The Importance of Brand Storytelling
August 23, 2018
Todd Henderson

The Importance of Brand Storytelling

What’s your story?

Ever ask someone that? Ever been asked that? It’s a common ice-breaker. There’s a reason this question is so ubiquitous: it gets to the core of what makes us relatable as people. It’s no different for brands. When Forbes published “Why Every Brand Needs Powerful Storytelling to Grow,” Celinne Da Costa noted: “A clearly communicated story is the backbone of a strong marketing strategy.”

That truth bears out in hard statistics. According to Adweek, the perceived value of a hotel room increased when another user related their personal story about their stay. The same was true when consumers knew the artists behind a painting or the story behind the quality of a bottle of wine.

When a short fiction story accompanied fish-shape spoons on eBay, the listing with the short fiction attracted 64% higher bids than the listings with the visual alone.

We human beings are social creatures. It’s not enough that we enjoy a meal; we want to “give our compliments to the chef.” And we need to feel connected to a brand before we commit our trust and purchasing power to its care. One of the most effective ways to do that as marketers: build the story behind the brand. Here’s why storytelling still matters—and what your brand can do to enhance its own story:

What Happens When Brands Don’t Tie in the Emotional Impact of a Story

According to Corporate Culture & Performance, companies that can convey both the value and purpose behind their brand tend to out-value their competitors’ stock price by 12 times.

That means there’s a very real bottom-line cost to marketing a brand without a relatable story driving its marketing.

Before Visa implemented its #GoInSix campaign, it found itself without a true emotional connection to its customers. Its engagement score on Facebook was ranked seventh in the financial category. Maybe that’s high enough for some companies, but given the level of Visa’s competition, it wasn’t enough. To correct their engagement, Visa created brief videos and vignettes known as #GoInSix and asked users to upload their own brief stories about dining, traveling, and shopping. Engagement increased and Visa’s marketing team found itself outperforming a previous campaign that cost 18 times as much as #GoInSix.

Without an emotional backbone supporting a brand’s mission, an advertising campaign can fall on deaf ears. That means even brilliant marketers can create campaigns that lose out on the following elements if they’re not focusing on the power of story first:

  • Trust is one of the most important elements won by an effective brand story. Without that story, however, trust goes out the window. According to the Economist, a 2013 study showed that authenticity was one of the most valuable aspects of a company’s voice for consumers. Companies with high trust can justify higher prices because customers feel that their purchase is a long-term investment. Companies with low trust will have to work just to justify choosing lower prices over the competition.
  • Wendy’s has seen tremendous engagement on social media because they have a very strong voice on Twitter. The trick: personality. While some corporate brands only post company-related content with vanilla marketing gimmicks, Wendy’s engages users on their level. They joke. They snap back at McDonald’s. They get into long Twitter threads with other companies. That personality has boosted the profile of the Wendy’s brand far more than any individual commercial ever could—with the possible exception of “Where’s the beef?”
  • Just about every marketing company on earth is looking for the next big “viral hit.” But it can be difficult to predict exactly what connects with an audience. That’s because one of the most important rules of customer engagement boils down to a sense of connection between the sender and the receiver. Customers are highly aware of when a brand is talking “down” to them. But brands that seek a genuine connection and create content that matches the feelings of their audience stand a much greater chance of seeing a marketing campaign drive the engagement they need.

Common Myths about Building a Successful Brand Story

The solution is simple: if you want to improve your ability to market your product or service, you should create a brand story in the style of Apple or Coca-Cola, right?

Not necessarily. All sorts of myths about building a successful brand story abound, including:

  • “You need a creation figure.” Sure, Apple has a strong brand story surrounding the charisma and passion of its founder, Steve Jobs. But not every company needs a Steve Jobs to create an effective brand.
  • “You need a creation story or a secret recipe.” Think Coca-Cola here; there are all sorts of myths and urban legends about how Coca-Cola started. Coca-Cola even avoids patenting its formula to keep the famous recipe a secret. But other companies—like Visa, in the previous section—succeed even without creating a mystique about how their product accomplishes what it does.
  • “Brand storytelling is all about proper targeting.” Not so. It’s more about the five elements of an effective story than it is the proper identification of one’s target audience. A successful campaign requires both, but if you want to tell a brand’s story the right way, you can’t ignore the emotional side of what makes a brand connect with its audience.

If you can case those myths aside and look for the real reasons a brand can create an effective story, then it’s possible to start marketing campaigns that have more resonance with your intended audience.

How to Find the Story Behind Your Brand

“You will see this story over and over again. People love it and it is not copyrighted. The story is ‘Man in Hole,’ but the story needn’t be about a man or a hole. It’s: somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again.”

-Kurt Vonnegut

That’s where it starts: struggle. Overcoming struggle is the essential human story. When we identify someone we can relate to and then watch them struggle, we root for them—and we’re enthralled with every obstacle that comes in their way.

Dove accomplished this with its “Real Beauty Sketches.” The videos started with quote-unquote “regular people” in a unique situation. Women found themselves having to tell an artist—who couldn’t see them—about what made their faces unique. Including their flaws, like “my mom told me I had a big jaw.”

Immediately we have the elements of an engaging story: people we can relate with who are facing struggles. In this case, they’re facing their own insecurities.

Then, Dove brought in other participants to describe the faces of those same people. This time, the artist was working from a third-party perspective.

Invariably, the third-party sketches showed these women that they were more attractive than their personal descriptions might have portrayed. In three short minutes, Dove created an emotional roller coaster. And who couldn’t relate to people with these basic insecurities? The conclusion of the video: “You’re more beautiful than you think.” You’ll be forgiven if you get goosebumps by the end of the video.

That’s from a soap company.

Your company can tell stories just as powerful as this. It’s just a matter of identifying where those stories might be. And that gets to the heart of what makes a successful story itself: where are the situations in which your customers are struggling? And what kind of story might lead them out of that?

BigCommerce recommends starting by knowing your audience. What kinds of struggles are they going through? What are their chief concerns? What problems are they looking to solve? To start the discovery process, try using the following tools:

  • SurveyMonkey. This is a great way to create impromptu polls and surveys from which customers can provide immediate feedback.
  • Use Mention to track where your company is being talked about online. Sometimes, the most honest feedback is the feedback you weren’t supposed to hear.
  • Employ Sprout Social to enhance customer engagement and start a new two-way conversation on all your social media channels.

Brand Stories Done Right

What happens when a brand tells a powerful story?

Consider the problem of the American Dance Institute in Seattle. Although they’d been serving the market for 25 years, they found themselves inundated with quick-springing competition all around them. They had a tremendous brand story to tell.

After changing the “first impression” people had of the brand with a variety of alterations—including an updating of the logo—ADI then promoted one of the best parts of its story: its ability to foster a cooperative environment. One simple motto (“Movement. On Your Terms.”) told that story in a hurry. The brand also utilized video to create a “Next 25 years” story online.

The key here was the focus of the brand’s story: it wasn’t about what the brand had already done and overcome, but about today’s students and what today’s students want. That provided an immediacy that appealed to their target demographic.

When you get to the bottom of what makes your brand special, you’ll stumble on a story that’s worth telling. That story can be told in a variety of ways—through logos, through mottos, through online videos, through social media—but it should be told.

Remember that many of the reasons that we human beings make our decisions aren’t always about dollars and cents. It often comes down to an emotional foundation of trust and connection. When your customers trust you—when they feel connected with you—your marketing results will reflect it. It can make for a great story.

But that’s the story you have to tell.