Why storytelling is good for your business

snowy fairytale scene

Why storytelling is good for your business

The Power of a Good Story

For the last few nights, my 5-year-old has asked for the same story. Rumpelstiltskin.

If you don’t know it, a young lady is offered to the king for marriage under the pretense that she can weave straw into gold. Given a pile of straw and a deadline of the morning, she weeps. A strange little fellow appears and offers to spin the straw into gold in exchange for her locket.

It happens again.

The third night, with the biggest straw pile of all, the girl has nothing left to pay the strange little man. He asks for the firstborn son. She accepts. And when the baby boy is born, the girl is in a most uncomfortable predicament.

Fairytales are long held to be among the ways we can teach children to make sense of the world. The ‘big bad wolf’ represents all sorts of danger. It is the archetypal villain.

Straying off the forest path, the pitfall of accepting apples from strangers, are all plots to teach acceptable behaviour. Or else. These are the stakes. The tension of being eaten alive, locked in a cage, or trapped in a castle tower.

I’m not a fan of vivid gore, so my version lacks the brutality of the original.

Immersing herself in a story like this causes my daughter to have real shivers and a heart that races — physiological responses to an imagined threat. Just like watching a movie has a corporeal response in an adult cinemagoer.

In the brain, real experiences and imagined ones are processed the same way.

The Transformational Power of Stories

Stories are powerful. The success of nonprofits like the Story Factory in Sydney’s Redfern and Dave Eggers’ 826 Valencia for marginalised youth are testament to the life-changing power of the artform.


book with lights

What is brand storytelling?

At the end of the day, we all want our work to have meaning. Brand storytelling is a way of communicating what a business does and why it is important. It uses facts and emotions to engage in a simple narrative.

Often the story will have some key characters: the victim, villain, hero, and guide. The villain is the problem. That problem could be a disease, or complexity of some sort. The victim is the person who has to grapple with the problem day-in and day-out. This is where we start. We show the problem in clear and simple language that a child would understand.

The formula is this. Set the scene, show the problem, escalate the tension by showing consequences, resolve the problem, end up in a better situation.

For example, we set the stage of the person experiencing a problem such as a medical condition or a complex system. The problem causes pain for the victim. If left untreated, the pain escalates. As a brand, we treat the pain with a solution. We show how the solution works and what it leads to (pain relief). As the creator of the Hero solution, we show how our brand is helping people and therefore helping the world.

A brand with a communications or marketing budget of any amount can devise the brand story and resolve it.  You also have affective tools like music, video, images, audio, graphics, and an arsenal of gear that’s free or inexpensive to help connect your story to the right people. And then you have socials to spread it.

Why would we use a story for our brand?

A story has a simple point of entry.

If I say ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ I am not asking you to do anything. There is no work involved for you to process this information. I am not asking you to invest in facts or data.

I am inviting you to another world.

If you do come into my story of the dark and stormy night, you will be using your own mental imagery to bring it to life. You are now a participant in this story.

If I introduce Tiny Tim as walking alone, shivering, in the storm, you may feel empathy. And then, when we see a great storm cloud moving in, our tension rises. The stakes are set. Tiny Tim is soaking wet but he is now in grave risk of lightning electrocution. What can we do?

A giant stretches a huge and gentle hand down with a magic bean. Tiny Tim takes the bean, swallows it. Rays of sunlight pass over his face and he smiles. The storm clears. The sky is blue.

The storm was a migraine. The magic bean was a new over-the-counter medication (your brand).

Tiny Tim now walks in splendid green pastures with trilling birdsong and lovely red flowers. We are relieved. Everything is right in the world again. You may then feel relief. You experience a mild release of oxytocin.

Using this simple device helps people remember the power of your medicine and the pain brought on by migraine. It juxtaposes the pain and relief and paints the consumer as happy ever after. And that makes the medicine Good.

Our brand is good and important. It takes people from the agonising horror of migraine pain to relief and normality. With images and music, that is an easy thing to communicate with boring people.

It’s more powerful than a fact-based ad with a clinical approach, although you may run both ads and use a linking device like the thumber clouds on the packshot or background and lightning music so that viewers may the association.

Universal Dimensions

Big brands like Nike and Coca-Cola are expert are telling a universal story. Persistence of the individual. The power of the human spirit.

Coke shows us the power of positive youthful energy is never lost, no matter how old you get. (I adore this ad. It reminds me of both Christian camp and Don Draper in Mad Men.)

In 2003, I remember writing to Marketing Magazine about a new Nike ad. someone had criticised for not being about shoes.

Why would it be about shoes? This is a global company. It needs a humanity-wide appeal that transcends culture. It taps into human values. Diversity. Inclusiveness before they were as mainstream as today.

So the Nike brand is underpinned by an almost spiritual dimension. And it makes sense. Do you think it would have success if it talked about the ingredients of its innersoles or the conditions of its factories?

A deeper human story of triumph over adversity may be the only thing that will cut through the necrosis of clutter.

How does brand storytelling work?

It helps adults make sense of complex information. Storytelling implifies things. It can help us organise abstract material.

In my view, the more complex your business offering, the simpler the story should be. Get the excavator out and dig down to the essence of the benefit.

Stories simplify information
According to Dr Pamela B. Rutledge, our brains are wired to find the story in content to make sense of the experience. She posits that stories provide order, certainty and structure. Stories are how we think. They are how we make meaning in life. The resolution follows conflict.

Stories engage emotions 
Stories are imagined and this creates a connection between the person imagining and the brand being imagined. The impacts are real and physiological.

Stories are a hardwired way of thinking
Storytelling is a primal form of communication. It links to myths, archetypes, legends, and symbols. It has the power of connecting us to universal truths.

Stories help us remember 
Jerome Bruner who developed the concept of narrative psychology argued that it makes information 22 times more memorable.

Empathy is a Chemical

When we provide a solution to the problem, we resolve the tension. The relief is felt, not just psychologically, but physically. Chemically.

Neuroeconomist Paul Zaks identified the chemical as oxytocin ‘The love hormone’.

Oxytocin is produced in the brain and the blood — by both men and women. It is the chemical that creates empathy.

Zak’s research proved that when we feel empathy, we make a connection. As a direct result, we are more likely as a result, to trust, to open our wallets, to donate, and to share.

If we want our brand to stand for something, create a story to show what it stands for. Depict the problem (villain) and the victim (a person suffering the problem). Set the stakes. Resolve the tension with the solution. Enjoy the flood of oxytocin. If nothing else, the story will help people remember and understand what you do, and why it’s important.

snowy fairytale scene

How do I create a brand story?

Victim, Villain, Hero, Guide Who are your characters? Donald Miller’s Storybrand framework suggests each story has a victim, villain, hero, and guide. It is okay to be the guide if your solution is sharing knowledge.

What is the problem that you solve? What is the pain that’s caused? How do you solve the problem? What is the result of you having solved the problem? What is the world like now for the person whose pain you have removed?

Use your history

You might already have a story buried in the webpages of your History. What is the origin? Who is the funder? Why did they decide to create this business? What was the initial problem? How many people have they helped? What is the vision for the future?

Use your history as a simple story and the mission of your business to overcome a villain (problem). Show your tenacity. Are you an underdog? Is this a David and Goliath fight?
How did you triumph? What have been the stakes along the way?

toru and takeshi kumon

Toru Kumon a maths teacher whose own son was failing maths. Toru began designing worksheets with the philosophy to start where his son, Takeshi, was comfortable, master the fundamentals, practice them, and then slowly build on the knowledge. After a time, Takeshi was well above the level of the school curriculum. The result is the multinational education company, Kumon Institute of Education. Its mission is to develop the unlimited potential of each individual.

Your business history might hold the key.

What inspired your founder?

Are they a Passionate Problem-solver? Interview them. To make a lot of money is not a good answer. Dig deeper. What inspired you? What’s your story? Why did you want to solve XYZ?
Perhaps your business has identified a need. And sought to solve a problem. What is the vision and purpose of the business?

Every business has a good story to tell. It just needs to be excavated. Triumph over adversity. The underdog wins despite the odds. Love conquers all. Whatever the narrative is, a good story is universal in appeal. And easily understood by children. It isn’t hard work for our audience to be told a story. We like them. We crave order and meaning.*

My little girl has moved on from Rumpelstiltskin now. Thank goodness. She has imagined spinning straw into gold. The way she has imagined it will be completely different from anyone else in the world. She will have used her own experiences to make sense of the story. She will have embellished it with stripy menacing shadows, the florid beauty of her favourite garden.

The tale is resolved. The brain has released feel-good chemicals, over and over. Trust is assured. The neural connections she has made will be hard to ever displace.

And if you can get your brand story inside the brain of your target market like that, then god help your competition.