Storytelling is the marketing leader’s method du jour, and no wonder. Humans crave stories. Stories help brands stand out from the pack. Writing stories is fun for marketers and copywriters. Instagram loves stories.
And yet, we often see veteran marketers who conflate story and strategy. They are not the same.
Brand strategy is the foundation of a strong business. It encompasses the external forces that influence the brand, the organization’s psychology and philosophy, and the spirit — the WHY — of the brand.
Storytelling is the means of connecting the brand strategy with the target audience. You don’t have a story if you don’t understand the mind, body, and heart of the brand. And you don’t have a story if you don’t know who you’re telling it to.
Why Storytelling Works as a Marketing Tool
Storytelling works for brands — for any organization — because the human brain is wired for it. As Rachel Gillett put it in her FastCompany.com article article, “When reading straight data, only the language parts of our brains work to decode the meaning. But when we read a story, not only do the language parts of our brains light up, but any other part of the brain that we would use if we were actually experiencing what we’re reading about becomes activated as well.”
Writing in Harvard Business Review, Vanessa Boris says, “stories convey the culture, history, and values that unite people.” That’s essential for better-for-you brands seeking traction among a group of die-hard believers.
Your business may run on innovation — products that meet well-defined needs of your consumers — but that isn’t enough. If you’re successful, competitors will flood the market with lookalike products that make all the same claims. In their book, Friction: Passion Brands in the Age of Disruption, authors Jeff Rosenblum and Jordan Berg write that ideas aren’t enough. “In fact, great ideas are not enough. We need to tell compelling stories that make an emotional connection.”
We’ve said it for a long time: When crafted with care, humility, transparency, sustainability, and believability, brands are the new religion. But there has to be a story that engages and invites people to participate and belong — otherwise it’s just a sales pitch. Storytelling is not about selling; it’s about enrolling.
Think about the character Ralphie in A Christmas Story, eagerly using his decoder to unlock a secret message from his favorite radio program. The message? “Drink more Ovaltine.” A BFY brand’s story can’t end with a sales pitch; it has to be a message that makes the person’s life better or enlists them in the fight with you. Ralphie has it right when he gripes, “a crummy commercial!”
When storytelling tactics fail for our clients, it’s often because the marketer doesn’t understand the brand (or the brand lacks a strategic foundation) and instead copies tactics they see on social media, and just chase likes and clicks and shares. Story is a long, slow burn; it may take dozens of posts or articles to get someone to enlist.
Risk of Creating a Narrative Without a Strategy
Consumers can sniff out brands that tell stories without real meaning. Employees can, too.
In the BFY space, we see brands leaning hard into their origin stories, with the founder as the hero. While that can be powerful, it’s also risky if the organization lacks a higher mission beyond celebrating the founder. The brand story must be based in organizational alignment, not just a single person’s narrative. And it has to be focused on the best interests of the consumer, not the brand visionary.
When you don’t have a brand strategy first — your WHY, outside the cult of personality — then storytelling isn’t institutionally accepted. And if it’s not accepted, then each person mutates the story based on their own perspctive instead of sticking to the script. Every marketer in the organization, every salesperson, in every meeting, presentation, and campaign, has a different spin on the story. You wind up with so many variants of what you stand for that you don’t stand for anything.
Story Comes After Strategy
Story done without strategy is ego-driven and opportunistic. Story done with strategy is mission-driven and purposeful.
When we work with BFY brands, storytelling is the tactical outcome that follows two important first steps: 1) understanding why the brand exists, what problem it serves to solve in the world, and 2) using research to identify the right target audience and determine their interests. Story translates #1 for #2.
While a brand’s strategy should change infrequently — every five to 10 years at most, perhaps never — its story can change frequently, as long as it maps to brand strategy. Story makes the job of connecting with the consumer through groundbreaking creative much easier.
We use the concept of archetypes to help our clients identify the type of storyteller their brands are. The archetype defines how the brand communicates, how it teaches, how it speaks and engages with consumers, no matter the message or medium. Then we craft their core story for them as part of the engagement, translating the brand strategy for the real world.
After all, storytelling is the act of engaging humans so they can relate to you. If you’re still seeking your story, get in touch. We can help you find and share it.