Storytelling for Brands

Originally published in Contagious.

In their recent book Friction, Jeff Rosenblum and Jordan Berg tell the story of a pitch they made to the Discovery Channel. At that point, their agency was the clear frontrunner for the project. 

Everything was going terrific until they reached a slide filled with a 10x10 matrix of data points. As they walked through the information, the air went out of the room, and everyone started looking at their phones. They lost the pitch.

This was no accident. Brands may think that rational argument is the way to go when trying to persuade customers to come to a store or buy a product. Oddly enough, this doesn’t seem to work. Rather, researchers have found that stories are much more persuasive, particularly those that transport the listener away from the present moment. 

So what is storytelling, exactly? You can find a million definitions, all with their merits, but essentially a story is a human situation that changes over time. Usually, a protagonist has a problem (an antagonist), which the story then resolves. A simple business example would be a case study, in which a company faces a problem, which is generally resolved by a brand’s product in a successful way.

Yet, we all know most case studies are as exciting as a glass of milk, so there must be more at work. Luckily, we have help. Those who tell stories for a living – think Disney and Pixar – have each developed rich sets of rules and processes that help guide them to successful stories. While not all these ideas apply, the following guidelines can certainly help your brand up its storytelling process.

Know the elements

According to Pixar, a story has to have three elements: a character, a narrative (what happens), and an environment, which is a set of rules that govern the world of the story. You can easily see this in Toy Story: Sheriff Woody is the protagonist. They all live by a set of rules (they’re toys, so none of them ever eats or cries). And they have a narrative about trying to get home. 

Such things also apply to brands that tell stories. If you want to talk about a young innovator using a key piece of technology to fight world hunger, the innovator is the character, the narrative is how the innovator uses technology to change the world, and the environment is the set of constraints she faces in doing her work.

Add emotion

The problem with case studies is the protagonist is typically a product and the narrative is a formula. Such things fit clearly in the rational world, not the storytelling one. Instead, good stories have characters that express emotion. Perhaps they are frustrated, maybe they’re on a mission, or perhaps they’re inspired by the death of a loved one. 

For example, Microsoft’s Collective Project was effective largely because it presented us with a child with a robotic arm who could finally hug his mother with two hands. That kind of raw emotion transports the viewer away and neatly makes the point that OneNote is a force for good in the world. 

Don’t shy away from conflict

It can feel like a big risk for marketers to emphasise conflict, but it is one of the most critical elements of the kinds of stories humans naturally gravitate toward. Conflict and resolution teach us lessons that provide much of the value of a story. Sugarcoating removes the teeth of a story, makes it feel less authentic, and therefore less interesting. Trouble is the universal grammar of stories, according to Jonathan Gottshall, author of The Storytelling Animal.

Give it a structure

Hollywood films are well known for their three-act structure. There’s an initial setup, where we get to know the world and its characters. Then, a plot point shifts the story into its main conflict, which often ends with the character at a high or low point.

Finally, there is the conclusion, where the main character overcomes adversity and beats the bad guys, wins over the object of his or her desire, and so on. A movie gets nearly two hours to pull off this feat, but brands need to compress the timeline. The story must set up its problem and work to a conclusion. 

Illustrate your real point

Stories, however, are not everything. They only work if you can pivot to a rational argument that convinces a reader or view to do something. That’s why, for example, so many news articles start with an illustrative story. 

If you want to make a point about global warming, for example, you might start by talking about a villager in Vanuatu, whose entire life and home are at stake if the sea rises another foot. That way, the story captures the emotion correctly and can quickly progress to a rational argument.

Sequential storytelling

Today it’s more important than ever to build and tell stories that unfold over time. With techniques like sequential targeting, you can start by introducing a protagonist and situation, and slowly build to a conclusion and rational reason to convert.

Above all, storytelling is not a natural gift or a mysterious outcome from a talented person. It’s a process that can be learned and improved on over time. It has its limits and can’t make up for a bad product, service, or data. But it can open people up and make them much more receptive to good reasoning. We’ve all been in that argument that no one seems to win. Next time, perhaps we’ll stop, think, and respond with a good story instead.

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