3 Steps to Effective Brand Storytelling Using Emotion

(The Perfect Brand Story, Part 2)

Telling a brand story is like telling a love story. It's the most powerful digital marketing tool any organization has, and it’s particularly powerful for purpose-driven brands, where the tangible goal is more than just making a profit.

In part one of this series, I told you no one automatically cares about your brand. How could they, when they encounter over 20,000 brands a day? But in part two, I’m here to make the case for brand storytelling, and give you a few examples of digital storytelling done right. 

Why does brand storytelling work?

You need to look no further than the entertainment industry to know that stories sell. Every year, we spend millions upon millions of dollars to go see films that tell us good stories. We crave the emotional experience of being told a story, and brands are wise to take a cue. In an age where the market is inundated with brands clamoring for customer attention, the only tactic that consistently cuts through is telling resonant stories.

The power of storytelling isn’t just marketer lingo, either. Science is backing us up. Using research reported in the New York Times, Neil Patel wrote about the science of storytelling at KISSmetrics: “The human brain responds to the descriptive power of stories in deeply affecting ways, influencing both the sensory and motor cortex. To read a story is to feel an experience and to synchronize our minds with the subject of the story.”

In short, stories have power because users attach the emotional experience they have when watching the story to the brand telling it. They trust the brand because the experience they’ve had was real. Tell a good story, and you’ll leave an emotional imprint on someone that’s hard to shake.

How do you know what story to tell?

Brand stories aren’t ads or marketing pitches. Brand stories are stories, and should be thought of in that way. There are three key steps I think are essential for every organization invested in stories: perspective, plot, and permutation.

Step 1: Find your perspective

You can’t tell a story without a main character. Who will be yours? For brands that are selling a product, storytelling is often told best from the customer’s perspective, showing a successful brand interaction in a unique way. For purpose-drive organizations that provide a service, it is generally more useful to tell a story from the perspective of the community being served.

In either case, it’s useful to think in user personas. If you’re selling a product, is there a persona that lends itself more to storytelling? If you’re a purpose-driven organization, what story about your service will resonate with one of your user personas? You want your audience to identify with your story, because identification engenders trust. They should see themselves in your story—any good narrative always starts with them.

Step 2: Draft a plot

Storytelling is plot, and writing yours is going to be the most important step in the process. In part one of this post, I talked about the brand promise and brand benefit—what the user expects in a brand interaction and what she gets out of it. Your plot should carry this out, either by showing a user benefitting from the brand promise, or by showing the brand promise carried out in the served community. 

Don’t be afraid to think in storyboard form, whether or not you end up making a video version of it. Your plot should be as easy to follow as a storyboard, and it’ll help you hit the main pivot points. Where does it begin and where does it end up? How is the experience changing for the main character and what emotional note does the story hit at the conclusion?

Step 3: Think in permutations

Now that you have a story, how will you tell it? Does it only exist in video form? If so, you might be in trouble, because there are only so many times you can link to that video. The half-life of a single piece of content isn’t very long, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can extend it by making sure you are able to tell your brand story in various iterations on various social channels.

A good brand story is flexible enough to live on many communication channels. Beautiful still photos from the story have appropriate copy for Instagram. The story leads to audience questions or calls-to-action on Twitter and Facebook. Pieces of the story are bite-sized shareable content for Twitter. A story hashtag encourages user-generated content. You’ve spent all this time creating a brand story. You might as well make sure you are able to tell it again and again.  

What do good digital brand stories look like?

A fantastic example of purpose-driven brand storytelling that successfully elicits an emotional response is this video by Water Is Life. Water Is Life is a nonprofit dedicated to providing clean water for communities around the world, and in this video, they clearly demonstrate what the organization does and why they do it through a very specific community perspective, along a very linear storyline, with an extremely positive emotional ending. The result is nothing less than compelling. I dare you to watch it without being moved in some way.

Takeaway: An authentic inspirational story can be the most memorable story you’ll tell, especially in a world where companies can be seen as cheaply tugging at heartstrings. Don’t shy away from the profound, as long as it aligns with your brand promise.

GoPro’s tagline is “Be a Hero,” and it’s often interpreted by users in reference to extreme sports. They are frequently the heroes of their own YouTube videos of base jumping stunts or snowboarding tricks. But the most recent viral GoPro video has nothing to do with sports. In this video, the brand story is interpreted literally by a fireman as he saves a kitten from a burning house. There’s no grand narrative to the video—in fact, there is no speaking at all—but it does very clearly show the product in action, in an unexpected, emotional way. Most importantly, a real GoPro customer—one other customers will identify with and therefore trust—is using the product himself.

Takeaway: Your brand story can and should engender trust. One way to do that is to clearly show the product or service in use by a real-life customer. The kind of emotional experience that your audience has with that person’s story is what will produce a lasting sense of trust in your brand.

All too commonly organizations rely on lists of facts and statistics to do the persuasive work for them: “We feed 300 families living under the poverty line in the metro area” or “44% of children are missing one meal a day.” Percentages and facts are good for snackable social content, but they aren’t memorable. They might be memorable if they’re embedded in a brand story, but the bottom line is that stories are inherently more interesting than facts. One brand that really gets this is Google. While they could rely on stats—the vast numbers of people across the world who use the search engine—to state their impact, they don’t. Instead, they run ads like this video, which cleverly tells an emotional story that hinges on the use of Google. Instead of being told about the product, we are seeing it in action.

Takeaway: People don’t connect to stats as much as they do to personal stories. They can’t empathize with something without seeing it. They can’t understand impact without feeling it. Get out of your facts-and-figures comfort zone. After all, purpose-driven organizations often deal in people, not numbers.

A few extra storytelling ideas

Think fun: This is your time to have fun with your digital content. People respond to personality, and storytelling is your moment to showcase your brand personality. Brand storytelling isn’t the time to think inside the box.  

Think inspirational: Even if you don’t go the inspirational route in your regular marketing copy, think about it for brand storytelling. AirBnB, a brand not often associated with inspirational messaging, put together this digital video, perhaps taking a cue from Google. In it, they really nailed the tone, touching on innovative visuals, global touchpoints, and a moving storyline in an inspirational reinterpretation of their “Belong Anywhere” tagline. 

Think DIY: If you can’t afford to hire actors or other kinds of high production value, consider using the staff you already have to speak as brand ambassadors, to tell your brand story through their eyes. Reach out to satisfied clients that could give compelling testimonials, or influencers who might be interested in doing some gratis work with a charitable organization.

Think authentic: Be strategic with your storytelling, but most of all, be your most authentic self. Your audience can sense trying too hard a mile away. Check out this post on finding the “why” to zero in on the authentic reason your organization exists. That should inspire the story you tell.