Stories stimulate brain activity and activate our imagination. When we read a story, hear plot points, or even have a conversation about something that happened to someone else, our neurons start firing.
Our brains are trying to solve the puzzle and understand what’s going on. Where is this story going? How will it end?
You’ve probably heard about marketing storytelling before. The problem is that some brands seem to take the term “story” a little too literally.
They try to tell stories by writing pages of text and slapping them on their website, Store window, or Product packaging.
That doesn’t work because it’s boring, drawn-out, and people don’t want to sit there and read an irrelevant story.
So, What’s Marketing Story Telling?
The term “marketing storytelling” gets thrown around a lot. It also seems like agencies, thought leaders, and companies can’t agree on the definition.
So today, we will be solving this once and for all.
Here’s a definition that makes a lot of sense:
Marketing storytelling is the practice of using narratives to connect your brand to customers by primarily focusing on linking what your brand stands for to the values you share with your customers.
The 3 Elements of Marketing Storytelling
A narrative is just that – a story with a beginning, middle, and end. There are plot points or narrative devices that need to be addressed.
Your story must include characters, setting, conflict, rising action, climax, and denouement. Creating these narrative devices makes your narrative easy to follow along and, most importantly, remember it.
The main character in your marketing story isn’t you but your customers. They’re the hero, and your brand is the guide.
What You Stand for:
What’s the essence of your brand? Not your product or money you make, but the driving force behind your business. What sets you apart from other similar businesses?
Every business has a purpose. It’s the reason you got into this in the first place. It also acts as your guide when making difficult decisions.
You should be able to summarise everything you stand for in two or three words. For example, Nike doesn’t stand for sports equipment or sneakers – it stands for athletic excellence.
Disney doesn’t stand for movies and theme parks. It stands for family happiness.
Values define your business. They’re the character traits of your company. You’ve probably heard a company talk about their values being integrity, innovation, or something similar.
Most of the time, companies use these terms because they sound nice. But not because they reflect who they are as a company.
Think of values as your employees’ best behaviour on their best days. For example, a company cannot say that it values integrity when its salespeople have no problem bending the rules to close a deal. Their value isn’t integrity but winning.
Your values are the things you value the most as a business. For some, it’s growth; for others is changing other people’s lives.
Why is Marketing Storytelling Important?
The online marketplace is crowded. You have to stand out from all the noise and competition to get noticed.
Now, try combining all that with the buyer’s journey.
When someone is looking for a product, they are in the “awareness” stage. They know there’s something they need but aren’t sure what it is or where to find it. The problem isn’t that people don’t want your product – it’s that some even don’t know what they need.
It’s a journey for them, a journey where they’re always in control. So, the only thing you can do is guide them to make the right decision – which should be you, by conviction.
Buying has changed. It’s now social, self-directed, transparent, and more trust-based. The best way to reach a customer who’s yet to decide what and when they’ll buy from you is to stop pushing your products to them. Instead, focus on selling them your value.
Let them see why your business exists in the first place.
Marketing Storytelling and Trust
Stories are powerful. They can touch our hearts and minds in ways that numbers or statistics just cannot.
They can trigger emotions, feelings of fear, excitement, sadness, etc.
When you combine storytelling with your marketing efforts, it becomes a powerful force. Think about the last time you went on social media and saw someone post about their life, what they were doing etc. People love to share stories of all kinds.
That is why storytelling is so powerful in building trust online. Here are five reasons storytelling builds trust online:
Connects you to your audience
Marketers know that the more connections you have with your audience, the more likely you will succeed.
They establish a common ground, a baseline for engagement and communication.
So, when you start sharing your story, you become more relatable and trustworthy in the eyes of your audience.
Storytelling conveys empathy and builds relationships
Stories make your audience the central character. They make them feel included and appreciated.
The more you connect with your target audience and make them feel appreciated, the stronger your relationship becomes.
That works great for a brand because a strong relationship with customers creates a warm environment for business. Also, if customers like you, they will stay on board even when things get tough, etc.
Storytelling builds loyalty amongst your audience
When you share your stories with your audience, they’ll automatically feel something for you.
They begin to identify with you and your brand because of the positive emotions evoked when they see/read/hear your story.
Storytelling builds credibility amongst your audience
When an individual or business tells a convincing story that authentically portrays who they are and what they do, customers will inevitably trust it.
The more you can convey your story with conviction and expose your vulnerability, the more your audience will believe in you and trust in whatever else you have to say.
Stories make you appear human and personable. It makes you relatable and easy to trust.
Storytelling Makes Your Brand Memorable
When you share your story, it stays with people.
It reminds them of who you are and why you do what you do – every time they see or hear it.
*Note: Not all stories have to be long and elaborate. It can be short and straightforward, provided all the three key storytelling elements (narrative, voice, and character) are met.
The 3 Es of Marketing Storytelling
How do you review your stories to make sure they have the impact you want them to? You can look at them from a marketing perspective using these 3 E’s:
That is where you start your story and allure the reader/listener into wanting to know more. The goal of an enticer is to grab their attention, so they can continue reading or listening to the rest of the story. You can do this with sensory information, e.g., describing a scene in detail, using dialogue, etc.
Write a Killer Headline
The title you use should make people want to click on your content. It has to be intriguing enough to make them want to know more.
There are various tactics to achieve this. You can start by using your content topic as the title. The point is to keep it as relevant as it’s humanly possible to the rest of the content.
Include Brilliant Visuals (Make Sure they’re relevant)
A picture is worth more than a thousand words. If you can include relevant and engaging visuals in your content, it will go a long way to entice people into clicking to read the rest of the content on the page.
Remember, if you’re writing a blog, the first thing people will see when they land on your site or page is visual.
Visuals make your content attractive. It also kills the monotony of digging through vast chunks of text to find relevant information.
You Need a Killer Intro
The intro is the most critical part of your content. It needs to be engaging, exciting, and unique. It’s what will make people want to keep going through your content.
A good intro contains several elements:
- It should be relevant to the topic you’re writing about
- It needs to hook the reader and pique their curiosity
- The tone of your intro needs to match that which you have for the rest of your content
- It’s where you introduce your main points for the post
- It gives the reader a clear idea of what to expect when they read the rest of your post.
Once you’ve got someone to stay with, you need to keep them interested in reading or listening through.
You can do this by being inclusive and involving your target audience in the story.
For example, if you’re writing a blog post on tips for new mums. You can write it in the first person and say, “when I was pregnant with my son . . .” Often, you’ll get more people reading your content when you get personal.
You also want to make sure you’re writing about a relevant and exciting topic. If you’re writing about the best way to cook a turkey, keep in mind that most people will never have to cook a turkey.
In this case, it might be better to write an article on how to decorate your Christmas table instead.
It would help if you first researched what topics generate the most interest among your target audience. That will make it easier to create content that matters to them, making them more likely to want to read more
Keep them interested by making sure your content is well written, has a good mix of images, and is easy to understand. Make it about the reader, not yourself.
Teach them something. Entertain them a little.
There has to be value in there. It’s the only way to engage your audience.
Enthral is how you create the “wow” factor. It’s how you make your writing exceptional.
You do this through facts, figures, and statistics. Go beyond just telling a story — add some substance to it with research.
A good example is when you’re writing an article on tips for new mums, you can include findings from a study that shows the impact of stress on baby development in the womb during pregnancy.
Statistics help create a strong point in your content and make everything more believable. It also makes it more exciting and engaging.
If it’s a video, you want to make sure it’s incredibly edited and professionally done. It should be short and to the point.
If it’s an infographic, make sure it’s colourful, engaging, and easy to understand.
Go through some of the best stories online, and you’ll find that they have one thing in common. They’re all backed up with solid facts, figures, and examples.
These help to boost the impact of your message online.
Tying Everything Together
Putting everything together requires a little bit of creativity. The idea here is to create a story your readers can easily follow while ensuring it ends with your main point or purpose.
Too many brands miss this step. They go through the hard work of creating engaging, interesting content and getting their point across but fail to explain why they’re even sharing it with their target audience in the first place.
Using Storytelling to Convey Your Brand Purpose
Consumers aren’t just passively buying from you. They view their purchases as an extension of their values and identities.
That means, for a marketer, effective marketing isn’t just about promoting a product for its sole use and benefits. It’s about creating a purpose, a culture, and a community that consumers feel like they’re part of.
Values dictate your purpose.
They’re who you are, the causes you serve, what you stand for, and what you do for other people.
A compelling purpose gives your customers a reason to connect with your brand and values.
If you’ve been keen on observing big brands such as Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Adidas, one thing you must have noticed is that they’re all in tune with their purpose and values.
Take Pepsi, for example; they’ve managed to create a connection with their target audience by staying true to what the brand stands for. Their commercial video featuring Kendall Jenner is an excellent example of this. It’s inspiring, promotes equality and self-expression, and makes the audience feel good at the end of the day.
In a sense, brands have become more human, and consumers are starting to gravitate towards them because of that. They’re looking for a brand that’s relatable, trustworthy, and easy to identify with.
The difference lies in how each brand tells its story.
You can’t activate and reinforce your purpose without storytelling.
One of the things you need to figure out as a marketer is how you’re going to connect your values to your brand’s purpose and articulate your story in a way understandable to all.
It’s the only way you’ll get your customers to listen to you and be inspired to join you in your journey.
So, how do you do that?
Marshall Ganz, a storytelling professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of government, suggests you follow this.
Simple 3-step framework to develop a compelling, purpose-driven narrative for your brand:
The first step is to create an effective marketing story for your brand is “self.”
Self focuses on explaining how specific elements in your life helped shape your values and how they’re reflected in your brand.
A classic example we can all use is Steve Job’s famous Commencement Address at Stanford University in 2015.
Steve Jobs shared three stories from his life that helped shape who he is as a person and as a businessman — his humble working-class upbringing, dropping out of college, finding Apple, and later getting fired by it, and his cancer diagnosis.
He would talk about his passion for calligraphy and how it helped guide his design work at Apple. He would go on to add how his cancer diagnosis encouraged him to live authentically and passionately as if each day was his last.
He would then tie it all up into a convincing speech about why one should pursue their passion and “stay hungry” for knowledge. What made his stories compelling was how real and raw they seemed.
Jobs would also connect every point in his speech to his audience. By sharing what he learned working with other Apple employees, when he was fired, and how he discovered how meaningful calligraphy is, Jobs made the whole presentation relatable and easy for his audience to understand.
From Job’s story, we learn that a good story has to be genuine and authentic. That demands that you take a deep look into your past and values and really reflect on what shaped you up to who you are today. These are the experiences and moments to share with your target audience.
It also means you have to be honest about who you are, what your brand is all about, and not lie to yourself.
Once you’ve laid the groundwork for your values, the second step of the framework is to create a story that outlines why these values are important to others as well.
To do that, you need to understand your audience deeper. Get into their mind and heart, and figure out what makes them tick.
By weaving your personal stories into their experiences, passion, and values, you’re creating a narrative that’s compelling, relatable, and convincing.
You need to remember, though, your story only works if it reflects the truth of who you are and what you stand for.
It needs to be honest, even if it means being vulnerable. Telling authentic stories is one of the fundamental tenets of effective marketing today.
Let’s take Burt’s Bees founder as an example. They have an interesting story on their company website. The story takes us from when Burt met his partner Roxanne and how they teamed up to start the business. It’s the story of “us,” of their company, their products and consumers, and the values they share.
The final element of your marketing story is the call to action. That is where your narrative takes off and demands the audience take action, i.e., buy your product, sign up to a mailing list, or follow you on social media.
We can all learn from the story of Perry Chen, the founder of Kickstarter. The story begins with Perry Chen sharing the inspiration behind Kickstarter.
The next section of the website includes photos and short bits of information about each member of their Kickstarter team (“us”). They then end their narrative with a call-to-action, asking their audience: “Do you love Kickstarter? You’ll fit right in?”
Their audience can click on their open positions and apply.
The story is compelling, direct, and honest. They share who they are as a company with their experience, “us,” and what people can expect if they join the team.
It’s clear that they’re looking for passionate people to work with them, not just random employees.
Visual Storytelling for Businesses and Brands
According to AOL & Nielsen content sharing study, 27 million pieces of digital content get shared daily.
Not to mention, the amount of information in the digital world has more than doubled in the past 18 months.
It’s a battle for consumer attention, and it’s only going to get busier. The pressure is on for brands to figure out how to use visuals, videos, and internet memes to cut through the noise.
“Visuals speak a thousand words.”
It’s an age-old adage that still rings true today. Though we’re inundated by information, pictures and images are processed 60,000 times faster than text alone.
Therefore, it makes a lot of sense for brands to embrace visuals as part of their marketing strategy.
When done right, “visual storytelling” helps brands connect with people on a deeper level, just like your brand’s story. It engages audiences and encourages them to take action towards a goal.
Visuals do work better than words in some cases. For example, it’s much easier to show someone how to use your product than write out instructions.
One of the companies that are adept at visual storytelling is TOMS Shoes.
TOMS started with a compelling story about the founder, Blake Mycoskie, empowering their audience to make an impact on the communities they’re involved with. Over time, they added visuals to bring their stories to life and grab consumers’ attention.
The narrative is compelling and humanizes TOMS in a way that no number of words could.
Creating an emotional connection with your audience is what makes visual storytelling so effective at marketing brands.
3 Great Examples of Marketing Storytelling in Action
Get inspired by these three brands and how they’ve used a strong narrative to connect with their audiences.
They’re not afraid to be playful, using memes, images, and even gifs to tell their story.
Their posts are entertaining and informative, with a clear call to action.
Case 1: New York-Presbyterian Hospital
New York-Presbyterian Hospital has one of the most active social media accounts. And they’re not afraid to be transparent about their brand.
After scrolling through their social media profiles, you’ll get to understand why their audiences love them.
Their posts are consistently human, honest, and transparent.
Rather than proving their expertise and showing off their all-star team, they prefer to share simple patient stories.
For example, in one of their videos, they share a story about a singer who suffered a heart attack and the quick actions of their doctors and staff.
It is a powerful video because it tells their story very emotionally, showing how their brand made a real difference in someone’s life.
Case 2: Justin Goff
Storytelling isn’t just about images, videos, and the spoken word. It’s also a critical part of copywriting.
Virtually any good copywriter can provide case studies of how marketing storytelling has helped them scale their business and sell more — and Justin Goff is no exception.
Even though Goff is primarily a copywriter, he’s also an excellent storyteller.
His website shows his passion for storytelling. He has testimonials from clients worldwide who are clearly happy with what he delivered for them. He even has some quotes about good jobs he’s done.
Here’s one example of an email he sent to one of his clients, which tells an exciting story about how he made a difference in the lives of well-known entrepreneurs.
The narrative is compelling and makes you want to learn more about what Goff can do for your business.
It’s a long email, but it’s worth reading because it tells a story.
Case 3: Nike
Nike is a household name in the sports industry and a brand that knows how to take full advantage of stories in its marketing campaigns.
Each message they send is not only powerful, but it also has a deep connection to their core values and products. In his book, “Shoe Dog,” Phil Knight (Nike’s founder) reveals that he didn’t believe much in marketing in the early days of launching the company.
However, as the company started growing and new brands appeared in the market, he changed his approach and adopted a new strategy.
Rather than forcing their products on customers using flashy branding, they decided to go out to their customers, create a superior product, and directly ask celebrated athletes to try out their products. They’ll then tell their stories.
That way, their brand became synonymous with grit, hard work, and strength.
That explains why even today, Nike athletes such as Michael Jordan and LeBron James are known not only for their talent in the court/field but also for their core values of determination and hard work.
Nike embraces storytelling in virtually every advertisement they put out. For example, in this video, they feature several celebrated athletes as they overcome different sporting challenges, as well as racial discrimination and differences.
This video is beautifully shot. And its powerful message recalls Nike’s core values of determination, grit, and hard work.
5 Principles of Marketing Storytelling
If you’re interested in using marketing storytelling to promote your business and tell your brand’s story.
Here are five principles you should follow:
Choose a Reliable Hero/Protagonist/Main Character
Think of your story’s protagonist or main character as the face of your story. They’re the ones experiencing all of your story’s challenges and conflicts.
In most stories, this is someone we can relate to as a regular person instead of some super-powered hero or monster. It has to be a real person, brand, or fictional character.
What’s more important is to choose a character that makes your story easy to understand. You also want to make them attractive (not in terms of look, but admirable in a sense).
This character has to move the story forward. They might make a wrong choice, but they have the potential of becoming a better person in the end — or changing your business for the better.
Choose a brilliant problem/conflict you want your protagonist to face and solve.
Make sure it’s relevant to your product and resonates with your target audience.
Use the Best Elements at the beginning of the story
Forget about saving the best for the last. Experience shows that it doesn’t work.
Most stories begin with a strong beginning. The same thing happens when you create an engaging story about your brand or product. So, focus on ensuring the best elements appear at the beginning of the narrative.
You want to lure the audience in immediately — hook them with something that will make them want to know more.
The beginning is where you introduce your protagonist and their challenges
It starts with the story title. You want to make sure it’s as compelling as possible, besides telling your audience what to expect from reading your story.
In the art of branding and marketing storytelling, capturing attention is important for gaining a loyal following. If you don’t get them intrigued or hooked on your brand, there’s little chance that they’ll read through to the end.
For example, instead of writing about “How I Became a Millionaire,” write about “How I Made My First Million from My Mom’s basement” or “How I Left My Job and Became a Millionaire in the New Economy.” See how both titles have a lot more intrigue?
Create Conflict and Tension
In most stories, the main character has to deal with conflict or tension. That’s what makes a story interesting.
Without a good antagonist and obstacles, there is no reason for your main character to persevere and push through to their goals.
There are four steps to creating conflict:
- Start by making your customers or niche influencers the hero of the story. When readers first see them, they have to recognize their issue or problem or desire to achieve something. That represents most customers right before discovering a helpful product.
- Introduce the character to failure. It doesn’t have to be the first scene. But it should happen relatively early on. They should fail (or already have failed) in whatever they’re trying to achieve. If they immediately get what they want, yay. But that would only spell the end of your story.
- Add a Differing Obstacle or Opinion to get in the way of the hero achieving their goal. That is where you create conflict that will help your readers determine who they’re rooting for to succeed. It can also make them reconsider what’s really important.
- Introduce Your Product or Service as the Solution to their Problem
This is the primary driver of your story. Here’s where you present your product or service as the solution to what’s keeping your hero from achieving their goals.
Identify the Obstacles Preventing the Reader from Listening to Your Story
There’s a reciprocal relationship between telling a story about your brand and having people listen to it. If you don’t do certain things, they won’t.
You have to identify these obstacles early on and take the necessary steps to get them out of the way.
These obstacles come in various forms:
- Physical obstacles
- External obstacles
- Relational obstacles
- Psychological obstacles
- Internal obstacles
It’s simple: to get your audience to read or listen to your story in its entirety, you have to understand their likes, dislikes, behaviour, attention span, etc. Otherwise, all your effort will go to waste.
Keep Your Story Authentic
Your customer will appreciate your story for being authentic. You can’t fool them on this one.
Even if you have to embellish some parts of your story, the reference point or frame must always remain true. It’s the only way to keep people listening or reading until the end.
Remember, everything in your story must serve a purpose. It should benefit either your customers or someone else along the line.