The power of storytelling is timeless. As a marketing strategy, it probably dates back to the cavemen. Gronk persuaded Zug to trade for his bearskin by telling the heroic tale of how he felled the animal.
People want to hear a good story. In some ways, they need it. Stories help us make sense of ourselves and our worlds.
Storytelling is an important skill — and it’s one that you already have hard-wired into you. You just need to activate and refine it.
What is storytelling marketing?
Storytelling marketing is the art of communicating your brand’s goals and engaging your audience through a story.
If you break the term down into its elements, each one tells you something important about how to make it work for you:
Story. Give an account of significant moments, aspirations, outcomes, and the people involved.
Telling. Talk to your specific audience using the distinct voice of your brand.
Marketing. Be strategic. Present the story of your business and its offerings in a way that accentuates them.
You already tell stories every day. The goal is to make your storytelling more intentional and impactful.
We also find stories more compelling than facts. They help us relate to others. One scientific study showed that similar regions light up whether you read about someone’s actions or perform them yourself.
So what does it look like when you apply that power to marketing purposes?
The benefits of storytelling for brands
Since stories can affect us on both emotional and physical levels, they can help us build connections and bonds between a brand and consumers — even if they aren’t our customers.
Take Airbnb’s stories as an example. Airbnb has mastered the art of storytelling marketing, including a “Stories” section in their blog. They use it to give potential travelers insights into a variety of hosts and traveler experiences. In doing so, Airbnb has managed to dispel possible anxieties over renting someone’s home for a vacation and created emotional links to their brand.
They do this by telling honest, relatable stories. Sometimes you immediately identify with the travelers they feature. Sometimes you wish you could. You want to borrow that life — or at least I do. And by using their service, you can.
So, when you think about telling your stories, be honest. Showcase your personality and remind your customer base of who you are and why they love you.
The concept of “story” is a large one. Without refining, it becomes vague and unwieldy. Instead of thinking of storytelling as a grand abstract, focus on the specific stories you want to tell.
There are several types of storytelling in marketing you can use.
First and foremost, there are your brand stories. Who are you? Why are you?
Your brand centers on your origin, mission, and vision. All of these lend themselves to good stories.
Origin stories aren’t reserved for comic-book superheroes. Every business has one.
You also can approach your origin story from different angles, retelling it for new audiences and purposes. Ask yourself:
What ignited the spark that eventually became your business?
What early obstacles did you overcome?
How have you taken past experiences in a new direction?
When did you first feel like a real business instead of a goal, and why?
Origin stories invest your audience in your business from its beginning. It makes them want to follow along and see what happens next.
Your mission is the fundamental why of your business. It shapes both what you do and how you do it — your business practices and your products or services.
Mission stories can overlap with origin stories, letting people into that moment where your purpose crystallized. But they can also cover your everyday operations. What continues to drive you, and when do you feel affirmed in your mission? Share ongoing challenges and triumphs.
Use storytelling marketing to cover your future as well as your past. What’s next for your business?
Make people feel like a part of your story. Talk about where you’re going together, and get them excited about the journey.
There’s a story behind everything you offer. Talk about your creative process, your manufacturing, your supply chain, and so on. How does something go from idea or raw materials to finished product?
Services have stories, too. Think about how they’ve evolved as you have. What experiences led you to tailor existing offerings or create new ones? For example, a home repair business may start offering seasonal maintenance services after repeatedly encountering a particular form of weather damage.
Your events provide opportunities for storytelling. For example, nonprofit storytelling is often a key feature of fundraisers. Nonprofits share tales about missions, challenges, and impacts, encouraging attendees to take action.
But no matter your industry, your events are also stories themselves. What’s the reason for the event? How does it take shape? Who attends, and what do they experience? What’s the result of the event?
Use your social media channels to build stories around your events, from lead-up to day-of coverage, in order to recap and share results. Convey your excitement about the event and your gratitude toward all those who participated.
Your business collects people, bringing them together for a common purpose. Each of these individuals have their own story.
Show your audience the human faces of your organization. Introduce them to integral members of your team. How did they get involved with your business? What experience do they bring? What quirks contribute to behind-the-scenes fun?
Get people to like your brand by letting them relate to the individuals behind it.
Advertising and promotional stories
Traditional commercials and other advertisements are also classic examples of storytelling marketing.
They often focus on someone with a problem that the business’s offering helps them solve.
Or maybe tell a story of someone who discovers a surprising opportunity through the business.
If you’re thinking of investing in some advertising, don’t just throw your name out there. Shape your video or images around a promotional story. Show how your business makes someone’s world a little bit better.
There are two types of customer stories — the stories about customers and the stories about customers. Clear as mud? Let’s simplify this a bit.
The first type involves stories about customer interactions with your brand. Case studies and other customer triumphs allow you to report your successes. These prove your value to your audience.
The second reinforces the community around your brand even if you’re not at the story’s center. These stories build connections between your audience members, intensifying their brand relationship. Besides, a good way to attract more consumers is to get them to relate to your current base. It sends the message that interesting people like them have a relationship with your business — and maybe they should, too.
Your storytelling marketing needs to focus on the right people. With whom would your customer avatar be friends? Whom would they find influential?
As you identify these individuals among your employees and customers, emphasize the qualities that will engage your audiences. A graphic design firm might spotlight an employee’s artistic flair, or a baby-focused boutique might interview a new mother with relatable anxieties.
Make sure to add details that make these people real and story-worthy. What makes these individuals unique? These are the same things others will find memorable.
Good stories have plots. Things happen. People change.
This is true of even the simplest stories. Let’s say a local restaurant owner heads to the farmer’s market and wants to post about it on Instagram. They can even give this story a clear beginning, middle, and end.
They headed to the market.
They discovered amazing beets.
They added a beet salad to the evening’s specials.
Something happened. An event — the discovery of the beets — changed the restaurant owner’s plans. They can tell the whole tale with a well-captioned picture. They can also follow up, possibly adding a video of the cook preparing the salad. The later post builds on the earlier one, continuing the story that it set up.
Storytelling for marketing should be dynamic. Think of it as the difference between merely pointing to something and showing that thing in action — and as part of a larger world.
Tell your story with the reactions you want to inspire in mind. Do you want people to be amused, moved, outraged?
Some stories demand particular tones, but you can often take a variety of approaches to your material. Unexpected choices can be powerful. A customer’s story about buying a new tee-shirt would most likely be fun and upbeat.
What would happen if you told the story as a melodramatic epic, milking zaniness for comic effect? Or if you took a thoughtful approach that celebrated your shared commitment to eco-friendly practices?
There are countless possible tones — decide on what you want to use as you play with different approaches. Find a blend that suits your brand.
Whereas tone is your attitude, voice is a matter of personality. That said, the two often go hand-in-hand or at least inform one another.
What’s your brand’s personality? Is your brand the primary voice behind the story, or does it belong to someone else, such as a customer?
Storytelling marketing works best when it uses your brand’s authentic voice. Careful craftsmanship helps you show off your personality rather than replace it. Stay true to your style.
Part of marketing storytelling is distributing your story. Where do you want to tell it, and how can you best shape the story to fit that platform? You may want to integrate it into multiple platforms, tweaking it as necessary.
Find the right fit between content and channel. Your Snapchat account may reach a particular demographic, and your email list another. What stories would most appeal to each?
Channels should also inform how you tell your brand’s story. Are you going to put together a series of images, several short tweets, a video, or a blog? Know the formatting requirements for various channels, and adjust accordingly.
Remember that this is a marketing story. What action are you trying to drive through this story? What should your customer do next?
Your call to action (CTA) should clearly relate to the content. If you’re talking about an upcoming fundraiser, get people to sign up or buy tickets. If posting customer reviews about something, link to the appropriate listing.
Be clear and display the CTA prominently. Your audience should never be left wondering what to do next.
These brands do storytelling well. They focus on the people, products, and values that contribute to their brand, engaging their audiences with a variety of approaches.
The Block is a local restaurant with a fun and well-followed Instagram account. They post about events, menu updates, and customer experiences.
Their social media account excels by incorporating different types of content while maintaining brand consistency. But they also find story opportunities that make posts stand out.
Takeaway: Story structure makes your brand communications more memorable and dynamic.
Everlane is a bigger brand, but its mission-focused approach to storytelling fits brands of all sizes. The fashion retailer is all about “radical transparency,” and their website has multiple pages devoted to sustainability.
Everlane’s product storytelling is some of the best around. They tell you exactly what went into making every item they sell. Their website provides a high-level overview and product descriptions loaded with detail about each piece’s material and impact.
They use every channel at their disposal. They even use their packaging to tell stories about each product’s journey on its way to the consumer.
Takeaway: Transparency both builds trust and provides storytelling marketing opportunities.
Mouth, an artisanal food e-tailer, has the tagline: “Small batches. Big stories.” The company presents itself as the master storyteller for its suppliers as well as being their distributor.
Their website collects the stories of dozens of small businesses on the page “Mouth Makers,” but every aspect of their website leads back to these stories. Their product descriptions and blog spotlight the artisans, too.
Mouth doesn’t focus on its own history. It draws on the more compelling tales of the small producers behind the products it offers.
Storytelling isn’t just a possibility for small businesses — it’s where they have the biggest advantage.
How to get started with storytelling marketing
Storytelling marketing allows you to maximize the impact of the stories that belong to every level of your brand. It helps you engage your audiences, making them part of your story.
You have a long list of stories you can tell but start with your brand’s origin story. As you write it down, ask yourself how you can make it more structured, dynamic, and memorable. What details should you highlight to inspire the reaction you want? What will make your audience connect to the tale? Finally, choose a digital marketing platform that will keep you connected and relevant to whom you plan to share your story.
Origin stories can do a lot to introduce your brand, so nail this one first. It’s where all your other stories begin.
Megan Smith has been working as a copywriter since 2018. Since graduating with a doctorate in English literature, she specializes in content for educators. Megan also enjoys crafting content for the fitness and entertainment industries.