Storytelling in Content Marketing

Wednesday, March 20th
Content Manager

Mark Wilson

Stories surround us. It’s how we understand and interpret vast portions of our lives. Good stories have the power to change us.

Smart companies understand this, and they create ways for their audience to relate to them via stories. Not every story is worth telling, but good ones can enthrall us and galvanize us. The best ones will stay with us for our entire lives.

You probably don’t think about storytelling in content marketing the same way that you think of storytelling in literature or movies. And sure, these are different types of stories. Harnessing the power of story can make your brand memorable enough to gain lifelong customers, though, which is why it’s worth finding your story and telling it in a compelling way.

What Is Storytelling in Marketing?

Storytelling in marketing is presenting a product, service or solution to a problem via a narrative. Often, though not always, the customer is placed into the narrative as a central player.

Don’t believe me when I talk about the power this can have?

What’s your favorite Super Bowl commercial of all time? Mine is the game of HORSE played by Michael Jordan and Larry Bird for a Big Mac & french fries from McDonald’s.

That commercial is from 1993, when I was 9 years old. And somehow I remember it more than three decades later.

McDonald’s likely isn’t your favorite food, but it’s one of the more well-known and successful brands in the entire world. And they became an international juggernaut largely by wrapping their brand in a series of memorable stories.

Point is, even if you didn’t pick McDonald’s, you have a favorite Super Bowl commercial, and it’s likely because it told an amusing, compelling or otherwise memorable story. Maybe it convinced you to buy something. Maybe it didn’t. But if it was memorable enough, it moved the bottom line of that company enormously.

Now think about the thousands of commercials you’ve seen. Think about the ways you interact with businesses constantly.

What story are they telling through their engagement with you? Are they telling one at all? Or are they using those touchpoints to reinforce a narrative about what their brand stands for and can do for you?

The ones that achieve this most consistently are the world’s biggest success stories. Apple. IKEA. Patagonia. None of them exist as they do today without strong, clear storytelling.

Why Use Storytelling in Your Content?

Stories are fun. They’re interesting. I feel like trying to sell you on using storytelling is like trying to sell you on sleeping. Sleeping is awesome. You don’t need a pitch from me to convince you to collapse onto your bed at the end of a long day.

Let’s do this methodically, though, because some of the benefits might not be immediately obvious.

  • Sleeping is Healthy for You - wait, we’re talking about storytelling. Sorry, it’s just been a long day. A warm bed sounds great right about now. Moving on…
  • Stories Are Memorable - You’re more likely to remember something in a narrative format as opposed to lists of information or services. There are other ways to aid retention of businesses (jingles, slogans, etc.) but stories are in that toolbox.
  • Stories Allow You to Be Creative - Listing products and services is good for informational value, but entertainment creates engagement. Particularly via video, social media and other modern channels, stories can help to set your brand apart.
  • Stories Get Attention - Michael Jordan and Larry Bird got my attention in 1993, and I paid more attention to it. A more generic commercial about food likely wouldn’t have done the same.
  • Stories Are Relatable - People will trust you more if you share the same values, struggles, flaws and imperfections, or simply talk in language they understand. Relating to businesses in an abstract sense is hard, if not impossible, but relating to the stories that business helps create is far easier.

This list isn’t exhaustive, but it should start to give you a sense of exactly why brands use storytelling techniques to reach their audience.

How to Create a Powerful Customer Story

If you’re on a first date with a cute girl or guy, and all they do is talk about themselves, is there going to be a second date?

No, of course not. They’re far too full of themselves. Their loss anyway; I hear you’re quite a catch!

The best dates are ones where you’re both engaged in communicating with one another. They also probably include ice cream, but that’s less relevant to our topic right now.

Similarly, the best brand stories make the customers an intrinsic part of that story.

So how do you do that? To answer that question, let’s talk about the Hero’s Journey…

The Hero’s Journey and Story Frameworks

Even if you don’t know what The Hero’s Journey is, you’ve seen it hundreds of times in different forms.

It’s a framework for storytelling that follows a specific formula but is infinitely permutable into variations. Movies, television, novels, plays and musicals, and yes, even brand statements often follow the Hero’s Journey.

In brief, the journey follows a central hero who is presented with a struggle or challenge that threatens their previously normal way of life. They often refuse to deal with it initially, but eventually accept the call to action. Along the way, they have various guides who give them aid or wisdom, and they overcome their challenges by growing as a person somehow. They return to their life at the end, changed and more confident, having bettered themselves through their trials.

That’s an extreme simplification, but it will work for our purposes. It’s a powerful framework because it’s recognizable and satisfying, and allows for a lot of variance within the structure.

In marketing terms, this journey has been codified by various books, videos and methodologies. One that we use here at Leadflask is the Storybrand model. This business exists solely to help businesses clarify and hone their messaging in ways that utilize the Hero’s Journey and storytelling techniques.

The central idea is that there’s A Hero (your customer) who has A Problem and is aided by A Guide (your business) who has a simple, effective Solution (product/service) to the problem. This results in Success (the end state of working with you) that reinforces their role as The Hero for their company.

One of the end results of this model is a Storybrand Script, which is sort of like the encapsulation of what your brand does and how it frames the customer as the hero of the story.

You can even see a version of Leadflask’s script throughout the site, on our homepage and elsewhere! It’s a way to frame how we talk about ourselves, and also how we talk about the solutions we can provide for those we work with. It’s perhaps not a lengthy or complicated story, but it’s clear, direct and shows its worth to those we’re looking to reach.

Authenticity and Your Brand Story

Some businesses will read about this type of thing, happily task their copywriter with whipping up a brand story that follows the Hero’s Journey, and slap it on their website or other marketing pieces.

This misses the point.

The point of creating such a story is that it needs to be authentic. If the brand a person interacts with is different from the story you’re telling them, they will recognize it instantly. “We believe in integrity first!” followed by shady business tactics, for example.

It’s not just following a formula. It’s taking an established framework and finding a way to make it authentically yours.

If your entire company reinforces your brand story, it will strengthen both the story and the brand. This creates trust and cyclically reinforces it. Brands who live their ideals, and do for their customers what they say they will, are those who have the highest loyalty among their audience.

How to Create a Powerful Brand Story

Customer stories and brand stories go hand in hand, so I don’t want this to mislead you into thinking they’re separate tasks.

However, your brand’s story is, in many ways, tied to everything you do as a business. It’s worth thinking about this separately from how you incorporate your customers or clients into that story.

To make the point, I’m going to highlight a brand with very strong, clear messaging: Patagonia. Even if you don’t use Patagonia, they're a great example of a company that has flourished as a result of storytelling.

But take a minute and browse the homepage of the Patagonia site. What do you notice?

A lot of what’s there isn’t about selling you a specific product. Rather, it’s about showing you a variety of lifestyles that their products support.

Additionally, they have entire films on their website devoted to extreme sports and nature conservation. They stand for something beyond their products.

These are both key features of strong brand stories. For Patagonia, it effortlessly inserts their customers into those stories. They represent an entire range of lifestyles, ones that are adventurous and active. They also support charitable efforts that work toward keeping these outdoor adventures possible.

It’s consistent, it’s powerful, and it tells a story that goes beyond the products you buy from Patagonia.

This, as much as anything, is why they’ve succeeded as a brand, and why many other brands do as well that have compelling stories that espouse entire lifestyles and adhere strongly to specific values and ideals.

Incorporating Data Into Storytelling

Who are your customers? How well do you know them?

Patagonia’s storytelling wouldn’t be as powerful if they were marketing to, say, teens without the expendable income to go on crazy adventures (or afford some of Patagonia’s clothing!).

Data analytics can tell you tons about who interacts with your brand. Is it men? Women? Roughly equal numbers of both? What is the average age? What’s the average household income? Area of the world? Are they primarily married, single or a mix?

These insights matter, because your story only works if it resonates with the people you intend to reach. A story involving home ownership, for example, is likely going to fall flat with 20-somethings who, increasingly, are not homeowners in America.

To get back to Super Bowl ads, every year marketers identify “winners” and “losers” among Super Bowl commercials. The so-called losers are those where the story they told in a commercial doesn’t match with that brand’s existing brand identity, or it doesn’t speak directly to the fears and aspirations of its core audience.

These “losers” had a mismatch of audience and story. Using data can help you avoid the same.

If you have the budget for it, test groups can help with this as well, to avoid missteps before you roll out an ad campaign that isn’t working well with its intended audience.

Types of Stories in Content Marketing

Stories are universal, but the medium changes how we tell stories. Short-form videos will have different types of stories than long-form podcasts. A blog is a different type of storytelling than an infographic.

Keeping the medium in mind matters, because how you distill or expand on your story will change, and how your audience reacts to it will change.

Which is why, for example, TikTok shouldn’t be used by every brand. It supports a lot of great messaging for brands, but importantly, not every brand’s story translates well to its short-form, quick-hitting, low-budget style of content.

Conversely, not every brand needs a podcast, because maybe it’s a brand that’s far better in a visual medium.

Point being, your choice of storytelling format is an extension of both your brand story and the audience it’s trying to reach.

Sharing Your Story

The best story in the world doesn’t mean much if no one hears it.

You already know all the channels for sharing. Email, Youtube, social media, Twitch, blogs, billboards, local events, and so on. We could talk about each, and we do elsewhere on our site, but for now we want to focus on getting started.

So here’s my advice to you. Create a strong brand story, then share the hell out of it. Don’t be afraid! Be bold. Your conviction will make it stronger with your target audience.

Will the story resonate with everyone you want it to? No, of course not. But not leading with a good brand story is a much more surefire way to lack a strong brand character.

Do you want to be memorable? Do you want people to link to your website as a case study for great branding? It doesn’t happen without a clear vision and long-term execution.

So what are you waiting for? Get to storytelling!

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