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Brand storytelling

Why read this? : We explore how to use brand storytelling to engage an audience. Learn why stories are such a powerful communication tool. What elements and structure drive great storytelling. And how storytelling connects to brand and marketing objectives. Read this to learn how to get more out of brand storytelling.

Brand storytelling

How this guide raises your game :-

  1. Explore how stories engage and build connections with your audience. 
  2. Understand the role of purpose, structure and other key elements that go into great stories.
  3. Learn from examples of the different types of stories used in marketing and e-Commerce. 

Do you want to hear a good story? This is a great opening line for your marketing communications because everyone likes a good story. 

Storytelling has been around for a long time. Our ancestors used stories to communicate and share ideas. What do you think cave drawings and hieroglyphs are? They’re visual stories, passed from one tribe to the next, from one generation to the next.

Stories have stuck around as they help communicate ideas in clear, memorable and shareable ways. We tell and hear new stories every day. Use them to entertain and educate. They preserve cultures and instil moral values.

And because they’re still such an ingrained part of our lives, they’re a great way for brands to communicate. To share their ideas, and connect with customers. Which let’s face it, is what marketing’s all about. 

Woman standing on stage telling a story to a large seated audience

Ready to test your knowledge?

What’s your starting level of knowledge about brand storytelling?

Take the 2 minute, 5 question Three-Brains brand storytelling quiz and see how much you know about brand storytelling already.

Why stories work

Brand storytelling is part of your brand activation and communication. You use it to engage and connect with your target audience. Done well, it makes what you say to customers more relevant, engaging and inspiring. That leads to happier, more loyal customers who buy into your story.

Stories help organise ideas and information and take the audience on a journey. The structure, techniques and words behind your story create an experience which makes the audience think, feel or do something different. Great stories are memorable and shareable. They’re an easy way to pass on complex information, like why customers should believe in and buy your brand. 

Stories light up the brain

Psychological studies have shown stories light up the sensory cortex in our brains. This part of the brain’s main job is to process inputs from our senses. So, stories talk to the same part of our brain that processes what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch in the world around us.

Our brains are wired to recognise and listen to stories as a way to learn, remember and pass on information. Some studies suggest stories may be up to 22 times more memorable than facts alone. 

It’s not the story itself necessarily, but the way you tell it that makes an impact. And that’s because stories surround all of us every day. In the movies, TV shows and books we enjoy. In conversations with family, friends and work colleagues. And in how we teach our children. 

Stories are a way for us to connect and build relationships with those around us. And in marketing, brand storytelling helps you do that with your target audience. You use it to bring your brand identity to life and create memorable, engaging communications with the stories you tell.

The purpose of the story

Storytelling can have many purposes. 

Sometimes it’s to entertain. Sometimes it’s to educate. And sometimes, you tell stories to preserve cultures or instil moral values. 

Most brand storytelling focuses on entertainment and education. It’s used to target customers with relevant content which makes them think better of your brand. 

But before we get into the details of that, let’s touch briefly on the culture and values role of stories. 

Young Girl reading book

Culture and values

As per our creative thinking guide, business culture is a broad topic which deals with how things get done. Especially how your business makes decisions. It drives the thoughts, feelings and actions of the business. It combines the people in the business, its leadership and the environment in which it operates.  

This culture defines the values which sit behind the brand identity. These are the core principles the company stands for. What it believes in. But values are only words on a page until you bring them to life. Until they have context and meaning. Brand storytelling is a great way to bring your values to life. It makes your values easier to understand and relate to. 

For example, say you have a brand value around being environmentally friendly. Rather than just say you are, tell a story which shows how you do that. What actions you do to back up your green credentials. Or let’s say, you’ve a brand value around innovation. Tell a story that brings this to life. Use brand storytelling to show people how you’re a pioneer. 

Entertaining stories

Entertaining stories take the audience on a journey. They take them to new places in their mind by playing heavily on emotions and feelings. They make people laugh. Cry. Feel afraid. Or angry.

These types of feelings work on the limbic system in the brain. This part of the brain assesses and responds to emotional stimuli.

Entertaining and emotional brand storytelling creates deep and strong connections with the target audience. They’re commonly used in advertising as they’re easy to remember and pass on, and bring the brand’s personality to life. 

Young woman sitting cross legged on a couch reading a book in front of some bookshelves

Brand storytelling example - Hewlett Packard

They’re also a helpful way to bring to life the company’s culture. For example, new employees in Hewlett Packard used to be given The HP Way by David Packard* which tells their brand origin story. 

There’s a great story about how their early competitors would lock up tools at the end of the day. They feared employees would be tempted to steal them. However, Hewlett Packard’s culture was built around the idea of trust in their employees. So, they went the other way. No locked cupboards. Employees could do whatever they wanted with the tools … because the company trusted them.

This is a simple story, much better told in the book. But it’s a neat way to share a complex idea (trust) with an easy-to-share story. You can visualise the ‘no locked cupboards’. The story helps you associate the company with a culture of trust.

Educational stories

Educational stories bring to life a message about a problem. They give easy ways to solve that problem by telling the story of someone going through the same issue.

Companies with a clear purpose often use educational stories to bring their purpose to life.  

Brand storytelling example - Who Gives a Crap?

For example, Aussie toilet paper brand Who Gives a Crap tells an educating story about the brand’s origin.

Screengrab of the Who Gives a Crap website home page with the header banner Talking Crap - We launched a blog

They talk about the 2.4bn people in the world who don’t have access to safe water supplies. And then the privilege of access to safe sanitation in developed countries. So, they set up a system where buying toilet paper from them helps improve toilet facilities in underdeveloped countries.

It identifies a problem and makes it clear what action you can take to help with the problem.

Educational stories make it easier to remember facts. If you tell someone a fact, they may not remember it. But tell them a story with the facts included and they’re more likely to remember it. The story brings the fact to life. It makes it more vivid and memorable.

The elements of a story

Let’s now move on to how you build a story. In any story, and that includes brand storytelling, you’ll find a consistent set of elements that make the story happen :-

  • the hero / heroine lead character.
  • the problem or challenge they face.
  • a guide who helps them – this is the role your brand plays.
  • a plan and call to action
  • the failures and successes which drive the story to the goal. 

Hero / Heroine

Every story needs a hero or heroine character. The hero is the vehicle which carries the audience along the story’s journey.  It’s their experiences, thoughts and actions which help the audience feel they’re sharing the journey.

You want the audience to identify and connect with the hero. The hero’s thoughts, feelings and actions help the audience feel they share a similar view of the world and how it works. Like they have a similar character

With brand storytelling, it’s even more important the customer identifies with the hero. That they could be the hero of that brand’s story.

Close up of a Superman lego hero figure against a dramatic red sky background

Your customer is your hero

In brand storytelling, the customer is the hero. You can use the customer profile from your customer experience development to bring this customer hero character to life.

The customer persona works like a character description of your ideal target customer. 

You should use this to tell your story from the point of view of that idealised customer. The words this character uses. The problems they face. How they make decisions. What drives them to the end goal of the story.

The key is to make sure the audience feels connected to the hero. That they see something of the hero in themselves.

An example customer segment profile completed for a customer called Lonesome Lukas. Includes their story, goals, habits, pains and influences.

Problem - from an unexpected change

The hero then faces a problem. There’s no story If everything’s always good with the hero. For there to be a story, the hero has to face a problem customers recognise. This makes them curious to find out how the hero will solve it. This problem could be at a broad societal-level (e.g. global warming). It could be a specific person or group getting in their way (the traditional villain of the story). Or it could be someone’s internal problem (e.g. a lack of confidence).  

In brand storytelling, the problem should connect to the customer need which drives your positioning. Your benefit, reason why and reason to believe support the solution to the hero’s (and audience’s) problem. So you must lay out this problem as soon as you can. It’s what makes people pay attention to the story.

This is why you see many advertising headlines start with a question. A question is a great way to identify a problem quickly and grab attention.

Need help with filling out your taxes? Losing weight? Buying a new car? 

It doesn’t have to be dramatic. But it does have to be relevant.

These types of problem questions start the story for the audience. They follow the story because they want to find out the answer. 

Question mark spray painted onto a tree trunk among a wood of trees

A guide

To answer these questions and problems, you need another character to help the hero move in the right direction. The hero doesn’t just do it themselves. They need help. 

If they can solve the problem without help, then it’s probably not too much of a problem. And the help usually comes in the form of some sort of guide. Someone who has experience, knowledge and skills that can help them. 

These “guide” figures are everywhere in stories when you start to look. 

Think Yoda and Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars saga. Yoda guides Luke to solve his problems with The Force. 

Think Gandalf and Frodo in the Lord of the Rings. Gandalf guides Frodo to return the ring and destroy it. 

Or think about Back to the Future. Isn’t Doc Brown the guide for Marty McFly?

In many stories, there’s a more experienced mentor figure who educates the hero. They provide the resources needed to start to solve the problem. And they point the hero with the problem in the direction of their goal. 

De Lorean car in a car park

In brand storytelling, this is where you want the brand identity to come in. The brand is there to act as a guide for the hero (customer). You’re there to offer advice, wisdom and support. Your brand points them in the direction of their goal and helps them define their plan.  

A plan

And so, that advice, wisdom and support, and the direction towards their goal becomes the plan. In stories, this might be a journey to a destination. Or a series of meetings with other characters and situations.

In brand storytelling, it becomes the series of actions you want the target audience to take. To solve their problem, they just need to buy this product. Book that appointment. Visit that website. The story makes it clear what they need to do to overcome the challenge or problem.

Call to action

Stories then also need a call to action, a trigger that sets the chain of events into motion. This might be the search for the hidden treasure. Or the rescue of the kidnapped prince or princess. But something needs to happen in the story, so the hero starts the process (the story) to overcome the challenge.

The goal - success and failure consequences

The final part of the story is the build towards and arrival at resolution. What happens when the story is done? And what happens along the way to get there? 

There must be a struggle. Easily solved problems aren’t interesting or compelling in a story. The story should make clear what the successful resolution of the problem looks like. And what the consequences of failure are. 

Brands can use the resolution and the key scenes in the story to help paint a picture of what they can do to make the life of the audience better. They can use brand storytelling to show what life will be like when the customer interacts with the brand. And they can use brand storytelling to show the consequences if they fail to interact with the brand. 

Brand storytelling elements in brand identity

You can see some of these elements on the outer circle of the brand wheel from our brand identity guide.

Each element builds on each other. They tell a short story about how the interaction with the brand makes the customer feel. And consequently, how that changes or impacts their perceptions. What it says about them.

So, those are the basic elements you expect to find in a compelling brand story.

The hero customer encounters a problem. A guide brand helps them with a plan and call to action. And the scenes of success and failure play out until the problem’s resolved.

Brand identity wheel showing elements of brand identity including essence, values, personality, and benefits

The structure of a story - the story arc 

Now we know the key elements of the story, the next step is to organise them into an order.

This is the story structure, the sequence of events and details that cover the journey of the story. 

Most stories follow a common structure.

At the most simple level, they have a beginning, a middle and an end. 

There are several jobs to be done at each of these stages to establish the story arc. This is the flow or progress the story makes over its course. It’s important the story “moves” as that keeps readers and listeners interested. 

Brand storytelling - the story arc with beginning, middle and end

The beginning - introduce the hero and their problem

In the beginning, we meet the hero / heroine. We find out who they are, and learn the problem they need to solve. This beginning helps us understand the context and environment of the story. 

The problem has to create a tension or struggle for the characters. 

From a brand storytelling point of view, this is where you hook the audience in to read more. You want to make the character and the problem feel relevant to them. They need to want to know the answer to the problem. So, think about what’s likely to bring the problem to life for the target audience. 

Say you’re a plumbing business, for example. Far more impactful to start with “drip, drip, drip, doesn’t that leaky tap REALLY get on your nerves after a while?” than “hey, we’re a plumbing business”. The leaky tap is the problem you can solve.

Or say you run a pizza business. Better to start with “the widest range of tasty pizzas delivered within 45 minutes” than “hey, we’re a pizza business”. Not having the pizza you want and having to wait for it are the problems you can solve. 

The middle - introduce the guide and the plan

The middle of the story is where you see “the plan” come to life. You introduce the guide and the guide helps the hero / heroine build the plan. 

But, in real life, plans never go exactly as well as you’d like. There are always ups and downs in the middle of the story. The middle of the story shows the struggle to overcome the initial challenge as it builds towards a climax. 

You want to highlight the key steps the hero takes to head towards their goal. This is done through a series of scenes that move the story and action forward. These take the audience step by step towards the end. 

When brand storytelling, there’s a temptation to only show the “good bits”. And to remove or omit any “bad bits”. Those times when things didn’t go right, or didn’t go as planned. But this would be a mistake. 

By showing your brand as less than perfect, you make your brand more relatable and human. No one is perfect. In fact, perfect makes most people suspicious. If it’s too good to be true, then it probably is. 

When you show something going wrong, but also how you dealt with it, it’s a more engaging experience for the audience. 

The end - define the goal, success and failure

Every story then has an end. A climax. A resolution. Whatever happened has changed what the world was like at the start of the story. There’s a “new normal”. The hero / heroine defeated the evil empire. The police caught the diamond robbers. Whatever it was.  

In brand storytelling, this end or climax is really to highlight what will happen for the target audience if they follow your brand as the “guide”. Paint a picture of what “success” looks like. 

Is it more customers? Or more engaged customers? Even more loyal customers? Is it less worry about the business? Or more headlines and positive coverage? 

Whatever it is your business offers, use the climax in brand storytelling to demonstrate that end goal. Show what it means for the target audience to follow you as the guide. 

Example story arc - Pixar

Now you’ve identified the 3 key sections of the story, you next have to work out how they join together and how the story flows. 

One well-known example of this is the story spine used by movie company Pixar. The stories that they’ve created have been phenomenally successful.

Whether you define success as stimulating the imaginative minds of future generations or simply putting billions of dollars in the bank. 

Their story always starts with “once upon a time, there was …” where we get to meet the hero or heroine.

Brand storytelling - the story arc Pixar example

Then, with 2 sentences which start “Every day, …” and “one day, …”, we find out about the problem or challenge that will drive the story. So, the fish that needs rescuing. Or, the toys that got accidentally lost. Or even, the dark force that threatens the future of the superhero family.

We then basically see “the plan” and the “call to action” play out through the middle of the story as the characters react to the problem with actions. “Because of that, …” this thing happened. And then “because of that, …” the next thing happened. The fish / toys / superhero family went on a quest to fix the problem at hand.

Each story then drives towards a resolution or climax, that you can sum up with “And finally, …” where the struggles are resolved. The lost fish or lost toys are recovered. The hero family triumphs over evil forces. 

The lesson for brand storytelling

Now, in brand storytelling, the “elements” might not be so fanciful as fish, toys or superheroes. But the underlying structure and premise still work. Your lead character has to recognise the problem. And they have to be interested enough in you, as the guide to follow you through the journey to reach the story’s resolution.

Toy doll Woody from Toy Story lying on the floor

Taking it further - story types

Though every story will be different, many storytelling researchers have identified common patterns that shape different types of stories.

It’s beyond our scope to cover here, but we explore one of the most well-known, Christopher Booker’s The 7 Basic Plots in our separate article on story types. That includes examples like overcoming the monster and rags to riches as well as more well-known story types like comedy and tragedy. 

Where to use brand storytelling

Brands and businesses that want to connect with customers use brand storytelling to help articulate what the brand stands for, and how it helps its target audience. It engages audiences so you can use it to help build your brand identity.

People don’t just buy what you do, they buy why you do it. And brand storytelling brings to life why you do what you do.

These stories persuade and influence audiences that it’s worth their time to engage with you and your brand. The audience connects with the ideas and concepts in the story. Stories help brands stand out amongst the noise of thousands of messages customers see every day. 

Brand storytelling and brand positioning

Brand storytelling helps bring to life the positioning you build as you go through the segmentation, targeting and positioning process.  

In particular, it helps clarify and articulate your benefit, your reason why and your reason to believe. You can use brand storytelling to convey the culture and values which underpin your brand identity.

Only your brand can tell those stories. It’s a key way you can stand out and be different. It gives your audience a reason to listen to you. And when they do, that’s when you get brand engagement and choice leading to happier, more loyal customers.

3 steps of the process - Segmentation - divide the total marketing, targeting - pick the most attractive, positioning - build your brand

Brand storytelling and brand activation

Brand storytelling connects with many creative and brand activation skills. For example, it improves your writing skills in areas like advertising copy, blogging and sales copy.

You can use it with more visual areas like photography and video content. Plus, use it to improve your advertising and public relations as well as your website and social media

Face-to-face

But don’t just consider media channels as where you tell stories. There are many more opportunities beyond that.

For example, any time you’ve to physically present your brand or business to others. At an investor presentation, or even speaking directly to your target audience, for example. 

If you’re lucky enough to do these, think about those situations as opportunities to tell your brand story.

Storytelling is a powerful communication technique. It’s a great tool for your front-line staff to learn. Stories make your brand feel more human and real. That’s a good thing during a sales call or a customer visit.

Close up of two hands in a handshake

Brand storytelling style considerations

When you think about your brand identity, it’s important to think about how you can use brand storytelling to bring your essence, values and personality to life.

You can’t just tell people that you are innovative, engaging, funny or whatever. 

You need to find stories that show them.

Stories are driven by actions and when audiences process stories, they do so in a visual way.

But, they also look for emotions and depth of character they can relate to. In stories, emotions usually drive deeper connections than just stating logical facts. 

Brand identity diamond

So, if your business struggled to get started or had a major setback, share how this felt as part of your story. If you took a risk and it paid off, share how excited and elated you felt. This humanisation of the brand creates deeper connections with your target audience.

Talk about the bad stuff too

Remember, that struggle and conflict are key parts of any story. So, the more honest you can be about the “bad stuff” and the “hard stuff”, the more engaging your story will be. (Check out our overcoming marketing barriers to storytelling article, for example).

Stories where everything goes well, the characters have no flaws, and there are no problems, are frankly boring. Your brand storytelling shouldn’t be boring. 

Brand stories are not for playing it safe and sanitising the message. They should show how you overcame adversity. Or, how you challenged the status quo, and what the result has been.

If your brand had to overcome or challenge established players, or disrupt a less than optimal way of doing things, use that as part of your brand storytelling. Let the stories you tell bring to life why your values are important to you. And, why they matter for the audience. 

Write for your target audience

Ultimately your brand storytelling is not for you, it’s for your audience. It should aim to build a community, tribe or following to buy into what you think, say and do. Stories are meant to be shared and discussed. Tell them in a way that encourages questions. Give your target audience ways to ask you questions directly, so you can engage in conversations. 

Your brand storytelling is an experience that they consume, so make them feel good about that experience.

Think about what you want them to feel after they’ve seen or heard your story. What is it you want them to do? If it’s to drive engagement with the brand, make sure there are ways for them to do that. Make sure the style of your story is authentic and human. Be empathetic to the needs of your customers.

Make it feel like you’re talking directly with them. And, that they can solve problems through engaging with you. 

Further reading on brand storytelling

For further reading, we recommend The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr and Build a Storybrand by Donald Miller. Both have more ideas and inspiration on the key elements of storytelling.

It’s also worth checking out the marketingisntabout site which a has comic-style infographic that shows what a good brand story can do for a business. It includes definitions of what a good story is and the formula for a good story, which is presented in a fun and eye-catching way.

Conclusion - Brand storytelling

For all businesses, it’s a challenge to find, engage and connect with audiences. Brand storytelling is a key creative skill that helps you meet these challenges. 

Storytelling taps into deep and habitual ways that people communicate with each other.

Learn how to structure and tell your brand story in an engaging way, and you’ll make deeper and longer-lasting connections with your audience.

You unlock a powerful way to bring your brand identity to life and connect with customers. It helps you achieve your business goals, and that’s what you want, right? 

Three brains logo, company name and background image of brain dendrites and axons

Because, after all, you want your story to end happily ever after.

For more on what it takes to get brand storytelling into your business, check out our story of the mighty battle against marketing barriers

* As an Amazon Affiliate, we earn with every purchase. 

Three-Brains and brand storytelling

We believe storytelling is a powerful creative skill that you can use to connect with customers and build your brand identity. With our coaching and consulting services, we can support you with knowledge, ideas and processes to help your brand tell a more engaging story. Get in touch to learn how we can help your brand’s story end happily ever after.

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