Brand Storytelling: Why It Works to Boost Marketing Impact

Creating communications that connect is more important than ever
illustration of the word story

A tale as old as time

From early humans drawing pictures on walls to parents telling bedtime tales; from ancient civilizations that invented myths to modern creators who create sagas on the screen and plots on the page — storytelling is a tradition as old as humanity. Today, it’s also one of the most popular concepts in branding and marketing.

There’s a reason why good stories have stood the test of time. A satisfying narrative can help us make sense of a complex world and elicit emotions that connect us to our fellow humans. And the age-old power of storytelling can also connect with consumers and clients, delivering big benefits to businesses. Read on to learn more.

Beyond the buzzword

In the past few years, the marketing industry could barely go a minute without mentioning brand storytelling. And while it has certainly become a buzzword, that doesn’t mean there’s no substance behind it. Brand storytelling is a way of communicating that uses narrative techniques to engage with audiences, build authenticity, and elevate emotion. For years, this approach has been successfully applied in advertising, particularly for consumer brands (think: P&G’s “Thank you, Mom” Olympic campaigns, which use a moving display of motherly love to market household products, or Budweiser’s “Someone Waits for You at Home,” which expresses the dangers of drinking and driving from an unconventional perspective). But brand storytelling is more than just a campaign or commercial — it’s an entire manner of speaking and writing that can extend across all marketing. And it’s highly effective, no matter the medium. Here’s why:

The science behind brand storytelling

Storytelling isn’t just an art — it’s a science. Research conducted by the Stanford Graduate School of Business showed that stories are 22 times more memorable than facts alone. There are several reasons for this. First, readers and listeners connect stories to their own thoughts and experiences through a phenomenon called neural coupling. This enables them to interpret the information in a story through a personal lens, often making it easier to recall. Along with this cognitive process, chemical reactions can also play a major role in story memorability. When our brains hear emotionally-charged content, they release dopamine — a substance that supports memory function. So while we know that emotional storytelling pulls on our heartstrings, it’s actually making the strongest impression in our heads.

Beyond sparking changes in chemical release, storytelling can also light up key regions of the brain. When reading or absorbing information, two areas of the brain are typically activated: Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, both of which allow us to translate words into meaning. But when content is delivered in story form, our brains begin firing on more cylinders. That’s because storytelling tactics can increase neural activity in other places, too — specifically in the sensory cortex. According to The New York Times, multiple studies have demonstrated that individuals have stronger neural responses to sensory words and even to metaphors. For example, a team at Emory University found that metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” triggered more brain activity than those featuring neutral words, like “The singer had a pleasant voice.” The Times concluded that stories “stimulate the brain and can even change how we act in real life.”

A powerful payoff

It’s those real-life ramifications that marketers want to capitalize on. Because although brand storytelling can help communications sound better, the C-suite cares more about its ability to influence ROI. According to research from Headstream — a social and content agency that recently merged with communications company Five by Five — brand stories can seriously affect conversion rates. Their data showed that when customers and clients connected with a brand’s story, 15 percent would purchase its products immediately, while 55 percent became more likely to buy from the company in the future.

Ultimately, brand storytelling offers a huge opportunity for many enterprises — but especially for B2B businesses. Traditionally, communications in the B2B space have been somewhat dry and uninspiring. Companies in this space once shied away from speaking sentimentally or infusing emotion into their materials because they were targeting businesses, not consumers. But today, these companies are recognizing that their business partners are people, too — and storytelling can help them create a more compelling brand voice, so they can build stronger relationships with their target audiences.

The sky’s the limit

When it comes to brand storytelling, there’s no one right way to incorporate it into communications. From harnessing humor to highlighting the big-picture benefits of CSR initiatives, brand storytelling takes many forms. Here are a few of our top tactics to help keep storytelling front and center in your marketing:

1. Tie data points to impact
Numbers. Proof points. Facts and stats. These tools can be incredibly effective as storytelling devices — but only if they’re positioned properly. For instance, saying, “Arctic sea ice is declining by a rate of 12.8 percent per decade,” attempts to quantify the results of global warming. But a more detailed statement can take that even further: “With 12.8 percent of Arctic sea ice melting per decade, ocean levels could rise eight feet by 2100 — putting parts of New York City underwater.” By seeing benefits or consequences along with data, readers gain crucial context that helps drive the point home.

2. Trade in hypotheticals for real examples
Speaking about broad, overarching themes helps you appeal to a wide range of audiences. But it can also make content feel lackluster. Instead of saying, “We saved clients 20 percent on their yearly costs,” provide a real-life example: “We saved small business owner Ian Simpson 20 percent, ultimately helping him triple earnings for the year.” Narrowing your focus from all consumers to one individual will create a more memorable argument.

3. Crowdsource and share
Stories exist everywhere, so look outside your organization for inspiration. Use social media to engage with clients, and ask them to share stories about their own experiences with your brand. This approach will not only help your clients feel heard, but it may also provide fresh material for a new campaign.

Learning from the best

While B2C storytelling examples abound, B2B models can be harder to find. We’ve pulled together a list of our favorite B2B business leaders who have mastered the art of brand storytelling to help guide you through your own journey:

1. IBM
For IBM, brand storytelling truly stands the test of time. In a famous 1990s television spot, the company adopted a documentary film style to highlight the emotional benefits of its technology — specifically, its commitment to improving education and investing in the next generation. Two decades later in 2016, IBM’s “Outthink” campaign personified “Watson,” its AI technology, by depicting it in conversation with everyone from a seven-year-old cancer survivor to rock-and-roll legend Bob Dylan. By showing the real impact of its offerings on the world, IBM has continued to make a name for itself year after year.

2. HP
HP took brand storytelling to a whole new level with its short film, “The Wolf.” Starring Christian Slater, the six-and-half-minute ad chronicles the perils of printer security — elevating a somewhat dull topic by using artful narration, riveting suspense, and vivid imagery, all of which are key components for successful storytelling.

3. ENGIE Impact
When ENGIE — a multinational energy and services company — decided to merge four of its companies into a new sustainability transformation consulting organization, it turned to us to help build the new brand. Brand storytelling played a key role in our strategy. Centered around the concept of “Right now. For tomorrow.,” the new brand included a microsite and a name for the new entity: ENGIE Impact. Across these deliverables, we used storytelling tactics — such as narrative devices, emotional language, and concrete examples — to explore the environmental challenges clients face and establish ENGIE Impact as the solution.

Consumers and clients are often inundated with marketing initiatives, coming at them through social media, in their inboxes, and online. In this saturated landscape, brand storytelling isn’t just a helpful approach — it’s an indispensable strategy to ensure your business will stand out and remain memorable.

To learn more about brand storytelling, contact us.


caroline welch headshotAbout the author
Caroline Welch is a Senior Strategist and Writer at DeSantis Breindel. She uses her love for language to create more compelling, engaging content for B2B businesses, helping them better connect with their audiences.

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