Brand storytelling: marketing buzzword or crucial ingredient of sales and marketing success? It can be either, depending on your approach.
In an increasingly automated, digital-first world, the value of the human touch is rising fast for buyers. This makes storytelling one of the most powerful tools available to sales reps and marketers.
When it’s done right, brand storytelling helps businesses build meaningful connections with their audiences. Connections that ultimately increase transactions, brand loyalty and advocacy.
Many brands realize this already. In Ragan’s 2020 Annual Survey on Brand Storytelling, 62% of communications professionals said storytelling had increased in importance for them over the previous three months. Only 6.8% said it had become less important.
In this article, we’ll answer the question “what is brand storytelling?” using real-world brand story examples and a comprehensive checklist. We’ll show you how to tell a great brand story that turns prospects into buyers, followers and advocates.
What is a brand story and how does it help attract loyal customers?
In its broadest form, a brand story is the overarching story of your business’s existence and purpose. A brand story is told and reinforced through everything your company says and does, not by a single page of text, video or any other content.
From a sales and marketing point of view, brand stories:
Communicate brand or product value
Create compelling brand stories that achieve these three things and you’ll turn your own audience not only into buyers but into loyal followers and brand advocates too. As a prime example, Apple exists to innovate and simplify consumer technology. Every point of audience interaction reflects these values, from the company’s famously no-frills keynote speeches and minimalist “Genius” bars to its punchy advertising campaigns and sleek product and packaging designs.
A brand story could also focus on a specific product, service or range. For example, sportswear manufacturer Nike aligned a product line with a future basketball megastar. As a result, its products became part of Michael Jordan’s rapid rise to the top of his field, and it was a story ordinary people could buy a part of. They could “be like Mike” by purchasing Nike’s products.
Nike’s early decision to start building this story was bold at the time, but it paid off massively. Today, Nike’s Jordan products embody the company’s values. Speaking in 2016, Nike’s then-global Director of Advertising, Desmond Marzette, said:
Most of the people that come in contact with [Jordan] really liken it to a brand that represents greatness and achievement and success and dedication.
A brand story might also center on an action or multiple actions, such as corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities that embody your brand values.
On its website, clothing company Patagonia tells the story of its 1% for the Planet initiative:
Since 1985, Patagonia has pledged 1% of sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment. We’ve awarded over $89 million in cash and in-kind donations to domestic and international grassroots environmental groups making a difference in their local communities. In 2002, founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, and Craig Mathews, owner of Blue Ribbon Flies, created a non-profit corporation to encourage other businesses to do the same.
Again, this is a story that customers can become part of by purchasing Patagonia’s products. The approach is clearly effective. In May 2021, the company, which reportedly turns over around $1bn per year, topped Axios’ reputation ranking table of the 100 most prominent brands in the U.S., putting it well ahead of giants like Amazon and PepsiCo.
Why is brand storytelling important?
Many marketers and sales reps are trained to think technically, please algorithms and analyze data, especially those working in search engine optimization (SEO) and pay-per-click (PPC) advertising.
This less creative way of thinking has its place in building brand awareness, but research tells us brands must engage buyers on a human level to create the types of meaningful connections that lead to sales.
Harvard Business School Professor Gerald Zaltman reported from his research that 95% of consumers’ thinking (i.e. their buying decisions) takes place in the subconscious mind. So, even though most people believe they’re using rational thought and logic when choosing brands and products, it’s really emotion in control – and storytelling suits this well.
Great stories have lasting effects on their audiences, lasting effects that can be valuable for businesses, and while every brand’s story is different, there will always be structural similarities you can follow.
What does a brand story look like?
As humans, we experience stories from birth. It’s how we make sense of the world, the people in it and even ourselves.
Brand stories are no different. They help people understand businesses, products and services while inviting them to become a part of the narrative by purchasing.
They even have the same components as the stories we are told in books and movies, in the same order. You can use the following components as your brand narrative template.
Characters. You and your customers.
Status quo. The way things are initially.
Conflict. An issue that disrupts the status quo.
Resolution. How the character or characters resolve the conflict.
Outcome. The (hopefully) happy ending.
We’ll use “Hansel and Gretel” as our example.
Characters: Hansel, Gretel, their father, their stepmother and the witch.
Status quo: Hansel and Gretel live happily in the woods with their father.
Conflict: The stepmother arrives and attempts to get rid of Hansel and Gretel, driving them into the woods where they meet an evil witch. The witch tries to fatten Hansel up to cook and eat him.
Resolution: Hansel scuppers the witch’s plan by hiding food while Gretel pushes her into the oven, allowing them both to escape with the witch’s treasure.
Success: Hansel and Gretel find their home and their father. They learn that their stepmother has left, leaving the family to live happily again.
Apple provides one of the best brand storytelling examples.
Characters: Apple, its key figures (e.g., founders, customer-facing staff, high-profile advocates), customers and competing tech companies.
The status quo: Personal computers are a new invention and consumer demand is growing.
The conflict: Most hardware and software on the market targets businesses and technical users. It’s complex and visually uninspiring.
Resolution: Apple creates a simpler, design-led alternative aimed specifically at consumers.
Outcome: Apple empowers a new audience to benefit from the latest IT capabilities and grows in popularity with every innovation.
These stories are very different, but they both incite emotion.
In the traditional fairytale, the audience is likely to empathize with Hansel and Gretel, empathy that makes the resolution and success parts of the story more satisfying. The same is true of many modern stories, like relating to Peter Parker in Spider-Man or Katherine G. Johnson in Hidden Figures.
In Apple’s brand story, customers experience the frustration of feeling left out by the technology industry and the satisfaction of finding a company and product they feel is built for them. That emotion entices the audience to become a part of an alternative community by buying a product.
How to write a brand story with content
There are many ways to tell a good brand story, yet none will do the job well in isolation. Instead, you should aim to consistently convey your brand’s purpose across a range of content marketing outputs.
Types of content that can contribute to your brand story include:
Slogans and taglines
A succinct line that truly summarizes your brand is the holy grail of brand messaging. This is something else that Apple does incredibly well. Its “Think Different” line, first used in 1997, instantly reminds buyers of the company’s innovation mission and invokes feelings of creativity.
According to research collected by Datareportal, internet users aged 16 to 64 spend an average of two hours and 27 minutes per day using social media apps and websites. This makes it a great channel for real-time brand storytelling. As well as using it to publish prepared in-depth content, businesses can involve audiences in their day-to-day journey by sharing short, honest updates, creating a sense of transparency and togetherness.
Stories of past successes will instill trust in your audience. Effective case studies have some of the same components we mentioned earlier: characters (your business and a customer), conflict (the customer’s problem), resolution (your product or service) and outcome (the positive impact of your work).
A case study aims to give prospective customers a story they can relate to, so for the best results, create one or more for each section of your target audience, whether they’re in different job roles, industries or geographic locations. Build a sales enablement library over time, and your sales team will always have access to the most relevant story when it matters.
Published interviews allow brands, and more specifically their founders and other key figures, to communicate with audiences in a structured way without losing that invaluable human touch. More personal than blog articles and often easier to digest, interview content can take the form of video, audio (such as podcasts) or text, making it suitable for a range of channels and audiences. Consider taking questions from your audience for greater transparency.
Using written articles (with appropriate imagery), you can explain your business’s background and purpose to bring new followers up to speed. By posting regular updates, you can keep your audience involved in your brand story as it evolves. Be sure not to push products too overtly or often and don’t be afraid to talk candidly about what’s happening behind the scenes.
Drinks brand Evian does a great job of updating its audience with written articles. While it does promote products and announce launches, it gives just as much attention to CSR activities that support its purpose. This allows existing and prospective customers to see exactly what they’re buying into by choosing Evian products.
You can see this in one of the brand’s recent updates:
Imagery, graphics and video have been used to tell stories, engage audiences and inspire action for centuries, with good reason. You can convey a lot of information quickly using these types of content, making them ideal for an audience with so much demand for its attention.
Visual content is also great for showing your human side and will help you attract your audience’s attention on social media. According to Twitter, tweets with videos attract up to 10 times more engagement than those without, while BuzzSumo found that Facebook updates with pictures gained 2.3 times more engagement than text-only posts.
How to create your own compelling brand story
Not all brand stories are equal. Below you’ll find tips to help you create a high-quality brand story of your own that triggers emotional responses, builds trust and closes sales.
1. Make it relevant
For a brand story to be effective, its audience should want to become part of it. It must, therefore, be relevant and relatable. Start by building a detailed understanding of the people you’re targeting, their pain points, emotional triggers and desires and what they’re not getting from your competitors. You can then emphasize the parts of your story that are most likely to resonate.
Target too broad an audience and you could miss altogether, as marketing author Seth Godin explains in this blog post:
Great stories are rarely aimed at everyone. Average people are good at ignoring you. Average people have too many different points of view about life and average people are by and large satisfied. If you need to water down your story to appeal to everyone, it will appeal to no one. The most effective stories match the world view of a tiny audience—and then that tiny audience spreads the story.
2. Make it memorable
Today’s buyers have access to a colossal amount of content. According to a 2019 Gartner survey, half of B2B buyers were “overwhelmed” by the amount of trustworthy information they encountered on their most recent buying journey.
This means you’ll need to say something different with your story if you’re going to stand out. Consider what makes you unique and build your story around this. Many brands set out to “make a positive change in the world”, so go further by telling your audience what got you to the point of starting a business or launching a product and why you’re better placed than anyone else to achieve the impact you’re targeting.
3. Make it shareable
A great story is one that readers want to re-tell. If you can make your story worth sharing, you’ll benefit not only from the emotional response of the first audience member but also from the interest and response of everyone they relay it to.
These second-hand versions of your story might also be even more powerful too. According to research by Nielsen, 88% of consumers trust recommendations from people they know more than any other form of marketing or advertising.
To make your story shareable, focus first on inspiring your audience. Build a sense of community that your direct audience will want others they know to join too. On a practical level, tell your story through content that is easy to share, such as eye-catching imagery, snappy social media posts and message-packed graphics. These will make their way from one person to the next far quicker than long-form articles and in-depth video content.
4. Be consistent
It’s vital that everything you use to tell your story follows the same narrative. Otherwise, you risk losing the interest and emotional connection of your audience.
At its simplest level, consistency comes from sticking to a clear message in what you write and say but remember that not all of your story will be told in words. The imagery and design styles you use in sales and marketing materials all contribute to your overarching brand story, so these elements should subtly reflect your company’s brand identity and values too.
Patagonia’s earthy visual branding, for example, is right in line with its mission of sustainability.
Your narrative can (and should) evolve, but it must do so gradually and naturally. For example, in the Harry Potter series, some elements remain throughout, such as the main characters and the ongoing battle between good and evil. Some parts also evolve, such as the characters’ relationships and priorities. In a branding sense, Apple is no longer disrupting a new market, but it’s still targeting the same audience.
5. Above all, be honest
According to a Sprout Social survey, 86% of American consumers believe brand transparency is more important than it’s ever been. Around 85% also say they’re more likely to give a business a second chance after a bad experience if that business has a history of transparency.
In short, most people don’t expect businesses to be flawless. As long as you’re ready with solutions, talking candidly about challenges and mistakes will make your business appear more human to your audience. That means your message is more likely to resonate.
An authentic brand story enables people to make sense of your business and why it matters.
Tell your brand story so that it’s relatable and inspirational and your audience will want to do more than just understand what you do; they’ll want to be part of it.
For inspiration, think about the successful brands you support. What is it that makes you want to become part of their stories? Create equally meaningful connections with your own audience and you’ll soon be turning hesitant prospects into loyal customers.
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