, they’re enjoying a popular resurgence on television, in the form of Grimm and Once Upon a Time, both modern takes on some of the classic tales, characters and German folklore. Disney launched his empire by adapting Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for the screen. And the brothers’ work has appeared in countless works on the stage, cinema, books, theme parks and even advertising.
Little did the brothers know what they could teach us modern marketers about good storytelling and branding. Here are three lessons we can take from them…
1. Create and tell a compelling story. Even in our “seen-it-all” culture, some of the Grimms’ tales can actually make you wince. They’re loaded with imagery, emotion, colorful characters and strange plots… you can’t help but read along and watch the imaginary movie play out in your head. The brothers collected their tales from many sources, but one of their favorites was to invite the most riveting storytellers they could find to their home and carefully transcribe what they heard. They yearned to capture their audience’s imagination and be remembered—a spell that has remained unbroken for more than two centuries.
The moral of this story: Paying this kind of attention to our audience is something we can all use refreshers on once in a while. Always aim to enchant.
2. Sweat the words, because they matter. One of the goals for the brothers was to capture and preserve the sound and feel of their German culture. Wilhelm labored for years to make the rustic tone of the tales consistent—the 200+ stories are remarkably uniform in style and unmistakably Grimm—which has made them very translatable (I believe over 160 languages to date). The brothers believed that language and its culture were inextricably tied. They were right.
Stick to your story: Does your copy, social media, content marketing and voiceovers maintain this kind of consistency and alignment? Be unmistakably you, too.
3. They evolved their product and brand over time to reflect their culture and audience, but didn’t lose their mission. Some of the initial tales had roots in medieval times and were excessively violent and cruel—to the complaints of parents, children and critics. Wilhelm edited the volumes over the years to become more educational, enticing or dramatic, based on feedback from his readers—all without losing the overall volume’s essence or tone.
Long story short: Your brand’s core is vital—but so is staying relevant and not pushing people away.
The Grimms died within a few years of each other—having lived and worked closely together their entire lives and careers. In a eulogy to his brother, Jacob referred to Wilhelm as his märchen bruder—“fairy-tale brother.”
– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group