Let me tell you a story … 

I bet those six words got your attention. As overwhelmed human beings, we are, in short, story machines. We consume stories in many forms throughout our day and write stories of our own to explain the world around us. As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio says, “Stories are the fundamental way in which the brain organizes information in a practical, memorable manner.” We need story to make the world make sense. Marketers are no exception.

Thanks to social media and online content it’s never been easier to get your message out and speak to the masses. And yet it’s harder than ever for brands to stand out. For the past 300 years, marketers have been mostly successful in interrupting every form of mass media from the earliest print newspapers to TV. However, with the rise of the internet, we’ve also seen a steady rise in weary, digitally savvy consumers well versed in looking around banner ads on webpages and who pay for ad blockers and premium ad-free streaming services.

Ironically, to move forward, we need to move back in time. Prior to Zuckerberg’s Facebook or Gutenberg’s printing press, mass media was defined by story. Early civilizations gathered around campfires listening to stories that entertained, educated, and inspired. When we hear stories, our brains light up with cortex activity and we start to mirror the emotions of the storyteller and the characters in their story. And, as a result, our brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which is essentially your brain’s save button. In short, stories engage the brain and activate memory.

So, you’re saying marketers can use storytelling to cut through the clutter and stand out? Yes, however, the story I alluded to earlier is the fact that by and large we’ve left the concept of business and brand storytelling at the conceptual buzzword stage. If we want brand storytelling to be a tool, we have to understand how it works.

While traditional Aristotelian storytelling is defined by a story with a beginning, middle, and end—set off by an inciting incident that leads to a climax and resolution—we have to redefine this structure a bit. Here are three principles to help you with your brand storytelling.

Context

The first principle of brand storytelling is context. In establishing the context of your brand’s story, you need to consider the following:

  • Who is your main character? While it’s easy to assume that your brand should be at the center of your story, the real protagonist should be your customer—or someone like them. The internet has put the customer at the center of the entire brand experience. You need to do the same with your brand storytelling. If this were Star Wars (Episode IV? A New Hope? Or whatever we call the ’77 original these days), your customer would be Luke Skywalker and your brand would be Obi-Wan, the wise mentor that helps them do what they want to do. Speaking of which …
  • What does your main character want? What are they trying to do? This unmet need should be the quest that drives your story.
  • What’s standing in their way? Every protagonist has an antagonist. Sometimes it’s a foe like Darth Vader. Other times it’s an existential threat. For example, in Toy Story, cowboy toy Woody is threatened by Buzz Lightyear because he triggers his own fears of obsolescence.
  • Where is all of this happening? Just as Marvel storytellers set the stage for their Infinity War, you need to be as specific as possible when it comes to the “world building” around your protagonist’s life.

Apple has always been an expert at establishing who the customer is (a creative person), what they want (empowering tech tools), and what’s standing in their way (unimaginative workplaces filled with corporate drones). You can see this in their original “1984” ad for the Macintosh and recently in the “Mac vs. PC” ads of the 2000s, which literally contrasted protagonist and antagonist.

Contrast

With the stage set, we now see what happens when things get thrown off balance—when there’s contrast between the world as it is now and what could be ahead.

  • This starts with an inciting incident—This is the conflict that changes everything for our protagonist. In The Wizard of Oz this comes in the form of a twister, which picks up Dorothy’s house, drops it in the magical land of Oz—crushing a wicked witch and setting off a series of events including a journey down a yellow brick road.
  • This action reaches its peak in the form of a climax—In Back to the Future, Marty makes it back to 1985 after solving a host of problems from the incompressibility of insulated vests to plutonium substitution while being trapped in 1955.

Contrast shows our hero impacted by something and struggling with tension that’s resolved in the climax. We think of “Just Do It” as Nike’s ubiquitous tagline. But it’s really the title of a long-running brand story showing everyday athletes working to achieve and sometimes failing—skateboarders falling mid-jump, a young runner struggling. As everyday athletes in our own right, most of us respond emotionally to this contrast, this tension. And when we do, something magical happens …

Call to Action

In traditional storytelling, things get wrapped up with a tidy resolution. After the Death Star is blown up, Star Wars has a quick medal ceremony with great fanfare (yet no medal for Chewie!) and—cut to black! End credits. Brand stories are a little bit different. Like most marketing messages, things wrap up with a call to action. Where it gets different is why and how this works.

  • Why the call to action works with story—If we’ve cast a protagonist that resembles our target customer, the science of storytelling starts working in our favor. Because audience members mirror the emotional response of the protagonist in a story, we find ourselves wanting the same thing. Remember Nike’s struggling athletes? We can “just do it” too.
  • How story impacts the call to action—This is where the arc of an individual story becomes a loop. That’s because we relive these brand stories and the emotional responses they deliver. This leads to greater brand loyalty.

When a listener is inspired after hearing the latest episode of the Salesforce Admins Podcast, they take that inspiration back to their work and their own use of the popular CRM tool, more loyal than ever before. Salesforce is a part of their identity because they see themselves in these stories.

Brand storytelling can take many different forms. From origin stories to 30-second ads to digital content and podcasts. However, these examples all stand out because of the principles of brand storytelling at work—context, contrast, and call to action. Like the great fiction storytellers, the best brand storytellers know how to use these tools to craft captivating stories for their audiences.

As marketers, we have a choice—keep interrupting customers with ads or start telling stories that draw them closer to your campfire? The choice is yours.