Brand Stories: How to Use as a Force Multiplier of Your Marketing

“Technology is only as good as your story. Your story is the thing that sets you apart. So the question is: What’s your story? And how do you tell it?” – Ann Handley

Brand storytelling has been around for a long time, but now that we have so many more tools and avenues available to craft a brand narrative, it’s more accessible than ever for brands, large and small, to use storytelling.

Ever since we lived in caves, storytelling has been used as a powerful technique to draw attention, anchor information or even pass on some kind of lesson. For brands, storytelling can be a force multiplier for their marketing efforts. As Ann Handley stated in the opening quote, it’s your story that can set you apart from competitors rather than simply the technology you have created.

Why and how should brands use storytelling? Let’s take a look:

Why use brand stories?

There’s an almost primal instinct when it comes to the effects of storytelling. It’s one of the oldest forms of human communication – you can probably just picture your ancient ancestors sitting around a fire, retelling encounters with mammoth or tigers.

Research tells us that there are good reasons why storytelling is such an effective technique for getting information to stick – overall it’s just more engaging than for example, a list of facts or features.

In a New York Times piece “Your Brain on Fiction”, they reviewed different studies that have been conducted looking into how our brains react to stories. What scientists now know is that more areas of the brain are activated when storytelling is involved, helping the listener or viewer of the story to “feel” it as they go.

For example, if you were to talk about smells or sounds, the corresponding part of the brain lights up as the listener processes that part of the story. It’s engaging and it’s memorable.

For brands, this makes storytelling a great way to educate and to immerse your audience in your company. Nancy Duarte warns that as soon as you slip into “report mode” instead, you start to lose your audience. She provides some great tips for ensuring your story is effective in the video embedded below:

Become memorable

An old man in India is telling his granddaughter a story. It’s a story of childhood friendship between him and another young boy. They were the best of friends, but then they were forced apart by the partition of Pakistan and India.

His granddaughter feels for him and wonders, can she find his old friend? Through a Google search she locates the grandson of the friend and together they plan a surprise visit. The old man greets his friend with tears in his eyes and they catch up long into the night…

This was a story that was sure to grab at heartstrings and is a great example of one used by Google. They could have said “we help people find things”, but instead they put together a story of human connection and emotions, which hits viewers right in the gut.

You want a story that is memorable, one that others may pass on about you. This will only happen if you make a real connection that strikes at the heart of your target audience.

How to craft your brand story

There’s a powerful quote that I like from Simon Sinek:

“People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.”

This demonstrates that your “why” is a very important place to start when it comes to crafting your brand story. People don’t typically come and buy a product just because of its features. They buy a product because of the value it delivers, so it’s really important to think about the end-to-end story you need to tell.

Typically, a new visitor to your website will check out your “About” page; in fact, these tend to be one of the most highly-trafficked pages on a website. When they come, it is important that you’re ready with a compelling story.

You should ensure that you communicate a story from ‘about us’ to ‘who we are’, to ‘why us.’ Make the about page sound like you, including what you do, why you do it and why they should choose you.

Some other strategies for crafting your brand story include:

Overcoming the “curse of knowledge”

The “curse of knowledge” is a common stumbling block that can lead to ineffective storytelling. It occurs when the person telling the story has inside knowledge that others don’t, therefore they already have context and framing that others do not yet understand.

In a summary of the book Made to Stick, they illustrate it like this:

“One study tested a “tapper and listeners” game: They asked a person to tap out the rhythm of a song and have another recognize it – the listener nearly always failed to identify the song. What happened, of course, is that the tapper sings the song in their head and thus thinks he has the right rhythm, but the person hearing the taps cannot hear the song inside the others head and therefore has no idea of what the taps mean.”

You can see this example illustrated in the video below:

How can you overcome this stumbling block? In the summary of Made to Stick they suggest stripping an idea to the single most-important aspect of it (or its core intent). For example, in journalism an inverted pyramid style is common for a story, where the most important aspect is told first, then tailored, followed by adding in the detail. The core idea might be “we built state-of-the-art cyber security software”, then you can add the details which make your software so innovative later. You need to communicate that core message first.

You will also see the adding of mystique as a useful device to grab attention. The key is to open up gaps first in presenting your ideas, then work to close them. You may have to fight the common tendency to give facts first. The local news uses this technique very well: They might begin with “There’s a new drug sweeping the teenage community – and it may be in your own medicine cabinet! Watch the story after the commercial break.”

For software creators, the challenge is often getting people to understand something that might be complex. Your task is to reduce that complexity and paint a picture that they will understand quickly. This might mean using a lot of visual storytelling – remember that the technology we have available allows us to tell stories in many different ways, including the use of screenshots or video. How can you add some mystique, emotion and memorability?

Develop an origin story

In his book “Telling the Story: The Heart and Soul of Successful Leadership”, Geoff Mead talks about origin stories and how the company story should never be a sales pitch. Your origin story should be authentic and steeped in truth, even if there is some creative license with that.

Mead points out, “stories involve specific events that happen to particular characters, so narratives that veer towards generalities, explanations and abstractions, or that insist on telling their moral or meaning, have abandoned storytelling in favour of advocacy.” They lose their extraordinary ability to stimulate both the feelings and imagination of the teller and the audience.”

You should find the “core” for your origin story and determine the single most important message to get across. Your origin story is an ideal elevator pitch for customers so they understand why you exist. Rather than simply features, it should convey feelings or emotions. For example, Coca-Cola built their brand around enjoyment, not around bubbly, sugary drinks.

Be aspirational

People are drawn to stories and people with “impossible” goals. There’s no story in the 9-5 job or in living an average life. Anyone can do that. The people who make an impression - the people who stand out in our minds and are remembered throughout history - are the people who set and tried to achieve their crazy, seemingly impossible goals.

“[People are] buying the outcome… Nobody wants your product.” – Lincoln Murphy

Know the elements of a good story

Stories that are memorable and will resonate with your target customers will always follow a good structure. You will see many different possible story structures, but one that is a common attention-grabber is the “hero’s journey.”

You’ve seen it a number of times, played out in stories such as Harry Potter, Star Wars or The Lion King. Brands can make effective use of this device by putting their customers at the centre of the story as the “hero.” Compelling hero’s journey stories usually have 5 elements:

  1. A character
  2. The character wants something
  3. Something prevents them getting what they want easily
  4. There is a struggle against that force
  5. They either succeed or fail

To be effective for your audience, you need to understand the “darkness” or what’s at stake. Develop a character who wants something important and overcomes obstacles to get it. Know their mission, their struggle and their quest. This is not about the aesthetics, but understanding pains, desires and obstacles, particularly as they relate to your own audience.

Brand storytelling can be a force multiplier for your marketing because it’s not just about “buy our stuff” but about “believe in our story.” Humans are gripped by the power of good storytelling and it can leave a lasting impression.

It’s not always an easy task to develop your own brand story, here’s how we can help you:

How we can help with your brand story:

  • interview with a copywriter
  • an outside perspective

Stuart Brameld

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