Humans are hardwired to tell and engage with stories. Approximately 40,000 years ago, storytelling as our primary means of communication began with cave art. Today, the neuroscience of storytelling has been researched thoroughly, proving that the sensory receptors in our cortex light up when we read a descriptive metaphor as opposed to plain text. We often describe ourselves as getting ‘lost in a story’, and it’s this complete, visceral immersion that leads to greater engagement and retention.
The power of brand storytelling
Intelligent brands have long tapped into the power of storytelling. Ian Rowden, Chief Marketing Officer of Virgin Group, was quite right when he said, “The best brands are built on great stories.” A strong brand story shows our customers who we are, what we do, how we do it, WHY we do it, and what makes us different. In essence, it defines an ambition beyond commercial aspiration, and – in doing so – increases engagement.
Brand stories enable people to easily talk about your brand to their friends, paraphrasing and building the story into their own lives and conversations. And as Christopher Booker once explained, when you are choosing what style of story your brand should tell, there are really only seven choices: overcoming the monster; rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy; and rebirth. The quest is unquestionably the most common style of story used by brands – think ‘the quest for whiter whites’ (washing powder) – rags to riches (insurance), overcoming the monster (bug spray or bathroom cleaners), voyage and return (travel and tourism) and the comedy (beer brands) are also common – but no one wants their brand story to be about tragedy.
Five brand stories that really connect
For a brand story to connect, it needs to be real. Customers need to be able to relate to the characters and feel the passion. Here are five well-known brand stories that really connect:
- Max Brenner: This brand story is an endearingly simple and honest quest, with the founder, Max Brenner, at its centre. A linear story, the reader is transported from Paris to Israel and then Australia as Max meets some key characters and lives a lifestyle of chocolate and decadence as he strives to recreate his childhood dream of finding a river of chocolate and sailing in it.
- kikki.K: A distinctly visual quest-style narrative, readers are offered an insight into the brand’s passions, people, and founder. Readers are also encouraged to participate in the story by creating their own keepsakes with kikki.K products and joining the conversation via social media.
- Coopers: The Coopers quest to give Australian’s a beer free from the sugar of the early colonial beers is presented as a series of frames on a wall and items on shelves. The quest is visually intricate and inviting, and takes visitors on a journey through colonial Australia, two world wars and the Great Depression. . Visitors get a strong sense of the brand’s rich history, coupled with a number of innovative new initiatives, including an online forum and home brew resource library.
- Zappos: Zappos is on a quest – a quest to give the world better shoes and better service. The Zappos narrative begins by telling the story of the brand’s Founder who was unable to find shoes in the right colour, style, and size. Today, Zappos solves that need with a couple of clear differentiators – “WOW through service” and an open invitation for customers to join the Zappos family, via the Zappos Family Library. The brand is also proudly quirky, describing its senior leadership team as “monkeys” and encouraging “fun and a little weirdness” as part of its values.
- T2 Tea: A different style of brand story – a story of rebirth, as founder Maryanne Shearer sought to give tea a modern edge – to ‘reinvent it to appeal to a new generation of tea drinkers’. T2 Tea has recreated the tea drinking experience, filling it with enchantment and magic, with a retail environment that supports this vision and creates a journey for the senses.
Lessons learned from these brand stories
Each of the brand stories above successfully engage their audience, albeit in different ways. Here are some key lessons to keep in mind when creating your own brand story:
- Be honest and consistent: Customers are savvy, and will quickly sniff out any dishonesty or inconsistencies – particularly as you start to weave your story across multiple platforms and experiences. Nothing creates connection like true transparency, so be honest.
- Show, don’t tell: Good brand stories require great fiction writing skills. Leverage the neuroscience of storytelling by painting a picture with descriptive language and imagery.
- Include the trials, not just the triumphs: Every good story includes some kind of trial and then a triumph. You can’t have one without the other, so share your trials (e.g. Nudie’s factory burning to the ground) and invite customers to engage as they cheer you on towards a happy ending.
- Feature an interesting cast of characters: Good stories also need interesting characters. There’ll be some obvious primary characters, but be sure to include an interesting support cast too (e.g. Max Brenner’s first love Anna, who inspired his love of chocolate). Endearing characters are a key engagement tool, as customers want someone to root for.
- Keep the story going: As your brand grows, so too will its story. Encourage customers to continue to engage in the story by inviting them to participate. Think: online forums, customer challenges, and social media initiatives to increase engagement.
The next chapter
To create a successful, sustainable business fuelled by customer loyalty, start with a powerful brand story. Remember though, the story never finishes. Create the next chapter by inviting your customers to inhabit the world of your brand, and write an even greater story together.