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How to use storytelling in marketing

A neon on a white wall saying we are all made of stories

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Why read this? : We look at how to use storytelling in marketing. Learn why stories are such a powerful way to engage customers. Learn how they grab attention and build emotional connections. Read this so your marketing storytelling has a happier ever after ending. 

You’ve just got home from work (aka the spare room if, like us, you’re stuck in Sydney’s current lockdown). You look at your partner. They’re wearing an eye patch. “What’s up?” you ask. “Hey, have I got a story for you”, they reply. 

Got your attention, right? You want to know more. But think about why it got your attention. It’s not really the eye patch. It’s the story of why they’re wearing it you want to know, isn’t it? (the eye patch is a little homage to the famous Hathaway shirt advertising campaign by the way). 

Good stories grab your attention

That’s the thing with stories. They grab attention. Create interest. Good stories make you want to find out more. Stories are all over the news, and the TV shows, movies, books and video games we enjoy. 

That’s where the opportunity for storytelling in marketing comes in. What storytelling does – create attention, interest and curiosity –  supports what marketing has to do. Stories help your brand stand out. Good storytelling in marketing makes customers pay attention, be interested and want to find out more about you.

Storytelling is a universal way to communicate

Stories have been around since humans learned to communicate with each other. Cave paintings? The prehistoric equivalent of Marvel comics.

Stories are how our ancestors passed their wisdom on to future generations.

They’re how we pass our wisdom on to the next generation. We read our kids bedtime stories and encourage them to read widely. 

We encourage our kids to tell stories. What did you get up to at school today? What did you learn?

Young Girl reading book

When we meet our friends, we catch up on what? Stories. What’s going on in our lives. What’s going on in other people’s lives. 

They’re an everyday part of life which connects us all. You find stories in all cultures and all countries. Stories are a universal way of communicating. 

Stories make sense of the world

As children, stories help us make sense of the world. They drive our imagination to explore new worlds, understand and create new concepts and learn values and beliefs. 

The story of the tortoise and the hare? That story teaches us the value of patience and perseverance.

The story of the 3 little pigs? That story teaches us about the value of hard work and being prepared.

We learn not to be greedy, lazy, spoiled children if stories about chocolate factories are to be believed.

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

Stories go beyond friends and family connections. They connect communities, cultures and when it comes to storytelling in marketing, they connect brands with customers in a volatile, chaotic world. 

Storytelling in a volatile, chaotic world

As advertising guru Rory Sutherland points out in his book Alchemy (one of our favourite marketing inspiration books), not everything in marketing is logical, measurable and predictable. In particular, customers aren’t always logical, measurable and predictable. 

Look at the world around you. Much of the time it’s illogical, immeasurable and unpredictable. It’s what makes us human. Stories help us make sense of this volatile, chaotic world. Full of people who voted for Trump. Or who like Love Island. Or who refuse to wear masks in the middle of a pandemic. 

Stories make the chaos easier to understand. They appeal to our senses and our emotions. Emotions are a huge part of storytelling. Who didn’t feel fear the first time they saw The Shining, for example? Or feel joy when Harry Potter first discovered he was a wizard? 

But most businesses aren’t set up to handle what stories are best at. They’re not set up to be chaotic and unpredictable. They’re not set up to deal with emotions and feelings. This is why storytelling in marketing is often undervalued and misunderstood. (Check out our business books article which talks about Pixar as one of the few companies that get the value of storytelling). 

Storytelling in marketing - undervalued and misunderstood

Marketing has to be able to deal with chaos and unpredictability, and with emotions and feelings.

Marketing starts with customers, and customers are all these things. Stories help you connect with customers because they help customers make sense of the world. Stories create attention, interest and engagement. Those are what your brand needs to succeed. 

But, you won’t find storytelling in many marketing books. You won’t find story structure taught on many marketing courses. Most marketers we know haven’t had any training on it. 

That makes no sense. We believe much of this is down to many businesses not understanding the real story behind how good marketing works.

Marketing is about more than the money you spend

Marketing is usually where businesses spend the most money. Advertising, media and sales promotions don’t come cheap. 

And where you spend money, people want to know what you’re getting in return. 

Marketing gets scrutinised. It has to justify spending. 

Spend x and you’ll get y. Prepare a forecast. Write a business case. Make sure you do your evaluations and post-campaign analyses. 

Person holding 6 hundred dollar bills in front of them which have been set alight

It’s hard to drop stories into those sorts of activities. Hard to put a value on storytelling.

It’s not that you shouldn’t scrutinise your marketing spend. But, you have to remember, that marketing is customer-led. And what people think, feel and do, doesn’t always fit on a PowerPoint slide or a spreadsheet. Analytical rigour is important. But it’s not all there is to marketing.

You can push out to customers all you want. But the real skill in marketing is when you pull customers in. 

Storytelling in marketing - pull customers in

Stories pull customers in. Remember, they create attention and interest so customers want to learn more. 

Push out your adverts too much and customers just ignore them. But pull them in with a good story, then the audience feels more in control. It’s a shared experience. It’s their choice. And once you’ve got them hooked, they’ll stay connected as long as they like the story you’re telling.

Your brand story should be for the customer, not for you. For example, in Building a Storybrand, Donald Miller talks about how customers can use a clear story structure as a map. It’s a guide towards what your products and services can do for them. Focus on what customers need to hear, not what you want to say. (See examples in our telling your brand origin story article). This keeps your story clearer and more relevant. Anything else is confusing. And as he says, if you confuse, you lose. 

Tips on how to use storytelling in marketing

Building a clear brand story is a process of gathering the right story elements, and then putting them together in such a way that it hooks your customers.

First, a story needs a hero (or heroine). A central character you follow and identify with. In your brand’s story, that’s your customer. The customer is the hero of your story. So when you create a customer segment profile, it works like the backstory for your hero customer. 

If the audience identifies with the hero, they pay attention. They should feel like they could be that hero. They have to identify with the character.

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

Then, the hero needs a problem. It has to be a problem the audience identifies with, and you need to set it up early in the story. This could be a societal-level problem (e.g. climate change), a person or group getting in their way (some sort of villain) or even someone’s internal problem (e.g. a fear of change). 

Brand stories then show the audience how the hero fixes the problem. That’s where your brand comes in, as the solution to the problem. Problem-solving helps the audience care about the story because it shows how your brand could solve their problem. 

Fixing the problem changes your life

Finally, your brand story shows how fixing the problem (with your brand) changes the customer’s life. That’s why customers buy things – to change their lives. Even if that change is short-lived (e.g. buying a coffee) or lasts a lifetime (e.g. buying a house)

The story of the change goes from where the customer is now (their problem) to what life’s like once the problem’s fixed (your brand benefit).

These are the raw materials of all storytelling.

A hero. Has a problem. Their story is about the change that fixes the problem. 

Of course, to make your story more attention-grabbing, interesting and engaging, you have to refine and polish those raw materials. Here are some ways you can do that.

1. Grab attention right away

We’re all exposed to huge amounts of marketing activities every day. Most of it we ignore. To stand out and have customers listen to our story, we have to grab their attention.

Advertising guru David Ogilvy wrote in Ogilvy on Advertising that 5 times more people read the headline than the body copy

Audiences decide quickly if the story’s going to be worth reading. Your opening needs to be strong and hook the customer right away

Triangular warning sticker with large exclamation mark on a wall. Sticker has many rips and tears in it.

Avoid long pre-ambles and exposition. Show the reader early what the story is about. Once the audience commits to reading beyond the introduction, they’re more likely to read to the end.

Spend a disproportionate amount of time on your headline and introduction. Re-write it and re-write it until it’s as strong and engaging as you can make it. 

Each line in the introduction has a purpose. To get the customer to read the next line. That applies whether it’s a 30-second TV advert or a 3,000-word blog post.

Share enough of the story in the introduction to make the audience want to keep reading. Of course, don’t give everything away up front. Share what’s coming, but leave some mystery and intrigue so they want to find out more.

2. The audience has to identify with the hero 

The audience should feel a connection to the hero. They don’t need to be exactly like them. But they do need to find them relatable.

This can be via a common problem or a similar way of thinking about the world. 

This connection makes the story feel more relevant to the audience. It grabs their attention because people feel drawn to stories in which they feel they could see themselves.

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

Make the hero’s “problem” one the audience can relate to. You want them to think “Oh yeah, I have that problem too”. Make the problem relevant to what your brand offers. 

Be specific and describe the problem as concretely as you can. It’s easier for audiences to recognise specific situations which show the problem, rather than broad generalisations. 

For example, don’t talk about being “unhygienic” for your cleaning product, show something dirty. Don’t talk about “hunger” for your product, show someone who’s hungry. 

Think about the tension behind the problem. Build this into your story. The customer knows what the solution could be, but the “tension” is holding them back. Need to buy a new car? But worried (tension) the salesman will try to sell you a dud? Need to get healthier? But worried (tension) gym costs will be too high?

The audience has to easily see the problem, get how it relates to them, and how your brand is the answer. That’s what makes customers want to hear the rest of your story. 

3. The theme - what’s it about?

Which brings us to the theme of the story. In marketing storytelling, this is usually the answer to the problem. It’s what your brand offers which gets customers from having a problem now to a happy ending in the future where the problem is solved.

Like how to confidently buy a new car without feeling conned. Or getting healthier without paying a fortune in gym fees. Maybe even learning the value of storytelling in marketing. 

The clearer your theme, the clearer the audience is on why they should listen to the story and what it means for them. The theme is really the benefit of your brand story for the customer.

4. Stories are about change - marketing benefits

Stories are also about change. In stories, something has to change. No change, no story. In marketing storytelling, the change is what the benefit or theme delivers. Show what life looks like for the hero (and the customer) after the story takes place.

The change needs to show how life’s better afterwards. What will customers feel if they too live out the brand story? Happier? More confident? More informed? Do other people look at them in a new light? It’s a key part of your branding and your story to show how you deliver these emotional benefits. 

The more engaging and compelling your story about this change, the more customers will want to live that story too. The best brand stories create a desire, an aspiration, a need for customers to live that story too. (see also our story types article which describes classic patterns of change in storytelling).

5. Emotional connection

Customers might look at functional product features, but these don’t tell a story they remember.

But when they hear a great brand story, they connect emotionally with it. They remember how the story made them feel.

Great storytelling in marketing makes customers feel happy. Confident. Proud. Excited. 

Emotional connections go deep and impact more. They go to a different part of our brain and stay longer in our memories.

White round badge with a read heart symbol against a dark grey background

Think about classic movies, for example. 

You remember when ET went home (emotional), right?  But do you remember the names of any of the characters apart from Elliot? (logical)

In Star Wars, you remember the joy (emotional) of Luke blowing up the Death Star and (temporarily) defeating the Evil Empire. But how big was the hole he had to shoot at? (logical) 

In the same way, emotion-led stories for brands create strong long-lasting connections.  

Think of classic advertising campaigns. 

Apple’s Think Different

Qantas Feels Like Home

Coke’s Teach the World to Sing

The marketing stories behind these ads create strong emotional connections. There are no functional product features, but you get the emotional sense of bold innovation, family connection and global harmony. That’s why storytelling in marketing is so powerful. It creates these deep and long-lasting connections. 

A final quick story

Let’s finish with a quick story, to bring these different storytelling components together. 

Your phone pings with a new message. (grab attention) It’s an email from your cousin headed “Urgent : Help needed”. (you recognise this situation, it’s happened to you)

She’s studying for a business degree at university. She’s got an assignment to review a marketing plan for a business (the theme is marketing plans). She knows you work in a business which “does some marketing”. She’s asking if you can share your marketing plan and answer some questions for her. 

Except ...

Except you don’t have a marketing plan (the problem). Sure, you do some marketing, but it’s all a bit ad hoc. Who’s got time to write a marketing plan? (the problem and theme restated). 

Sure, you’ve got a website and an agency does some search and social media work for you. But that’s about as far as it goes. You’re too busy doing your job to write a marketing plan. 

Then you remember your last visit to the accountant. You had all the marketing invoices and she asked if you’d done any ROI analysis. It felt a bit embarrassing (emotions) when you had to say no, didn’t it? 

You take a breath. 

Of course, you don’t want to let your cousin down. And you don’t want to feel embarrassed next time you go to the accountant. Maybe you do need a marketing plan? What are you going to do?

Then you remember that advert you saw for a marketing coach. What was the name of the company again? Something brains? 

You search online. Their website has some interesting content on marketing planning. You find their number and call them. You explain you need some help pulling together a marketing plan. The friendly person at the other end of the line says “Sure, we can help”. You feel relieved. (change / emotional benefit)

Pause that story

OK, hands up, Stephen King probably isn’t quaking in his boots. The best stories take a long time to craft and polish. This one we rushed through to get it up on the blog. 

But actually, quick (and cheesy) as it was, didn’t it feel different to what went before in this article? Didn’t it feel easier because it told a story you could relate to?

We wrote this story just to show some of those storytelling principles in action. Let’s retell the story, but look at where they came in.

Storytelling principles in action

First, you need to grab attention right away. So, look at how the story started.

Your phone pings with a new message.

We all know that feeling when your phone pings. It’s an automatic reaction, curiosity to see what it is. 

It’s an email from your cousin headed “Urgent : Help needed”.

The reader needs to identify with the hero. They need to relate to the hero’s problem.

Man holding a mobile phone reading a message notification with a desk and keyboard in the background

An email from a relative, one that starts “Urgent : help needed”. Who hasn’t had one of those? Who wouldn’t be curious to find out more? 

Then we said you need a theme so the reader knows what it’s about. That doesn’t mean you need to say “The theme is …”, but look at the sentence where we say…

… an assignment to review a marketing plan for a business …

The theme of the story is about having a marketing plan. Or, to be more exact, it’s about businesses NOT having a marketing plan when they need one. The story then continues with the change where you get help from someone with your marketing plan. 

The friendly person at the other end of the line says “Sure, we can help”. You feel relieved.

Good stories have a good ending

Note those last 3 words of our story. They’re important. 

First, “you” is good. Remember, you need to help make the target audience feel like you’re talking to them. “You” makes it feel like you’re talking directly to the audience.

Then, there’s that word “feel”. Remember our tip about emotional connections. The word “feel” signals an emotion. It’s not the only way to signal emotions. But if you’re short on time, it lands the emotional message very clearly. 

And then finally, there’s the actual emotion. Relief. Our “hero” in this story had a problem, no marketing plan. That problem made them feel embarrassed, so the story told their journey of how to solve the problem. They contacted a marketing coach who could help and they felt relieved.

Conclusion - Storytelling in marketing

Storytelling is a great skill to add to your marketing toolbox. Don’t undervalue it. 

Use stories to create more impactful communications and connections with your customers.

Storytelling works because it’s how people communicate and connect with each other. 

It grabs attention, creates interest and customers want to find out more. 

A neon on a white wall saying we are all made of stories

Learn the basics of storytelling and you’re halfway to a good brand story already. 

A hero. Has a problem. Their story is about the change that fixes the problem. 

Then polish and refine your story. Grab the audience’s attention early. Make sure the audience can identify with the hero and their problem. State your theme which should be the answer to the problem. Tell your story via the change that happens and look for ways to add emotions into the story. 

Your brand story should make customers feel differently. That feeling? That’s how you get a happy ending for your story. 

Check out our brand storytelling guide and our value of storytelling article to learn more about storytelling in marketing. Or get in touch if you need help crafting your own story. 

Photo credits

We are all made of stories : Photo by S O C I A L . C U T on Unsplash

Girl reading magazine : Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

Question Mark on Tree : Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

Money on fire : Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

Attention sign : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Superman hero figure : Photo by Esteban Lopez on Unsplash

Heart Button : Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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