Storytelling is as old as our ability to communicate through language. It is how knowledge was transmitted before and since the advent of writing. Stories are how humans naturally process and remember information.
A compelling illustration of this is a research study conducted in the 1940s where college students were shown geometric shapes (triangles, circles, and rectangles) that moved across a screen. When the student subjects in the study were asked what they had seen, 97% of them created an anthropomorphized narrative of the movement describing human motivations, behaviors, and emotions to make sense of what they had seen. Only one respondent described what they had seen in terms of geometric shapes moving on a screen. Our human brains look for the story in what we experience. Not only does a story help us make sense of what we experience, it is also an efficient way for us to store information in our memories: Research has shown that information that is woven into a story is recalled more than twenty times better than the same facts naked.
But, most important for brand marketing, stories are a way of making us FEEL. Stories engage our emotions, and as we have discussed in a previous post, emotional engagement drives brand success.
The following experiment by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn in 2009 illustrates the power of stories to do just that. Rob and Joshua assembled a hoard of some 200 cheap, junk-store items at a total cost of $197 (average item cost was around one dollar). Examples of these items included a box of unused birthday candles, a plastic toy mustang, a lost key, and a small bust of a horse’s head. The authors then engaged writers to create a story for each item and then offered the items for sale on eBay. The addition of the stories allowed the items originally purchased for $197 to be sold on eBay for a whopping $3,617 (an 18-fold increase). The horse head bust, which had been purchased for $.99 sold for nearly $63, simply with the addition of the story of how two people had met at a university hazing ritual that involved said horse’s head. A $.99 ceramic bear saltshaker sold for $36 once it was offered in the context of being at the center of an epic poker game.
Why do stories engage us emotionally such that we are willing to spend so much more for an item? Neurological research shows that imagined experiences (like when we read a novel) are processed in the same way as real experiences. And compared to the processing of mere data (e.g., factoids, stats, simple statements and, everyone’s fav, boring PowerPoint presentations) where Wernicke’s area may be the only brain system working to process the information, stories cause more areas of our brains to activate and release chemicals that affect our emotions: Cortisol during moments of conflict or stress in the story, oxytocin when we experience a connection with others, dopamine to motivate us to find out what happens next and keep us engaged in the story and endorphins at the successful conclusion (happy ending) of the story.
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So, how do you use storytelling effectively in brand marketing?
Stories can and should be written around a number of brand-related issues. One of the most obvious is the story of how the brand came to be (e.g., a major life event of the founder, a frustrating experience, as a result of passion, etc.), or where the brand is going. Another set of stories can be developed around the experience customers have had with the brand, such as the problem the brand helped them solve or how the brand fits into their life or business. A third area relates to employees, partners, and associates.
These stories can be told through blog posts, videos, on the website, in ads, in social media posts and so forth. They can be told in one continuous piece or broken up into episodes, with or without humor and in a wide variety of styles (e.g., first-person account, third-person narration, live observer, etc.).
Either way, the proven flow of a good story remains the same:
Clearly, stories are integral to how humans think, process information, make decisions, and relate to one another. Good marketers tell good stories. Strong brands tell good stories.
In closing, here are some of our tips for telling more powerful stories for your brand:
- Make it visual (preferably in video)
- Make your story personal/relatable
- Add a surprising twist or two
- Have a protagonist (e.g., the brand, the brand’s customer) and an antagonist (a situation, a competitor)
- Use conflict to build tension, and
- Use common language
Now, go forth and tell your brand stories!
For more on the power of storytelling, also see this post.