The Power of Brand Storytelling

Posted by | January 27, 2011 | Tribes & Communities | 28 Comments
138 SHARES

Stories are powerful.

They are the emotional glue that connects the storyteller with his audience and, more importantly, the audience with the idea the storyteller is trying to convey.

Stories tap into not only our minds, but also our hearts. They’re why we cry at movies, even though we know they’re fiction. They’re why a homeless man could go from panhandling on a street corner to working as the voice of Kraft in a matter of days.

When we were kids, stories were our lives. We’d incessantly ask our parents to read us storybook after storybook, even though we could literally recite the stories word for word. But that didn’t matter, because they connected us with our parents.

The Power of Brand Storytelling

As we grew up, we lost our zeal for storytelling. We got our diplomas and put our picture frames in our cubicles, and we stopped telling stories. Visions of what could be were replaced with corporate jargon, features, awards (which were paid for), press releases, and bullet point-ridden PowerPoints. We lost perspective, forgetting about the audience and worrying just about our bottom lines.

It doesn’t have to be that way. More importantly, it can’t be that way. As Bob Dylan said, “The times they are a-changin’.”

The balance of power has shifted. It’s gone from advertisers with deep pockets, throwing money at one-way media, into the hands of the audience members. If they don’t like your television commercials, they’ll fast-forward their DVRs. If they don’t like your radio commercials, they’ll plug in their iPods. They block your telemarketing calls and toss your direct mail in the trash. The age of interruptive media is over, and that’s where brand storytelling begins.

The only messages audiences will see or hear are those they choose to see or hear. They demand to be engaged, valued, and entertained. That’s the way we felt when we were children, right? Begging our parents to engage us, value us, and entertain us. Those emotions we had as children are still within us all. Why would it be any different in business?

There’s no arguing with me on this. Audiences don’t want to be interrupted. They don’t want to be held captive. I recently flew with an airline that shall remain nameless. After the safety instructions, which I may or may not have been listening to, all of our TVs (don’t jump to conclusions – it was not JetBlue) were taken over by a set of commercials.

I yanked my headphones off, and, of course, the sound was also piping through the cabin speakers. I couldn’t escape it. I had to listen! Do you think that endeared the brand to me? Do you think I left the plane thinking, “Man, even though they screamed their self-serving advertisements in my face while I was buckled into a seat that was bolted inside a locked cabin, I really want to buy those products”? Of course not.

The Power of Brand Storytelling

Instead, brands need to embrace storytelling. They need to find their inner brand stories and manifest them in ways that are so engaging, valuable, and/or entertaining that audiences want to tell their friends.

It doesn’t matter what business you’re in — every brand has a story. In San Diego there’s a not-just-for-profit start-up called StayClassy. It offers a full-service social fundraising platform for nonprofits and organizations of all sizes.

That’s what they do there — that’s not their story. Their story is much deeper. Their story is about two men who quit their successful engineering jobs to pursue their passion for philanthropy. They started with a pub crawl that raised a few thousand dollars for charity, and now they empower nonprofits around the world to pursue their dreams. It’s their story that draws worldwide acclaim to this small organization.

Your brand has a story too, whether you’re a Fortune 500 company or a solo entrepreneur. When you unearth that story and spread it in all forms and channels — that’s when your audiences let you into their lives and evangelize for you.

Great stories spread. And those who tell the best stories win.

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About Jon Thomas

Jon is the Director of Communications for Story Worldwide, the world’s first post-advertising agency, and founder of Presentation Advisors, a presentation design and training firm.

28 Comments

  • Delena says:

    I’m currently taking a Psychology class and the topic under discussion was what, exactly, Psychology is. It’s the questions and answers we find to explain ourselves to ourselves.

    And the first and lasting ways we as humans have found to explain those questions with any satisfaction have been stories. They touch something deep inside us, something profoundly human. No amount of intrusive advertising can ever compare to the deep human need for stories.

    The ones who understand that can help shape who we are through their stories.

    Delena

    • Jon Thomas says:

      Absolutel Delena. It’s a very primal emotion. Stories have been told as long as humans have been in existence.

      Jon

  • Nick says:

    Great stuff, Jon.

    This reminds me that I need to work on MY OWN story. I work hard everyday to help other people tell their story, but I often forget to tell my own effectively.

    But you’re right about interruption marketing being over. Not only is it over, but it’s REALLY annoying now that we know there’s an alternative. The funny thing is that there are certain companies and brands that are such good storytellers, I’ll actually stop fast forwarding my DVR and rewind a few seconds to watch their awesome ads. It’s not marketing we hate, just the marketing that treats us like cattle.

    • Jon Thomas says:

      Thanks Nick!

      Personal branding is something we often overlook. As we begin to own our own channels (personal blogs, personal Twitter accounts, personal Facebook pages), we have to make sure we’re keeping a consistent personal brand story.

      Interruptive advertising has become unacceptable now. I’m not sure I’ve ever stopped by DVR when fast-forwarding over commercials. Some ads are good, but rarely do they ever resonate. The brands that resonate with me are the ones who provide an experience, or simply those who create really great products.

  • Gabriele Maidecchi says:

    I can think of blogs like Penelope Trunk’s one, I really enjoy reading it ’cause she tells stories, she explains stuff through her every day life happenings, and that’s the real strength of her message. Not just explaining a topic or trying to convince people of something, but showing your point through a real story, that’s what really works.

    • Jon Thomas says:

      Gabriele,

      I haven’t read much of Penelope’s blog, but I have heard great things about her. I’ve tried to emulate the same process of using personal stories to bring readers closer.

      I often write about presenting and public speaking, but recently wrote two posts outlining some presentation mishaps that I encountered. It showed that all of us are human, and all of us make mistakes.

  • Dino Dogan says:

    They say a picture tells a thousand words and a story tells a thousands pictures.

    Storytelling is so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche people seldom realize it. Thnx for pointing it out bro.

    Here’s a story for you.

    There once was a young species who gathered around fire after a long day of ensuring survival. They did this for hundreds of thousands of years.

    Then one day, fire was replaced by TV, which took on the role of the storyteller.

    Along came corporations to hijack the storyteller in order to pump desire for consumer goods into our collective psyche.

    The End?

    • Jon Thomas says:

      Dino,

      The end? NO!

      We’re fighting back against the storytelling hijackers, spreading content through channels that, as brands, we OWN. That’s the important distinction.

      As a brand advertising on tv, radio, or magazines, you don’t own the channel, you’re just adjacent to the channel. But there are new ways to own your channels, like Regis Hair Salons do with TheHairBookOnline.com, and Lexus does with Lexus Magazine (http://secure.drivers.lexus.com/lexusdrivers/magazine) [both clients of Story Worldwide].

      This can apply to nearly any profession. A plumber can write a DIY home-improvement blog or a dentist can write a newsletter about oral care. The possibilities are endless.

      The end? I’d say no way.

  • Lucy @ VideoCharacter says:

    Story telling is truly effective because it helps us imagine what is happening. Metaphors that will best represent the brand can make us realize why use the word for comparison. The use of our imagination appeals to most of us. Great share Jon! :)

    • Jon Thomas says:

      Thanks for the comment Lucy. Storytelling helps move the audience out of wherever they are (usually an uncomfortable chair) and into an imaginary world of what was or what could be. Imagination is powerful!

  • Leigh says:

    Don’t disagree with anything in post except for the bio – “first post advertising agency”???

    I’ve always thought one of the most important things in story creation is believability.

    Just sayin’ …..

    • Jon Thomas says:

      Leigh,

      I use the phrase “first post-advertising agency” not as if I’m claiming we [Story Worldwide] were the first agency to embrace storytelling, engagement, content marketing and the like, but because we actually coined the phrase “post-advertising”. Well, our CEO (Kirk Cheyfitz) did at least.

      Our blog is named Post-Advertising and if you google “post-advertising” you’ll mostly find posts related to our brand (of the posts that are actually using the phrase in respect to marketing and advertising). We’ve been blogging on Post-Advertising (the site) since mid 2008, and Kirk has been using the phrase far longer.

      You are absolutely on point with saying one of the most important things in story creating is believability.

      Jon

  • Deborah/ wholehearted home says:

    Excellent post – advertisers that feel they need to hit me over the head with product branding drive me crazy.

    I love the concept of hearing the stories behind companies/charities/entrepenaurs.

    Thanks for such valuable advice.

  • The Power of Brand Storytelling | Digital Asset Management says:

    [...] The Power of Brand Storytelling. [...]

  • Shawna says:

    You have sold me! The timing is perfect for me to receive a powerful suggestion in what and how I blog. Thank you.

  • The Power of Brand Storytelling | Post Advertising says:

    [...] can read more about the Power of Brand Storytelling over at the Site Sketch 101 blog, where Story’s own Jon Thomas is today’s guest [...]

  • Melody O. says:

    I thoroghly enjoyed this guest post. I like the concepts as the brand as a story teller because it is so true that 99% of the time people can turn off ads they don’t want to hear or see. The idea of engaged audience is means to me that if they like your story, they’re going to help spread it too.

    • Jon Thomas says:

      Engaged audiences can be so very powerful to helping uplift your brand. I’ve found the most value in the things that my audience/colleagues/friends have done for me through recommendations, favors, and genuinely nice things – and it’s all because I focus on offering value first.

      If your story is clear and worth repeating, it will be repeated. And the stories that get repeated win!

  • Shenee says:

    Ah, this is so great! This is my whole mission. I am about to launch a blog that is focused on developing our own personal stories as it applies everything. All roads lead to story, right? : )
    Stories are so important because they don’t rely on medium or technology. It’s so basic. Those stories — and the stories behind the stories become a blueprint for a business. All of the values and belief systems are a reflection of that story. The story is the temperature check for a business. When I work with consulting clients, we make sure we develop the personal story first and hit those business goals.

    I guess we are both lucky to be in the business of story because despite the changing landscape, people will always need help telling their stories.

    Ah, sorry! I could go on and on about it.

    • Jon Thomas says:

      Shenee,

      Don’t worry about going on and on. Your enthusiasm means so much to me!

      Stories have been around for millions of years – from the days of cave paintings. It’s how we continue to connect and share our history.

      I do feel very lucky to be in the business of storytelling!

      Jon

  • Davina K. Brewer says:

    Jon, Thanks for underscoring the power of the story from the reader, the listener’s side. I make the argument all the time that the more marketers try to push in their messages, the more they’ll find ways to FF, zap, avoid or block them. We’re not trapped anymore (save on planes, sorry) and will decide what we do and don’t see or. That will start with what messages, what stories we seek out, as we search for those things we want/need, and making those stories meaningful to us. Your example about StayClassy, they don’t just talk about themselves but others too. Not just about me, about the audience. FWIW.

  • Brad Harmon says:

    Spot on, Jon. There’s so much confusion when it comes to branding. People think it’s logo or name recognition. Some think it’s a synonym for marketing.

    Branding involves everything your company does. It is built one action at a time – from the janitor who sweeps the floor to the salesperson who closes a sale to the executive who makes a decision in the boardroom.

    Marketing’s role in this process is to, as you point out, tell the story. They should craft an image and story that is supported by your company’s actions, and they should be listening just as much as (or more so) they are telling it.

    Thanks for the great post.

    • Jon Thomas says:

      Brad,

      Absolutely agree. I say something similar about presentations. Most people think that they’re only “presenting” when they’re in front of an audience with a projector and a PowerPoint. However, we’re always presenting – from when we answer a customer service call to the way we handle our bills.

      Every interaction is a reflection of your brand.

  • Barbra McKinney says:

    Brand storytelling is the most effective way to attract customers and serves as the channel where we could connect to them, straight to their heart. But of course, it must be authentic and genuine.

    Thanks for sharing this:)

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