Paper Tigers and Brand Stories: What’s the Connection?

Paper Tigers and Brand Stories: What’s the Connection?

A crucial part of building your brand is telling your story in a compelling way. That’s where great storytelling comes in.

Great storytelling shares a brand’s essence and purpose in an authentic way that hooks the audience and keeps their attention. How does it work? By following the same principles that you see in successful short stories—where every word counts and worlds are built within a few sentences.

To demonstrate how fantastic short-story writing applies to compelling brand storytelling, we’re sharing three critical tips we gleaned from a favorite of ours: Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie.” (Sound familiar? It’s the headline-grabbing winner of the top three prizes for sci-fi writing—the 2012 Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards—a historic first.)

Let’s dive in.


Tip 1: Start strong to establish an immediate connection with your audience.

In Liu’s masterful tale, our narrator, Jack, looks back on his life as a child torn between Chinese and American cultures. Here’s the opening line:

One of my earliest memories starts with me sobbing. I refused to be soothed no matter what Mom and Dad tried.

Makes you want to keep reading, right? There are a few reasons why we’re immediately drawn in. To start, Liu uses the first-person perspective for Jack instead of the third (“I” and “me” versus “Jack” and “him”). This brings readers into Jack’s head and lets them see the story unfold from the character’s point of view. Liu also drops us into a highly emotional but relatable scenario, building intimacy and connection.

Takeaways: From the start, use emotional, evocative language that fits with your brand voice. Think about sharing real-life stories about your community, your employees, and your products or highlighting times where your brand or customers overcame challenges. And don’t be afraid to talk directly to your audience, using “we” to personalize the brand and “you” to connect with the audience. (To see this in action, check out Nike’s “Dream Crazier” ad.)


Tip 2: Keep them interested with a spark of magic.

A beginning that packs an emotional punch is a great way to lure in your audience, but how do you sustain their interest? Take a page out of Ken Liu’s book: Go beyond the expected.

In the story, Jack’s mother makes him a paper tiger to cheer him up. Here’s what happens next:

I reached out to Mom’s creation. Its tail twitched, and it pounced playfully at my finger. “Rawrr-sa,” it growled, the sound somewhere between a cat and rustling newspapers.

I laughed, startled, and stroked its back with an index finger. The paper tiger vibrated under my finger, purring.

Didn’t see that one coming? That’s what makes this incident all the more memorable: the element of surprise.

Takeaways: Magical moments not only keep the audience interested but also leave lasting impressions. Surprise your audience by disrupting their expectations. If this feels challenging for your brand, that’s actually a positive—when you pull it off, it’ll be all the more rewarding. Consider the possibilities: Perhaps you can create unexpected moments like Tide did with its “It’s a Tide ad” campaign or build an empowering experience like Lean Cuisine did with its #WeighThis activation.


Tip 3: Stay streamlined and focus on the right details.

Have 30 minutes to spare? That’s about how long it takes to read “The Paper Menagerie,” and you’ll be amply rewarded for your time. As a master storyteller, Liu presents an emotionally expansive story in a compact format by using vignettes. He doesn’t meander into unnecessary plot points or take 100 words to say what could be said in 10. However, when the story calls for it, such as when the paper tiger first lunges at Jack, he lingers long enough to make the details really come to life.  

Takeaways: Take a closer look at how the elements of your brand story could work together to drive your narrative forward. Think about which parts each one plays in the customer’s journey, and determine what to highlight, consolidate, or even cut.

We turn time and again to these three brand storytelling best practices—and with good reason: They produce results. Our work on The Greatest Showman campaign is just one example. For this project, we collaborated with costume designers and makeup artists on Instagram from around the world to produce awe-inspiring images that channeled the vibrant, over-the-top feel of the film. They were bold, they were unexpected, and they were easily understandable at a glance—which is why they resonated so powerfully with the artists’ followers. In the end, the campaign achieved a 5.15% engagement rate, well above the average for the platform.

Ready to put these tips into action? We can’t wait to hear your next story.

For even more storytelling tips that get real results, drop us a line.