Demystifying brand storytelling for everyone
Once upon a time, there was a concept called brand storytelling.
Its popularity increased until it became something of a buzzword. People referenced it in their articles and assured all who would listen about the importance of using stories in their marketing.
But there were many who did not understand.
For them, the idea of telling a story in their marketing copy made little sense, and they were left to guess at how they might put stories to use…
Brand storytelling, or corporate storytelling, is all the rage. But every article I read on using stories to connect with prospects seems to be heavy on the why of storytelling (connect with your audience, hold their attention, build trust) and light on the how.
So how exactly do you use stories?
I'm a freelance copywriter and I work on brand stories every day. I thought I would share what I understand about storytelling to help you put it to use in your own marketing.
The way I see it, there are three key types of stories you can use in your branding.
1. Your brand story
This is the most obvious way to make use of stories in your marketing. It's also the easiest to understand.
It's literally telling the story of how your business came into being.
This usually takes the format of:
You see this kind of story all the time, often on About pages. (I use a small story on my own About page about how I became a copywriter on the other side of the world).
You also see it in articles, blog posts, brochures, etc.
It's your foundation story, your reason-for-being story. And it's the easiest story to tell because you're already intimately acquainted with it.
To get started, think back to your big idea, the idea that started it all. What were you trying to do when you started your business (besides make money)? How did you want to change the world? What was your promise to customers?
This is Joel Gascoigne, Buffer's founder, talking about Buffer. It's a good example of a brand story because it's engaging, it has the human element and it follows the standard formula:
Here's another good example from Coffeecompany, which tells its brand story in video format, putting a unique twist on it to make it creative, engaging and original:
It tells its brand story using the device of a super-long coffee table. It is very much a story – it even talks about how "Our quest starts with finding the best farmers and partners".
The story is also still being told ("Every day we ask ourselves how we can make our coffee even better.")
This is a type of story that every business can – and should – tell. It's easy, it creates a connection, it engages and it relates the human story behind your brand.
2. Everyday anecdotes
These are the mini stories you tell every day, week or month as a brand. These are my favourite stories to tell.
Firstly, they're easy.
After all, these are all true stories that you are essentially relating as though telling them down the pub.
They also don't require a large marketing budget. And they're flexible, as we'll see.
Rather than telling one story, as above, this kind of storytelling is all about revealing your brand through multiple stories.
Stories? We don't have any stories, apart from what happened at after-work drinks on Thursday night…
Every brand has stories. How about:
… and about a million other ideas.
What makes a good story? Pretty much anything that involves:
Share your mistakes, they always make great stories. Especially what you learnt from them and how they made your company better.
Look for unique insights that will surprise and entertain your prospects.
These are real stories, things that really happened, things that you learned from in some way, things that your customers are likely to find interesting.
So how do you use them?
Make the stories real, with real facts and real emotions.
Focus on people wherever possible, especially how your products touch real lives, even if you sell to other companies.
Be original wherever possible.
Another option is the 'product solves problem' story.
This is where a customer has a problem and your product is the solution to that problem.
This is used time and time again, and it works. Again, it's a simple formula:
Just think about all those washing powder ads. Kids go out, kids get muddy, washing powder saves the day.
These stories can be very short. And you can creative with them. You don't always have to tell the truth, for example. By that I mean you can create a story around how your product improves someone’s life. For example, how about a quick ad:
Duncan was tired of always failing his driving exam.
Then he discovered our driving training school.
Now he's got a car. And he's got a girlfriend.
You can incorporate it in any way you want. You could imagine an amazing world where this problem does not exist, then show how your product can help to get us closer to that world (think solar energy).
Consider these little anecdotes and mini-stories a fundamental part of your marketing. Use them to provide insight into your way of thinking, the way you view the world, the personality behind your business.
Storytelling in a business context is about how your products exist in the world, who you are, what you do for other people, how you add value.
Brand stories allow people to connect with your brand, to see your business as a real entity run by real people.
Any business can do this.
3. Abstract stories
The first two types of story are relatively simple. Powerful, but simple. You are essentially telling a true story, something real that happened, and not a whole lot of inventiveness that goes into it (although it can if you want to).
The other type of story, the abstract story, is not so obvious. And perhaps not as necessary. Large companies use these all the time, mainly in their marketing campaigns. But small businesses can get away without ever using them at all.
Here's an example from Weightwatchers.
The 'Awaken Your Incredible' campaign has nothing to do with losing weight, but it relates to the brand.
Weightwatchers is all about helping people to achieve. The ad does not implicitly say that using the product is a part of this, but it implies a connection.
It tells a larger story.
Guinness is another company that does this well. Its individual ads are essentially mini stories that have nothing to do with drinking but everything to do with the brand's larger story. Here's everyone's favourite:
This story has a very clear hero. A hero who has a challenge, who succeeds in that challenge, and all because he ‘waits’.
Apple tells stories all the time. Steve Jobs' presentations were stories in themselves, full of tension and intrigue, focusing on a problem (usually old tech), agitating that problem then producing the solution
Here's the 'What will your verse be?' campaign:
It's all about creativity, not letting technology restrict you. In this ad, the hero is the customer. You are being challenged to see what you will create now that technology is not holding you back.
Sports brands are good at this. They often tell stories about people pushing themselves to the limit and achieving incredible things. Not through using their products specifically – but the connotation is there.
The goal with this kind of story is to create a connection. You are saying that you understand your target audience, you relate to them, and you use story to communicate this.
Stories hold attention. Some of those ads really held my attention. They told me something about the brands in a way that all their other marketing messages couldn't.
These stories all make up the story
All of these types of stories relate to a much larger story. The story.
This is the overall story of your brand. It is not one single story but a combination of your origins, your products, the daily stories you tell, the individual stories that make up what your brand is. Its people, its culture, its values.
Every minor story you create adds something to the story. In telling smaller stories, you are telling a bigger story.
Stories help to make your brand understood. They tell the world: this is who we are.
So go and tell your story.