“Every business owner wants to stand out in their market and yet most all suffer in crippling obscurity. To their potential customers, they all sound the same. There is nothing different about their marketing message. They don’t have a unique brand. They spend money on advertising, they re-do their logo or their website, and still they cannot seem to get attention.” – Excerpt, Don’t Sell Me, Tell Me by Greg Koorhan
As consumers, we are constantly bombarded with content. We have information overload from every angle – TV, radio, social media, email, billboards, you name it – content is everywhere! Whether you realize it or not, you are always being sold to. When businesses do it right, they often share a meaningful story that gets double takes.
Storytelling as a business strategy isn’t anything new, but according to Koorhan in an exclusive interview, “our awareness of how stories are used in business” is what has changed.
“Thanks to neuroscience, we can see the areas of the brain where stories are processed. That helps us understand the potential impact stories have on our thinking. We have a greater awareness of how stories work to change behavior,” he said. “As business competition has increased, companies are looking for anyway to get a competitive advantage. Stories can provide an advantage to those who use them well.”
Whether you are new to storytelling or have been using it and are looking to get better results, read on for some tips.
Know your brand, really know your brand.
Storytelling is an art and with every art, there are tools needed to craft that art.
Knowing your brand is one of your key tools in business storytelling. When I say “know your brand” I don’t just mean, be able to tell me about your products and services, where your business is located, or what your logo looks like – all of those things are great but not enough. You need to be able to describe your brand (without fluff words). But you can’t know your brand if you don’t know what a brand in general is!
Forbes Contributor Jerry McLaughlin defines a brand as: the name given to a product or service from a specific source – a trademark. Taking this up a notch, in her book Designing Brand Identity: An Essential Guide for the Whole Branding Team, author Alina Wheeler describes brand identity as something that can be seen, touched, held, or watched move.
“Brand identity takes disparate elements and unifies them into whole systems,” she wrote.
Gregory Diehl, author of Brand Identity Breakthrough said to me: “I think when people usually talk about branding, they mean the most obvious and visible elements of a company – things like color schemes, packaging, and logos or taglines. To me, those things are all derivatives of something far more introspective and important.”
He added: “Companies that just think about which mascot will get people to buy more are putting the cart before the horse. A brand identity is a projection of the values of the core people who make up a company. It is a leveraged actor in the world to produce a specific type of change. The visible parts are just there to represent this as effectively as possible.”
For more on getting to know your brand, I defer you to Diehl’s book.
Before and During Storytelling Development
Understand storytelling and get inspired by brands doing it right.
Content Marketing Institute defines business storytelling as: “brands sharing their messages in ways that engage audiences and drive them to take desired action (like making a purchase, calling a salesperson, downloading or subscribing to content, etc.).
In his book Telling Your Brand Story, author Rob Marsh writes, “One of the reasons we react to stories differently from how we act to unstructured information has to do with brain chemistry.”
Marsh went on to note:
Scientists at the University of California in Berkeley studied the neural mechanisms related to storytelling. They discovered that when people were told character-driven stories, listeners naturally increased their production of oxytocin4 (the love hormone).
Interestingly enough, Marsh discovered that “we use the same parts of the brain that we use when we think about our friends and loved ones,” he says. “We even subconsciously attribute human traits and beliefs to brands. And, we expect brands to act as humans would in our interactions with them. We expect brands to act as human people will.”
I’ve been a long time admirer of social media and SEO strategist, the stunning Eren McKay who years ago told me, “Girl, this is social media! You’ve got be social. Have your brands act like people on social media. People don’t emotionally bond with a photo of an office product [for example].”
Ofcourse that conversation with her was during a discussion on social media but her advice holds true across the marketing sphere.
“Brand stories are the narratives we tell ourselves about the experiences we have with the products and services we encounter.” – Rob Marsh
Let’s say you sell shoes. There are hundreds of stores that sell shoes. The guy up the road from you probably sells the same shoes. Does the guy up the road for you have killer shoe storytelling? Is he blogging about the local sports team he donated the new Nikes to? Is he talking about how that team just won a championship and what their road to get there was like and how they wore your shoes all the way up?
For your inspiration, let’s take a look at Chatbooks. This digital photo book printing company does an incredible job of telling their brand’s story through social media and viral videos.
For example, when Chatbooks first heard that Instagram was going to be adding a live video feature to the app, they couldn’t wait to be one of the pioneers to test it out, a rep told me. On a Monday, right when they received access to Instagram LIVE, the Chatbooks Team streamed their first Q&A and it was so successful, they continued it all day – six hours later, they realized they had chatted with about 10,000 followers throughout the day.
This Instagram LIVE content is part of an overall, successful, social media strategy. Chatbooks video campaign went viral in October, reaching 3 million views in the first 2 days, and now 2.5 months later have totaled 43 Million views.
What did they talk about? They told the story of their product, how it came about and why it fits a need in so many consumers’ lives. Best of all, they put a face behind the brand and gave customers and prospects an inside look at the people who work behind the scenes.
Another brand to watch for storytelling inspiration is Starbucks. In a recent video series, the coffee giant shares a series of animated stories that highlight some entertaining things that happen in their stores.
Another brand to watch for storytelling inspiration is The Washington Post. Using their ‘single story ownership’ process workflow, and as explained in the Check Your Facts podcast with Director of Graphics Kat Downs Mulder, they emphasize the importance appropriating visuals to the respective platform which content is going published on.
Bottom line: People connect with people (even animated people). Videos and photos get that connection across best because humans are visual.
Marsh says it perfectly: “Brand stories enable us to engage and connect, not with manufacturers or brand managers, but directly with the brands themselves—as if the brand were a friend or close associate.”
Jumping Right In: Storytelling
So you get it – you know your brand and you know that you need to start acting like a human and less like a robot in your marketing communications. Now you’re ready to jump right in! Let’s make storytelling work for your brand.
When developing your brand story Greg Koorhan suggests looking to your own story first. Elements to weave into your story include:
- Where you came from
- What you went through
- Where you are going
- Don’t Sell Me, Tell Me
Whatever you do, Koorhan advises, do not make stuff up! “You have to be honest with yourself.”
In Telling Your Brand Story, Rob Marsh offers another great place to start: your organization’s history. In my personal interview with him he suggested:
- Interview the company’s founders and ask specifically why they started the company? What problem were they trying to fix? Was there an “aha” moment when the idea of the company was born? What happened next? If the founders are no longer around, you might be able to talk to early employees and customers to get this information.
- Take a look at how the company has evolved since then. Has it introduced new products or pivoted to a new market? If so, why?
- Go over old sales and marketing materials looking specifically at how products were sold early on. Again, what problem is it trying to solve? Who is the customer? What was the pitch?
- Lastly, you should talk with long-time employees about their experiences. Ask some of the questions from above and let them tell their stories.
You won’t always find a great story in the company’s history. And, often you’ll find that the “history” story isn’t one you want to tell today. But in some cases, you’ll uncover the motivations and challenges the founders faced—and that can be the basis for a good brand story.
Harvard Business Review advises:
- Focus your delivery on “one person with one thought.”
- Choose first and final words carefully. (We never get a second chance to make a good first impression).
- Parachute in, don’t preamble. The best storytellers draw us immediately into the action.
There will be challenges…
Even the most experienced business storytellers still face challenges. The biggest problem I personally face is always being creative. Sometimes the creative think tank just shuts down, which is why it’s so important to constantly self-educate, bounce ideas off other experts in the industry, and even ask other staff for their ideas.
Koorhan’s biggest challenge was and is the curse of trying to be all things to all people.
“The stories that reach the widest audience are, paradoxically, the ones that have the simplest emotional truths. I realized, to reach a larger audience I had to take a stand, find my own voice and be selective about who I could help. That meant some people wouldn’t respond well, and that’s okay. If you get specific about what you do and who you serve, it will inform the stories you tell, and more of your ‘ideal’ customers will be attracted by them (counter-intuitive, I know),” he said in an interview.
“Brand stories don’t always work the way personal stories do—personal stories are about progress, the hero’s journey. Brand stories need to fit into the customer’s journey. They need to reinforce how a person thinks about herself. So knowing how the stories you tell will be understood by the people who hear them is an important part of using stories appropriately,” advises Marsh.
Here’s to your storytelling success!
I want to read your stories – please follow me on Twitter and stay in touch.