C-Suite Advisory

5 Tips for Powerful Brand Storytelling

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Everywhere you look, you’re seeing more and more brands employ storytelling in their marketing. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that storytelling is some kind of passing trend in branding. Storytelling is here to stay – and you need to be implementing it in your marketing methods.

Neuroscientists have repeatedly demonstrated the ways the human brain is compelled by stories, and anthropologists have found that people all over the world throughout recorded history have bonded and found meaning through stories. You probably know intuitively that your brain is more engaged by stories than it is by a list of facts and numbers – but studies show that we also retain more information when we learn it through a story. Stories are the only way to activate parts of the brain so that a listener takes the story they are hearing or seeing, and turn it into their own experience and ideas. This is incredibly powerful.

That’s why learning more effective tools for storytelling is key to your brand’s success. Here are a few tips to make sure your stories pack the punch to hook an audience and help them connect to your brand:

  1. Define your core values
    Who are you as a brand? What do you stand for? What are the values that are most key to your mission, and that represent the vision of your company? What does your voice sound like? What are the things that make you stand out from your competition, that define your niche?

    Spend some time writing these things down and teasing out what these defining ideas are. That will help you tell stories that are consistently in line with the driving forces behind your brand.

    Nike is a particularly powerful example of this. From their very first “Just Do It” commercial in 1988, which featured a shirtless 80-year-old man named Walt Stack running across the Golden Gate Bridge, to their 2018 campaign with football player Colin Kaepernick, which touched on fighting racial inequality in sports, Nike has maintained a consistent message: stay true to your beliefs and never stop pushing. That’s what “Just Do It” has come to stand for. It’s an aspirational idea that people identify with in a deep, emotional way, and every story Nike tells falls in line with that message.

  2. Focus on the human element
    Humans naturally relate to other humans. We see ourselves in their stories. So make sure to position relatable characters at the heart of your stories. Whether these are real-life customers, members of your team with their own amazing stories, or people with amazing life stories and triumphs that align with core ideas of your brand, you want to make sure that sense of personality and humanity shines through in your storytelling. This is what people will identify with.
  3. Find the source of tension
    Tension is what draws people into the story. The understanding that something is at stake, that something is wrong that needs to be fixed, that there is something to lose. It doesn’t have to be an epic, earth-shattering problem, but you do want to feel that sense of tension.

    Let’s look at the two aforementioned Nike commercials as examples. In that very first ad, 80-year-old Walt Stack tells us he runs 17 miles every morning. What’s the source of tension? It’s implicit; we know that to run that much, at his age, every single day, takes discipline, a lot of hard work and sacrifice. He then makes a joke: “People ask me how I stop my teeth from chattering in the winter: I leave them in my locker.” It’s funny, but it’s also a reminder of those cold winter mornings and what he has to go through to keep going. What’s at stake is, in some sense, his physical health and his sense of satisfaction. Stack surely has to remind himself of those stakes when he gets up every morning to perform such an arduous feat.

    In Nike’s highly controversial Colin Kaepernick campaign, the stakes are clear. Kaepernick faced huge backlash when he started kneeling during the national anthem at the start of NFL games as a protest against racial injustice. The football player has alleged that NFL owners subsequently colluded to stop him from getting hired because of his protest. Nike’s first video of the campaign doesn’t shy away from this controversy. It features many boundary-breaking athletes in action, including Serena Williams and LeBron James, with Kaepernick’s narration overtop. At one point Kaepernick turns to the camera and says, “believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

    The tension here is explicit and implicit: explicitly we are seeing the feats of these incredible athletes and understanding all they had to give up to get to where they are. But implicitly there’s another level of tension, because it’s playing on what the audience knows about Kaepernick, the allegations that he was blacklisted by the league for his protest. These dual layers, coupled with the obvious controversy surrounding his story, provide a compelling sense of tension that draws in the audience.

    The source of tension doesn’t have to be as dramatic as these Nike campaigns. Tension can be created by posing the question that your product solves. At StickerYou, our motto is Make What Matters, Stick, and the idea is that our product, die-cut custom stickers, labels, decals, iron-ons, etc. are the solution for people who want to promote something that matters to them, whether it’s a business or personal branding. Our product is the solution to the tension raised by the question of how to solve this problem. This informs how we present our stories across all platforms, from our Youtube videos to social media campaigns.

  4. Have a powerful story arc
    There’s a story arc that’s common throughout mythology everywhere in the world, through generations. It’s what mythology scholar Joseph Campbell dubbed “The Hero’s Journey”: a 12-stage process through which the central character in a story is called to leave their ordinary life, endure great tests of their strength and will, and eventually triumph. When George Lucas was developing Star Wars, he carefully studied Joseph Campbell’s writings about the Hero’s Journey to shape the arc of the Star Wars story.

    The Hero’s Journey is a useful tool that many people are adapting for content marketing. But you don’t have to be so detailed to make your stories have a strong arc. What you do need to know is that for a story arc to work, it needs a problem, rising action, a climactic moment, and some kind of resolution. Again, this comes back to the idea of tension. There needs to be some problem that your characters, whoever they are, are looking to fix — and the action needs to rise from there. At its most basic, this construct can be achieved in something as simple as posing the problem that your product solves, with the resolution being a satisfied customer.

  5. Make it genuine
    It’s easy to get lost in the feel of trying to make something really flashy to get people’s attention. But especially on the internet, raw moments and genuine emotion trump all else. People want an unfiltered experience, and to feel a sincere connection with what you’re doing. They want to trust you. The best way to do that really is to be as sincere as possible. Show real moments of your company. Show real customers whose lives were made better by your product. Show real people doing amazing things who do truly embody the values you stand for. That genuine connection will help set you apart, and make your stories matter to your audience.

Written by: Andrew Witkin.

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Andrew Witkin
As the founder and president of StickerYou, Andrew Witkin believes in the enormous power of customization. With over a decade of StickerYou success, he is one of Canada’s leading experts in e-commerce, customization, startups, marketing and the tech economy. He is a graduate of Dalhousie University and holds an MBA from the Schulich School of Business, York University. Witkin has previously served as VP North American Licensing for Nelvana/Corus Entertainment and Director of Marketing for MegaBrands/Mattel. Andrew is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine.