As I’ve written recently, story can be a powerful tool for marketers looking to cut through the clutter in the distracted, digital world we find ourselves in. When you hear a story, your brain lights up with cortex activity in several critical areas, releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine, which helps us remember and ultimately share stories. Because of this chain reaction, you’re 10 times more likely to remember a story than simple facts, stats, and bullet points.
That’s why marketers can’t get enough of storytelling and are rushing to turn this trend into a tool. However, actually using story as a marketing tactic isn’t as easy as an improvised “Once upon a time …” before bed. Brand storytelling requires that we understand these complex steps and translate them into specific actions. To make matters worse, as marketers, we end up being our own worst enemy.
And one of the biggest mistakes we make is in the casting of characters in our brand story.
The Role Oxytocin Plays
Theoretically, this is the easy part. “You want me to tell a story about my brand? Great! Once upon a time, John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt, had a dream of making the best quality widgets available at the lowest price …” This story is already headed in the wrong direction.
That’s because this story is framed as the business’ story. When we hear the phrase ‘brand storytelling’ we quickly assume that this means we, as a brand, are about to tell our story—like what’s on the About page of the website! While there’s a place for that (again, it’s called the About page of the website), this is not brand storytelling.
If we want to tell a story that engages the hearts and minds of our customers, we have to focus on another chemical released when we listen to stories. Oxytocin has been called the “love hormone” because of the role it plays in reproduction, childbirth, and social bonding. It’s this last point that’s critical to the storytelling brand. To create connection between customers and our stories, we need the brain to release this handy neuropeptide. And this is why we have to cast the characters in our story correctly.
Studies show that people connect with stories featuring protagonists that remind the audience of … well, themselves. As such, the main character in your brand story should be your customer or someone like them—struggling with the specific challenges they face. We see this with Nike’s focus on athletes of all shapes and sizes striving, achieving. We see it with the brave job seekers in the moving Indeed ads. John J.J. Schmidt can reframe his story by making it about the people who need the special widgets that he makes and why they need them. Make your story about your customers or people like them, and the brain green-lights the much-needed oxytocin, promoting social connection and empathy.
“Great,” says John. “But if my customer is the main character, where does my brand fit into the story?”
Enter Mary Poppins
Story theorist Joseph Campbell’s work has been used to deconstruct everything from ancient myths to Star Wars. Campbell’s groundbreaking book The Hero with a Thousand Faces identifies key aspects that heroes encounter on their journey or quest. Along the way they face challenges that they are able to overcome with special tools and skills. These are usually imparted by someone special they meet along the way—the mentor.
The pages and pixels of great stories are filled with mentors. From Glenda the Good Witch to Obi-Wan Kenobi, these figures are often tasked with helping the main character accomplish what they’ve set out to do. Mentors do this by providing special tools, teaching new skills, and by revealing hidden truths.
Mary Poppins is a “practically perfect” example. While the movie is titled Mary Poppins and stars Julie Andrews in the Academy-Award winning role of Mary Poppins, it’s not actually Mary Poppins’s story. Rather, the protagonists are the children, Jane and Michael Banks, who are on a quest to repair their relationship with their work-addicted father (need further proof: Disney literally made a movie about the development of this movie titled Saving Mr. Banks). Mary Poppins is the mentor who helps the children do this with special tools (a spoonful of sugar) and skills (laughter as flight propellent) that allow the family to reconnect.
Like Mary Poppins, your brand should strive to be the mentor of the story you’re telling. You should be critical in helping your main character (your customer or someone like them) reach their goals.
Cast Yourself as a Mentor Brand
Look around and you can see examples of brands being mentors. Freshbooks knows that their main characters are the entrepreneurs and small business owners who end up doing their own books. Their website details their brand story noting that they’re “built to help owners manage their books and connect to clients.” Freshbooks is the mentor teaching new skills and providing special tools.
Argent is a women’s clothing brand focused on reinventing what women wear to work. Inside their shipping boxes, customers find a note sharing their story. “We design for you: the unapologetic, the ambitious, the confident. So keep doing what you do, because #AmbitionSuitsYou.” Once again, Argent is the mentor providing the protagonist with the special tools needed for their quest.
From notes in shipping boxes to websites to national TV campaigns, brand stories can take many different shapes. However, to keep your story structured in a way that wins the hearts and minds of your increasingly distracted customer, make sure you get your casting right. To connect with your story, it needs to be about your customer. To build on this connection, your brand gets to be their mentor—helping them overcome obstacles and reach their goals.
With these storytelling principles to guide you, your brand story can be practically perfect too.