Brand Storytelling, Defined

Brand storytelling is gaining momentum in the marketing world, and with good reason. Stories are scientifically proven to get a person’s attention. In fact, stories stimulate brain activity. When we read or hear plot points our neurons start firing—and not just in the part of the brain that controls the language center.

But there’s a lot of confusion around the idea of brand storytelling. It’s becoming a term that is getting thrown around a lot—like content marketing—but agencies, companies and thought leaders don’t agree on a definition. So, we wan to solve that. Here’s our definition.

Brand Storytelling is “Using a narrative to connect your brand to customers, with a focus on linking what you stand for to the values you share with your customers.”

The Elements of Storytelling

By narrative, we mean storytelling elements. A story includes characters, setting, conflict, rising action, climax and dénouement. Creating these points allows your audience to easily follow along with a story—and remember it.

Importantly, the main character in your brand story is not you, it’s your customer. Your customer has to be the hero to make this work. Your brand is the guide.

By what you stand for, we mean the essence of your brand. It’s not the product you sell, and it’s not to make money. It’s the driving force behind your business, and it differentiates you from the competition. It’s why you exist.

Ideally, you can encapsulate what you stand for in just two or three words. Nike stands for athletic excellence—not sneakers or sports equipment. Disney stands for family happiness—not theme parks or movies.

Values are the character traits of your company that define it. A lot of companies randomly say their values are words like integrity, innovation, etc., but they choose these words because they sound nice, not because they truly reflect who they are.

A company’s values are the best behaviors of your best employees on their best days. In other words, if you highly value that salesperson who will bend the rules to land the big deal, then “integrity” is not your value; winning is. If that’s truly what you value, embrace it.

The Case for Brand Storytelling

So, why does brand storytelling matter? The marketplace is more crowded than ever—and competing for attention is more difficult than it was even a decade ago. Combine that with a buyer’s journey where the customer is in control of the path to purchase; buying is now social, self-directed, trust-based and transparent.

The best way to reach a customer who’s deciding what and when she’ll buy is to stop pushing your products so hard and focus more on why your business exists at all. When you tell this story and explain your values you’ll engage the customers who share your values.

When you find the people who share your values, there’s a much better chance they’ll stay loyal to you (though we know that even brand loyalty has changed).

Your story then becomes your company strategy, which propels your brand forward. It’s an idea well-known venture capitalist Ben Horowitz introduced.

He said: “You can have a great product, but a compelling story puts the company into motion. If you don’t have a great story it’s hard to get people motivated to join you, to work on the product, and to get people to invest in the product.”

Figuring out why your company exists, and then telling that story to your prospective customers through marketing messages from social media posts, to your blog, to advertisements and videos, is the goal of brand storytelling.

Having a brand story and what you stand for at the core of your company strategy does more than just help guide marketing activities and create consistent messages that connect with your audience. It gets your team on the same page It energizes them so that they know where they’re going and why they’re going there.

It gives your company a purpose. And that purpose will drive you forward.

Storytelling Powerfully Conveys the Brand Purpose

Today’s consumers aren’t just passively buying from brands. They view their purchases as extensions of their identity and values. What this means for marketers is that effective marketing can’t just be about promoting a product for its sole use or benefits anymore. Successful marketing needs to be able to create a purpose, a community and a culture that consumers can share and be a part of.

“Purpose” is about values – values about who you are, what you stand for, what you do for others, the causes you serve. A compelling purpose gives consumers a way to connect with your brand and values, and to get to know how your products or services add real value to people’s lives beyond just selling things for profits. Brands who can successfully target consumers based on these shared values are ones who will ultimately win their attention and dollars.

That’s why big brands like Nike, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Adidas are turning to purpose to better connect and engage their consumers. So what makes some companies so successful while others fail?

The difference lies in storytelling. You can’t activate and reinforce purpose without storytelling. As a marketer, you need to be able to connect your own personal values and drives to your brand’s purpose and articulate that story to your audience. This type of narrative is what’s needed for consumers to listen to you and be inspired to join in on your brand’s purpose.

And how do you this? Marshall Ganz, who teaches storytelling courses at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, recommends following this simple 3-step framework to develop compelling, purpose-driven narratives for your brand:

  1. “Self”

The first step to creating an effective narrative for your brand is to start with “self.” This focuses on explaining how certain events in your life established specific personal values that will later link to your company’s values.

An excellent example is Steve Jobs’ famous Commencement address at Stanford University in 2015. Jobs shared three stories that were largely a personal reflection of his life – his humble working-class upbringing and dropping out of college, founding and later getting fired by Apple, and his cancer diagnosis.

Jobs spoke about how his passion for calligraphy would later guide his design work at Apple, and how his cancer diagnosis encouraged him to live more passionately and authentically as if every day were his last.

What’s so compelling about Jobs’ speech is how real and raw his stories seemed. Each story gave the audience a glimpse into who Jobs was and his values, motivations and passions.

A great story of self has to be authentic and genuine. Finding that story may require a deep reflection on your past and your values, and sharing these personal experiences and moments with your audience.

  1. “Us”

The second step is what Ganz calls the “us,” which involves connecting your values with broader values shared by your audience. By weaving your personal stories into the experiences, values and passions of others, you create a common narrative for your audience.

A great example of this is the story of Burt’s Bees founder, Burt Shavitz, featured on their company’s website. The journey takes us from the time Burt met his partner Roxanne and how the two started the business, to how their story became the “story of us” – of the company, their consumers and products, and the values they shared.

A good “us” story aims to build a community and a set of collective values, and share how these values came about.

  1. “Now”

The final step is a call to action for your audience who wishes to join in on the purpose of your brand.

Take a look at the way the public-benefit corporation Kickstarter asks potential candidates to join their team. Their narrative begins with the founder Perry Chen sharing his inspiration behind the launch of Kickstarter (the “self”). The next section of the site includes photos and short bits of info about each employee on the Kickstarter team (the “us”). The narrative ends with a call to action on their careers page, asking potential candidates: “Love Kickstarter? You’ll fit right in.” People can click to view all current open positions and apply.

Great brand stories are authentic and real, and collectively work together to build common narratives and values your consumers can relate to, and excite them to join in on your purpose and community.

Connecting with Customers Through Stories

The question many companies and organizations continue to struggle with is:  how do we use stories to create and nurture customer relationships? It comes down to listening, learning and engaging with your customers. Take out assumptions and lead your audience along a journey without selling or pushing them. Staying genuine and authentic will increase brand awareness, return higher engagement rates and, ultimately, convert more qualified leads.

Keeping your content honest equates to authentic storytelling. Strive to provide customers with an opportunity to feel like they are part of a larger group. Research from psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary best describes this need in their “belongingness hypothesis”: “People have a basic psychological need to feel closely connected to others, and that caring, affectionate bonds from close relationships are a major part of human behavior.”

Find a way to connect with your customers on a deeper, more emotional level. Do you give them peace of mind? Do you make life easier? Use these triggers to strengthen your relationship and foster loyalty. Enhanced loyalty might be the most impactful outcome of well-done storytelling, leading to more engagement with your brand.

Take, for example, a client of a client who focuses in the biopharma market, specifically the rare disease space. Rather than promote one-off campaigns they have designed and executed on behalf of pharma and biotech companies, or differentiate on the novel treatments they helped commercialize, for the past several years they’ve used Rare Disease Day to elevate their story. This places the larger focus more holistically on rare disease, making it personal by showcasing the patients and care givers who make up this unique community.

Through podcasts, documentary movies, earned, owned and shared media, they have taken their audience down a path via a well-thought out and executed content strategy, one that engages the audience, solicits emotion and, in effect, connects them more closely to the brand. Given that Rare Disease Day typically falls in February, they use this milestone as a jumping-off point to set the tone of their content marketing, PR and communications strategy for the remainder of the year.

Visual Storytelling for Brands

According to research from Nielsen, there are 27 million pieces of content shared each day.

We check our phones 150 times per day and our email 30 times an hour.

And with the amount of information in the world doubling every 18 months, visual stories are becoming more important to brands and individuals alike.

It’s no surprise that the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words” was coined by one of the leading editors of the 20th century.

Here in the 21st century, there is a battle for customer attention and the pressure to deliver meaning and business impact quickly is compounded by our always-on digital, social and mobile world.

Images play an increasingly important role in today’s content marketing approach. They help to capture your audience’s attention, reach deep into their hearts and minds, and they can accomplish all this (literally) at the speed of light.

Some years ago, when I was working for NewsCred, we announced an interactive microsite called The Power of Visual Storytelling along with an accompanying white paper and Slideshare deck that we created in partnership with Getty Images.

It focuses on the impact of compelling imagery, and defines four principles of visual content. The idea is to bring our audience an engaging digital experience (that is also very visual), while providing tactical take-aways to brand marketers.

When I first saw the microsite, I was blown away. And so I interviewed the person who drove the effort, Erika Velazquez, NewsCred’s Brand and Communications Manager. Check out how the project came about, the process to create it, and our expectations for the content.

How did you come up with the idea to do the piece?
We’ve had a long standing relationship with Getty Images. They’ve been a content partner for years and they spoke at our summit. After being embedded in each others companies for so long – the idea developed pretty organically. We wanted to create something beautiful that conveyed the power of visual content, but also provide tactical take-aways for marketers to thoughtfully select visuals.

What was the process like?
Overall, it was an extremely collaborative process between our marketing team (including our stellar designer) and the Getty Images team. We worked very closely with Getty Images to develop the storyline – interviewing key players on their teams, such as Pam Grossman and Micha Schwing. We had frequent check-ins, and I believe participation across teams drove a ton of creativity along the way. Additionally, we built the entire microsite on Ceros, which was fun because it became an opportunity to learn a new platform.

What did you learn about creating something like this?
My biggest take-away would be that thoughtfulness is absolutely essential when it comes to design. Our designer was included in the very first meetings. In doing so, it gave him the space to both think through the look and feel, while also contributing ideas that ultimately influenced the content.

Any “funny” or “personal” stories from the project that you can share?
Of course! It was probably one of the most fun projects I’ve worked on. Having an excuse to comb through the Getty Images library was an absolute dream. It sparked really interesting discussions on the evolution of stock photography. But of course, in talking so much about stock photography, we also become obsessed with finding terrible stock images (not from Getty Images, of course). Just to give you a sense of what we were talking about, check out this Buzzfeed gem we found: 50 Stock Images You’ll Never Use.

What is your expectation for the piece?
Aside from hoping it goes completely viral, my expectation is that visitors have a really fun experience and understand the value of impactful visuals, and the value of design.

Developing Curiosity in Your Brand Personality

When we’re putting together a marketing team, we look for experience. We want people—whether internal hires or an agency team—to have an understanding of our business. It reduces the learning curve, and holds the promise of them being able to help us move forward quickly.

But this approach is limiting.

That’s because another term for experience is the “curse of knowledge”—when we have done something before or feel that we know it, we tend to stop asking questions. We don’t go back to the beginning and dig deep to find new aspects of it. We jump to the conclusion much more quickly. Basically, we stop asking why. We stop learning. That’s bad.

For a marketing team charged with creating a breakthrough brand story that catches and keeps everyone’s attention, following the path others have travelled previously is a march right up the backs of the competition. Not a good way to win. It’s the boiling red ocean of marketing.

But, hold—there’s a cure for this stagnation: curiosity.

Experience still matters, but when you couple it with curiosity, that’s when great things can happen. It requires an ability to question things that we already “know.” That isn’t easy to do.

Now, let’s be honest about this. Hiring people with insatiable curiosity sounds great. I bet you’re nodding your head so far. But, are we ready to welcome it into our strategy sessions day after day? The right answer is “we should be”—but that requires changing up how those meetings flow, letting them breathe, and not rushing to get to the answer. Insatiable curiosity can be uncomfortable, even annoying. But asking the basic questions, attacking supposedly sacred cows and questioning why is fundamentally how we break away from the pack and create something that gets people’s tongues wagging. And how we start to build a relationship in which they occasionally dip their hand into their pocket and pull out some money.

Curiosity is a state of active interest, a push to gain a deeper understanding. It’s flipping the familiar on its head and asking whether we like it simply because it’s familiar, or because it’s the best approach. It requires suspending judgment and embracing a willingness to rediscover something we’ve discovered before … maybe many times before. It’s easy for me to tell you need to ask why more frequently, but how do you actually put that into practice? How do you make curiosity a core component of your process without simply acting like the annoying 3 year old always asking why?

When we’re curious, we can find something meaningful that hasn’t been found before—a new turn of a phrase, a new way to consider the customer problem or a different way of viewing the relationship.

If you’re writing a novel, uncovering those little details is what brings the story to life. The same is true for corporate storytelling. Here are 4 ways to put curiosity into action:

Question authority

Yes, bringing curiosity can take some guts. But a lot of us in marketing like to think of ourselves as rebels and disrupters. So, when push comes to shove and the chief revenue officer is adamant about an established industry truth, will you have the cajones to say, “Are we sure about that?”

For one of our clients, we were creating social content, and they had a very rigid style guide—the rhythm of the posts was always the same. We pushed back, loosened up the style a bit without losing their brand voice, and engagement jumped.

Pinpoint the assumptions, and question them

All of them. Odds are, the assumptions are correct—but take a moment to consider whether or not they are. It’s a good exercise, and can lead to energetic discussions that slightly alter your starting point—which can be a really good thing.

Let’s talk about a recent failed project: We were working with a technology company, and conducted several interviews with their SMEs as our starting point; these were the top people in the company. But try as we might, we couldn’t get good information and insight out of them—they knew their business inside and out, but could not really provide any forward-thinking, thought leadership-type concepts. Now, maybe we could have asked better questions, but our opinion was that we were speaking to the wrong people. They were the “most important” people at the company, but they were not the innovators that were looking around the corner at where things were headed. We should’ve question the assumption that they were our best information sources.

Consider the exact opposite point of view

This might sound kinda childish, like Opposite Day, but looking at a concept or issue or initiative from 180 degrees away is, by definition, a fresh perspective. You don’t have to stay in the Upside Down forever, but consider it. It could be illuminating.

We run the content hub for the Global Citizens Association called Healthy Travel Blog (see the case study here). At one point, we were creating “premium articles”—2,000+ word deep dives into various topics. That worked, but then performance leveled off. So we shelved the premium articles, focused on creating a faster cadence and more frequent (still high quality) content, and all our key metrics zoomed upward.

Have an idea free-for-all

Have a wide open, and we mean wide open, brainstorm. Anything goes. No idea is a bad one. Say crazy-ass stuff. Out loud. Write it all down. Walk away. Come back to the list the next day and think about some of the ideas—there might be a golden nugget of an idea in there.

We just did this for a client two weeks ago. Struggling to get content ideas on a regular basis, we met with them and spent 90 minutes blurting out any and everything that popped into our head. The result: six months worth of high quality content ideas. Now we’re rolling.

This is business, so we’re in the habit of working to get everyone on the same page. We embrace enthusiasm for a unified direction. But short-circuiting the process to get there can stunt our growth potential.

Sure, curiosity killed the cat, but it might just save your brand.

Creating Brand Advocates Through Stories

What do you think? Have you used a similar approach to tell your brand’s story? I’d love to know if it’s working (or not working) for you. Please share your ideas below!

Are you interested in engaging and converting new customer for your business? Contact me here and let’s talk about how we can help!

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