Storytelling is by far the most powerful tool humanity has ever created. It’s as useful today as it was 100,000 years ago. Whether it’s a caveman survivor retelling his close encounter with a deadly predator or a brand talking about their products online, we use stories to convey a message.
That’s why it baffles me that so few companies use storytelling in their branding. Of course, the best of them do – all the multinational brands that pop into your mind when you read this sentence are using storytelling.
Is that the secret to their success? Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous – there is no one method or tool that can guarantee success. But effective storytelling is definitely a part of the equation.
The good news is you don’t have to be a multinational corporation to use storytelling and improve your brand. You can use it just as effectively for a small local bakery as you can for an international conglomerate. The scale is different, but the benefits and methods remain the same. Let’s do a deep dive into the importance of storytelling in branding and you’ll see what I mean.
Why is storytelling such a powerful tool in branding?
Most people associate storytelling with words. Finding the right words should yield the desired results, correct? Thank you for the excellent question, dear hypothetical reader. And the answer is “no”. Storytelling is about words as much as logo design is about shapes and colors (hint: it’s not).
Words are means to an end. They convey meaning. Of course, you need to be effective at conveying your message, but if the message is hollow, it will fall on deaf ears. Like a pretty logo, people will forget about it when they stop looking.
Stories are a lot more powerful than that. They stay with you. They inspire you or scare you, convince you or dissuade you. A good story can move mountains. Here’s why.
Storytelling creates an emotional connection.
As much as we want to pretend we’re hyper-rational these days, people are emotional creatures. We’re under the influence of our emotions far more than we realize. Even though decision-making is an incredibly complex neurological and psychological process we don’t fully understand yet, we do know emotions play a tremendous role in it.
In fact, most decisions are made on an emotional basis. We then use rationality to reason our way into paying more for a watch than most people pay for their cars. That is not a rational decision. It’s an emotional one.
What does this have to do with storytelling? Everything. Storytelling has the power to create a deep emotional connection between brands and people. It’s that emotional connection that explains why we’re ready to pay top dollar for certain items while looking for a bargain when it comes to others.
Buying decisions are often influenced by stories. The stories brands tell. The stories we tell ourselves. And the stories we want to tell the world about ourselves with our purchasing decisions.
Let’s get back to the example above. You buy a watch that costs more than most people’s cars. Why? It’s not because of the quality of the build – no amount of quality or materials can possibly justify that price tag. It’s not the precision, either – you can buy a titanium watch that’s perfectly synced with an atomic clock for a couple of hundred dollars.
You could argue it’s the aesthetics, but most expensive watches are not that impressive. So what’s left? It’s the brand. You want to tell the world that you’ve made it. You want to tell everyone that you have no problem dishing out thousands of dollars for a timepiece, even though there are cheaper options 100 times over.
And you’ll choose the brand that helps you tell this story. It’s as much their story as it is your own. Obviously, this would not work if people are not familiar with the brand. Or if the brand isn’t expensive.
For example, the most expensive Casio watches run for about 3-4 thousand dollars. A cheap Rolex runs for anywhere between 6 and 11 thousand dollars. And who wants to buy a cheap Rolex? So it will probably cost a lot more. This is not even mentioning the Patek Philippes of the world, where prices are in the tens or even hundreds of thousands.
None of this would work if people don’t know the story of the brand and the meaning behind wearing this watch. Like alchemy, storytelling creates value out of a simple timepiece.
You can apply the same reasoning to any product or service. Bear in mind, you need to work harder to weave a good story into a B2B context. However, that’s why professional copywriters exist.
Stories stimulate the mind.
When we hear a story, we tend to experience it on more than one level. We empathize with the characters. We imagine what we would’ve done if put in the same situation. We judge their actions (or inactions) according to our own moral compass. This mental stimulation helps us to process information. Each story helps us learn a little bit more about the world and ourselves.
This is the reason why so many stories have resonated throughout the ages. And why the hero’s journey has been a staple of good storytelling since ancient times. The ability to imagine these stories comes as naturally to us as swimming comes to fish. Yet, this too is an extremely complicated mental process.
It takes a tremendous amount of processing power to understand even the simplest stories. This is the reason why we remember them. The human brain abhors waste so having used energy to understand something, it tends to tuck it away where it’s easily accessed. In case you were wondering, that’s why it’s a lot easier to remember information when you put it in the context of a story.
“I’m walking around campus thinking about the hippocampus”, is a sentence I heard during my first year of psychology more than a decade ago. Yet I remember it as if it were yesterday because I imagined myself walking around a fancy campus thinking about the hippocampus. This is more than a mnemonic device. It’s a simple story comprised of a single sentence, yet to me it holds a tremendous amount of meaning which is almost impossible to convey.
How does this relate to branding? Crafting a good brand story can stimulate the minds of your current and potential customers. It can help them imagine using your product and what this would mean to them. Or it can help them understand their problems and how you can help them (that’s what I usually do with brand strategy). The possibilities are endless. Simply imagine.
Brand stories are more persuasive than facts and statistics.
The relatability of stories makes them more persuasive than your run-of-the-mill facts and figures. Data cannot move you. It cannot inspire you. It cannot make you feel. Stories can. But this persuasiveness cuts both ways.
As with everything else, storytelling also has a dark side. A skilled storyteller can use narratives to manipulate and deceive. Some cynics believe this is all marketing, advertising, and branding ever do.
This is where morality plays a crucial role. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I want to play no part in creating a monster. I’m very careful with the projects I choose and I try to ensure my values align with the values of the client.
Indeed, you can absolutely use storytelling to bring forth a monster. Stories tap into our emotions and tug at our heartstrings. The very nature of narratives is what makes them dangerous. We’re far less critical of stories than cold facts and figures.
This means that if you can weave a good story, you can hide weak facts into it and manipulate people. Every scam in history has been built on a compelling narrative. So as professionals, it’s our duty to be careful how we use storytelling.
On the bright side, this means that if you have a solid, high-quality, and client-oriented business, it’s easier to persuade people to give you a chance. All you need to do is offer them a clear brand story that resonates with them. Well, maybe that’s not all you need to do, but it’s a great way to give your business a much-needed edge.
Finally, I should point out that in certain contexts, facts and figures may work better than storytelling. For example, when your target audience is comprised of tech geeks, they’re far more interested in performance than stories.
You may have noticed that CPU and GPU sellers are very matter-of-factly in their messaging. They use lots of benchmarks and number comparisons – this is the reason why. When I’m looking to buy a new processor, I don’t care what the brand says about me – I want to get the best bang for my buck. And even then, you can use storytelling to sway more casual consumers.
Storytelling promotes social bonding.
Imagine this. You’re meeting a friend at a cafe. You haven’t seen each other for a while so you have a lot of catching up to do. But your friend invites another friend you’ve never met before.
At first, you’re a little bummed out. What, is your company not good enough? But you decide to give this new person a chance. You get to talking. Next thing you know, you’re sharing stories. A couple of hours later, it feels like you’ve been friends for ages.
Storytelling allows us to condense and convey our experiences to other people in digestible, bite-sized nuggets. It can speed up social bonding and the process of getting to know another person. A special connection is created when your stories resonate.
Why is this important for your brand? Because this way you can get people to learn about and understand your business better. Especially when you’re trying to enter a saturated market, a brand story is fundamental. It helps your company to stand out and shorten the distance between you and your customers. Do you want to make them feel like they’ve known your brand for years? Tell a good story.
How to use storytelling in your branding.
Now that you understand the “why”, it’s time to explain the “how”. If your business has a story worth telling, then there are a few ways you can do it. As I’ve hinted earlier, it’s not just about using the right words. Let’s dive in.
Identify your brand story.
Your brand story should reflect your brand strategy. How are you going to change your customers’ lives? What are they telling the world by using your brand? Why did you start your business? What’s driving you? What are you striving towards? Those are relevant questions you need to answer with your brand. It’s the message you want to convey with everything you do.
How do you know if you have a good brand story? It has to be real, authentic, and hit home if you want to grab hold of your customers’ attention. You have to put your customer at the forefront – they’re the protagonist. You’re the guide who will help them better their lives.
Once you figure out your story, let it be your compass for all your marketing efforts. Don’t try to fake it. People can smell bullshit from a mile away. Your story has to be real. Something that makes people feel like they’re part of it. If it’s not that, then it’s just a load of garbage.
Use storytelling in your brand identity.
Your brand identity encompasses all the visual elements of your brand. It’s the physical manifestation of your brand strategy. It includes your colors, fonts, logo, design elements, and more.
And guess what – you can use those elements to tell a story, too. If you’re a regular on this blog, then you know that aside from my solo practice, I work with Embrand Studio. It’s a ragtag band of artists, designers, coffee lovers, and some of the loveliest people you’ll ever meet.
My role in the group is brand strategist and copywriter, but the real star of the show is my good friend Alexander Petrov – a genius designer, an amazing artist, a great teacher, and, overall – wearer of many hats (seriously – the dude does not sleep).
What sets Alex apart from other designers is his incredible talent for telling stories with images. Once we’ve developed the brand strategy, he creates the most amazing visual stories. I then work on the tone of voice and copywriting. When we’re done – we create magic. But my main point (other than self-adulation) is that you can use images to tell your story.
Use storytelling in your content marketing.
Once you’ve created your brand strategy and established your brand story, you can start using storytelling in your content marketing. This includes blog posts, videos, infographics, ebooks, podcasts, etc.
All the different types of content should be tied together by an overarching theme. Your brand story has to inform every decision about creating a piece of content. Does this new blog post fit into the big picture? Does it help you tell the brand’s story or are you chasing trends? If the answer is “no”, then you’re wasting your time (and everyone else’s).
Use storytelling to communicate your brand’s message and create a deeper connection with your audience. Make your content useful and deliver so much value that your customers wouldn’t even dream of going with another brand. This is how you create brand loyalty.
Use storytelling in your social media marketing.
Social media is another area where you can use visual storytelling. Platforms like Instagram and Facebook allow you to showcase your brand’s personality and values. And you have to do it in a unique way or you’ll never, ever cut through the noise.
Don’t be afraid to get creative and mix it up. Not everything needs to be curated and professionally made. Showing bits and pieces straight from the kitchen will do wonders for the trust your audience has for you.
Make sure everything you show is genuine. Authenticity in social media is harder to find than an ice block in the Sahara desert. Don’t be afraid of showing people what you’re all about.
Use storytelling in your email marketing.
When using email marketing, don’t just load the template and hit the “send button”. Take the time to really personalize your emails. Address your readers by name and maybe even mention something you know about them. Show them that you care.
In the end, that’s what it’s all about – building a real, genuine connection with your audience. And there’s no better way to do that than through storytelling. So get to it. Tell your story, and watch as your audience falls in love with your brand.
Use storytelling in your product packaging and advertising.
When you use storytelling in your packaging or advertising, you’re not just selling a product. You’re selling an experience. You’re showing your customers how your product can change their lives, and how it can make things easier or better for them.
Packaging is more than pretty colors and pictures. You can use it to communicate your brand’s values or your product’s unique features or benefits. Sky is the limit.
Measure and improve.
If you want to know if your storytelling efforts are paying off (and you do), you have to use analytics. Don’t just tell a story and hope for the best. Sadly, you have to measure.
Now I know, analytics can be a pain in the ass. But trust me, it’s worth it. When you use analytics, you can see what’s working and what’s not. You can see if your audience is responding to your story, if they’re engaging with your content, and if they’re taking action.
Without measuring your results, you’re flying blind. And let me tell you – the turbulence is not going to be pretty.
Examples of powerful brand stories.
At this point, it probably seems like storytelling is too much work to be worth it. So let me give you a few examples of companies that have used it successfully in the hopes you’ll get inspired and create a kickass brand.
Note: Do not misinterpret the examples below as endorsements for these companies. I’m merely sharing them as good examples of storytelling in branding and nothing more.
The Coca-Cola Company doesn’t sell soft drinks. They sell the idea of happiness and togetherness. Their ads often feature people from different backgrounds coming together and enjoying a Coke. They also used storytelling in the “Share a Coke” campaign, where they encouraged people to find and share Coca-Cola with friends and family. Cheesy? Perhaps. But they have a market cap of 260 billion dollars, so I’d say whatever they’re doing is working.
Apple have built their brand around the idea of innovation and creativity. Their ads often feature people pushing boundaries and using Apple products to do so. Their “Think Different” campaign, which featured a series of ads with “troublemakers” such as Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, and Muhammad Ali, is one of the best examples of storytelling in branding.
Nike’s brand is built around the idea of pushing boundaries and achieving greatness. Their “Just Do It” slogan and ads featuring famous athletes, such as Michael Jordan, have become iconic and catapulted Nike as one of the definitive sports brands in the world.
Airbnb made strides around the idea of community and connection. Their entire brand is based on storytelling. The “Don’t Go There, Live There” campaign, which showcased the stories of people who had used Airbnb to experience the world is making me want to pack a bag (and I don’t like to travel).
Patagonia’s become synonymous with the idea of environmental conservation and sustainability. For example, “The Footprint Chronicles” details the environmental impact of the company’s products. And the “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign is one of the most daring ways to encourage customers to think about the environmental impact of their purchases.
Now go out there and tell your brand’s story. Create a business we can all be proud of. And if you need help along the way, I know a guy.
Storytelling is a powerful tool humanity has used for thousands of years. If you think you know better than all the previous generations, think again.
A good story will allow you to stand head and shoulders above your competition because there are few stories worth telling. It requires work, thought, and imagination to weave your story into your branding. But to those that do, the world is your oyster.
Till next time.