The other day my friend sent me a video of her very adorable, (but also very hefty) bulldog, refusing to go up a flight of stairs. Curmudgeonly, she looked back and forth from the camera to the top of the stairs where her younger, fitter sibling stared anxiously from the top.
All I could do was laugh and imagine she was thinking: “Excuse me, but you don’t actually expect me to go up those, do you?”
Now, there’s about a 90 percent chance you’re asking yourself, “Ok, why should I care?”
Bear with me.
As human beings we’re inquisitive. We’re born natural problem solvers and whether we realize it or not, we’re naturally compelled to deduce and deduct from life experiences just like the one I mentioned—and it’s this simple yet powerful fact that is the key to great storytelling.
While you may not be able to quite relate to my bulldog story, on some level, almost everyone has some, unexplainable interest in subjects like dogs or babies. Not just because they’re cute, but because they can’t completely express what they’re thinking or feeling and we have an internal need to fill in that blank for them.
Pixar Filmmaker Andrew Stanton explains this as the “Unifying Theory of 2+2.” In other words, as a storyteller, it’s your job to make the audience put things together—don’t give them 4, give them 2+2.
According to Stanton, the greatest commandment of storytelling is “make me care.” And, maybe, this is the greatest commandment for attracting your customers, as well.
If you want to attract a bigger, better audience for your brand, or simply build a stronger connection with the one you have now, the solution lies in storytelling. So, let’s take a closer look at how you can develop a powerful, compelling story for your brand.
The science of storytelling
While Andrew Stanton’s “Unifying Theory” isn’t real science, there is research to indicate that the human brain responds to the effects of descriptive storytelling, influencing both the sensory and motor cortex.
To read a story is to feel an experience and then synchronize our minds with the subject matter of the story. Scientists call this neural coupling.
Princeton-based neuroscientist Uri Hasson studies how we tell and hear stories—and how a great story may even allow two brains to sync up. In a session at TED2016, he revealed his findings on Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and how our brains show similar activity when we hear the same story.
According to TED’s blog, the study went like this:
“In one study, five people listen to the same personal story told aloud. Before the recording begins, their brains show rather different activity—then once the story starts, their brain activity becomes synced, or what Hasson calls “aligned.”
To understand what causes alignment, Hasson’s team breaks the story down into its components—by first playing the story backward; then nonsense sounds put together into words; then scrambled sentences. At first, the brains show a small amount of alignment, but not one that spreads deeper into the brain. Critically, it’s not until the listeners hear a real-life story that high-order areas like their frontal cortices begin to align.”
Basically, a speaker and a listener share a story that allows their brains to connect in an interactive way.
According to Princeton researchers, “The listener’s brain activity mirrors the speaker’s activity.” Successful neural coupling produces greater comprehension, understanding, anticipation, and receptivity.
Put all the elements of this study together—comprehension, understanding, anticipation, even receptivity—and the result is simple: Trust.
By telling stories and connecting with the reader or listener, storytellers can generate trust within their audience. While this is great, not just any story will do the trick.
So, how exactly do you do this?
The case for brand stories
“Brand stories are not marketing materials. They are not ads, and they are not sales pitches. Brand stories should be told with the brand persona and the writer’s personality at center stage. Boring stories won’t attract and retain readers, but stories brimming with personality can.” – Susan Gunelius, Forbes Contributor
Our brains process not only stories but also the human emotions behind them, and by understanding each other’s thoughts and feelings, we’re able to create a real, emotional connection. Those connections then have the power to generate trust (and, eventually, revenue).
“[It’s] an essential part of modern marketing,” says Alexandra Merrell, managing director of Orndee Omnimedia. “Not so long ago, consumers only cared about price and functionality.”
And, she’s right. Today, consumers are clearly looking past the price tags. Consider the following study from Adweek:
It’s no secret that storytelling is a powerful tool when building a relationship with your audience, but it’s not enough to just acknowledge that at face-value. Storytelling, when done effectively, will literally either convince a customer to buy your brand—or your competitor’s.
So, let’s take a look at the steps you’ll need to take in order to develop your unique brand story. We also cover the topic of “Articulating the Brand’s Story’ in our eBook, The Brand Publishing Roadmap!
Step 1: Determine your why
The first and arguably most important task when crafting your brand story is to find the why behind all that you do. It’s more than just “to gain customers” or “to drive profits,” this is why, at your core, you care about this brand and the people it serves—your ultimate driving force.
For example, Nordstrom’s “why” is customer service. In fact, they’ve done it so well that they’re one of the only brands whose name has become synonymous with the term. Ask anyone in the retail industry what is the first word that comes to mind when they think of Nordstrom, and they’ll (most likely) tell you “customer service.”
Unified opinions like that don’t just happen overnight.
While, yes, you might say “But, we don’t all have billions of marketing dollars to spend that big brands (such as Nordstrom) have access to…” I’d have to agree. Then I’d have to tell you that there’s really no evidence to support the idea that effective storytelling is limited to brands with a hefty budget. In fact, Nordstrom’s success is largely due to two (costless) things: empowering employees and attention to detail.
According to a former employee, Ambra Benjamin, Nordstrom employees, “Put intricate thought behind the moment a customer enters, to while they’re shopping, to when they leave.”
While your “why” is an important first step, it doesn’t stop there—it’s an element that needs to be present and integrated into everything you and your team do from there on out.
“The brand story should define the purpose of the company to both the staff and the customer.” – Taylor Bennett, CEO of branding and marketing at MESH
Here are some possible questions you might ask to help determine your why:
- What landed you where you are now?
- What inspired you to start your business?
- Who are you trying to serve?
- What difference is your brand trying to make in people’s lives?
Now, this is not to say that finding your why is easy—it’s not. But, if you’re still stumped, let’s try a quick exercise that might help inspire you. See if you can name the company this brand story belongs to:
“While traveling in Argentina in 2006, ____________ Founder witnessed the hardships faced by children growing up without shoes. Wanting to help, he created____________, a company that would match every pair of shoes purchased with a new pair of shoes for a child in need.”
Could you guess the company? Since its inception in 2006, this brand has given more than 60 million pairs of shoes to children in need, “teaching us 60 million lessons,” as they say on their website.
The point is, people don’t buy into your brand so that you can profit, they invest in a brand as a means to either solve a personal or professional problem OR because their simply looking to enrich their lives in some way. As a brand, it’s your job to determine how to do that for them—and that, my friends, is your why.
Step 2: Understand your product
Don’t laugh. This may seem obvious, but in order to understand your brand story (and make sure it works), you must also understand your product and how it fits into the narrative. One of the most detrimental things you can do to your brand is misinterpreting the role your product plays.
For example, you shouldn’t find “American by birth. Rebel by choice” anywhere while you’re searching for a minivan for your growing family (unless, for some reason, Harley Davidson has made a career change I’m unaware of). While I think it would be hilarious, in the end, your brand needs to show a certain amount of self-awareness and authenticity. So, while it might get a few laughs, in the end, car companies trying to promote safety and reliability of their vehicles aren’t in it for the laughs.
Which gracefully brings me to my next point: Don’t try to pander to an audience that isn’t your audience; I’m looking at you, Pampers.
Nu-uh. When I think of Pampers, I think of the adorable little munchkins running around in diapers—in other words, just being a kid. Kids have no swag. And, you know who has even less swag? Babies. Moral of the story, go with what feels natural. If not, you run the risk of alienating prospective customers before they even try your product.
So, now that we understand what not to do, let’s take a look at some questions that might help you find out how your product DOES fit in with your brand story. To do this, try answering following questions:
- What is the quality of my product?
- What is the price of my product?
- Does my product solve a problem?
- Does my product make people feel a certain way?
- How does my product differ from my competitors’ products?
The better grasp you can have on these concepts, the more likely you are to avoid making mistakes like some of the above examples.
Step 3: Understand your audience
Consumers get a bad rap for “short attention spans” or simply not paying attention to your messages. But maybe sometimes they don’t mean to ignore you. Consider the following statistics:
YIKES. Can we cut them a break now? The instinct to tune out advertising or marketing tactics has become an everyday defense mechanism. So, how can we get around this?
“Don’t give them 4, give them 2+2.”
That’s right, storytelling. But, in order to tell a good story, you have to understand your audience. Immerse yourself in everything about them. Who are they? What are their interests? Hobbies? Finding answers to these questions will help you gain further insight into their problems and pain points.
Again, this doesn’t just mean you can weave their slang into your marketing efforts and call it a day. To understand what you should and shouldn’t do, you’ll need to really narrow down your ideal customer.
Far too many brands attempt to market to “all,” and only end up with a “few” or worse, “none.” Very few products apply to a wide range of people (and, your brand most likely isn’t one of them), so you’ll want to be particularly mindful of two things: your product and who your realistic, interested customer is.
Take this case study on Proclamation Jewelry, for example:
“Proclamation Jewelry was an extremely high-end men’s fine jewelry brand whose business model was to provide boldly designed pieces with higher quality materials at a lower price point than its competitors; however, for a year, they had found it impossible to engage consumers and make the target audience aware of their offering.
The company realized that the only way it was going to get through to its customers was to devise a brand story that actually included the consumer as the main character. And so they did. They created a brand story based on Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, or “Monomyth,” in which the consumer was not only a character but the hero. Then, the jewelry became a tool or weapon (known as the “Supernatural Aid”) that empowered the consumer to become and express his true self.”
This one realization allowed them to triple their sales by that time next year.
Now, will following the structure of the hero’s journey work for your brand? Maybe not literally but, remember, you’re trying to show people that your brand is the answer they’ve been searching for—their “sword in the stone,” if you will.
While your product might not be a gemstone, as long as you can create a brand story that resonates with your customers, your product will still be the “Supernatural Aid” they need on their journey to fulfillment.
Step 4: Bring it all together
Gartner lists “storylines” as one of the Six Elements of Results-Driven Content Marketing Strategy. They explain it’s important to consistently execute in line with corporate narratives.
While the components of your brand story will vary to fit your brand, here are a few elements you might want to include in your documented strategy:
- Beginning, middle and end to your story
- Brand tone and voice
- Mission and vision
- Brand values
- Logo, typography and visual style guidelines
“Brand stories can be told in many different forms, with an evolving storyline and cast of characters, but content creators must be vigilant about continuity and consistency, avoiding any holes. Your brand’s story has to resonate with people at a level that goes way beyond what’s tangible—the functionality, features, and benefits of your products or services—to create a deep, emotional connection with your audience.” – Debbie Williams, Sprout Content
Though your documented strategy will go more in-depth into your brand story, it’s important to remember that, regardless of everything I’ve told you—in the end, your brand story really comes down to three simple, straightforward elements:
- Problem (beginning)
- Solution (middle)
- Success (end)
That’s really all it takes. If you overcomplicate things or start to get overwhelmed making your story, that’s when you risk losing momentum. While the Harry Potter series is a work of art, great stories don’t always come in big packages. The best stories are short, simple and impactful.
More and more brands are understanding the power of stories as a way to communicate with customers. Stories not only help get your message across, but they also help unite people through a common understanding.
Creating your brand story is only ONE of the many elements involved in creating a successful content marketing strategy. Luckily, our latest eBook describes how to develop your brand story along with in-depth tips and tools on how to create a strategy that drives real results.