The power of brand storytelling, and why it matters
Ric NavarroView bio
In 1891, Dr James Naismith was assigned to teach a physical education class at a Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) training school in Springfield, Massachusetts. The class had a reputation for being disorderly, so Naismith was asked to invent a new game to keep the young men occupied. It was December, and the winter cold steered Naismith to create a game that could be played indoors.
Naismith thought back to his childhood in Canada where he played ‘duck on a rock’, a game that involved trying to knock a large rock off a boulder by throwing smaller rocks at it. He also recalled watching rugby players in a gymnasium tossing a ball into a box. His idea was to merge elements of these games. He wanted to nail boxes, above head level, into which players would attempt to throw a ball. When he couldn’t find boxes, he used peach baskets.
And so, basketball was invented.
This is the condensed story of the origins of basketball. Chances are you’ll remember the story, or at least the key facts, and recount it to others. You’re also more likely to remember this story as presented above, than if it were outlined in bullet points.
Why? Evolution has hardwired our brains for storytelling.
Since our ancestors etched their first cave paintings and passed down parables around campfires, telling stories has been one of humanity’s most fundamental methods of communication.
Research has shown that the human brain likes to encode, store, and retrieve information in narrative form. Brain scans have revealed what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor, or an emotional exchange between characters.
In a 2016 study published in NeuroImage, researchers in Spain asked participants to read words with strong odour associations together with neutral words. While they did this, their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. When subjects looked at the Spanish words for ‘perfume’ and ‘coffee’, their primary olfactory cortex lit up.
Language has the power to activate the brain, and storytelling is the medium by which this stimulus is achieved. But how can today’s brands harness this potential?
The first step in developing a company’s core story is unlocking the company’s reason for being, its purpose - the ‘why’.
This brand purpose needs to address both head and heart, and it must clearly – and succinctly – capture why the organisation matters: one that reinforces to clients they are making a wise choice; one that enables employees to feel they make a tangible difference, every day; and one that convinces stakeholders of long-term sustainable growth.
If brand purpose is the foundation that underpins today’s successful brands, then brand storytelling is the glue that binds it together. Brands that understand this cognitive process are harnessing the power of brand storytelling.
Experts from Stanford University tell us that stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone.
Such is the power of a brand story that it forms a foundation upon which growth strategies are built. The best, and most consistent storytellers, enjoy a higher percentage of repeat clients, long-term sustained brand growth, and improved internal engagement.
Businesses have begun to understand the importance of storytelling in building an emotional bond with their customers and their employees. Savvy marketers regard storytelling as an indispensable tool for activating and making the company’s DNA visible.
But why should brands bother to ‘tell’ a story?
Consider this question through the lens of an old Indian proverb:
“Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe.
But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”
Authentic brand stories demystify company culture by making it real and relevant. Complex descriptors suddenly become simplified across functional areas and markets. A compelling brand story allows organisations to translate the company culture, regardless of departments, products, and services. It is a genuine representation of the company’s ethos.
Companies that fail to capitalise on the emotional currency of their brands through storytelling – and continue to compete on product and price alone – are more likely to lose competitive advantage and market share.
An alignment of company culture and brand purpose – having the same set of values and beliefs lived internally and promoted externally – is the bedrock of an authentic brand.
It means the same stories are shared by employees, clients, and stakeholders – stories that are consistent with their own experience of the company. The true power comes from consistency, relevance, and authenticity in the narrative.
Successful brands use storytelling to celebrate their people, their clients, and their purpose. Outdoor apparel brand Kathmandu does this brilliantly in a 90-second ‘who we are’ video that showcases the people behind the brand. They are the brand advocates reinforced by their ethos, ‘Our view of the world comes from our people’.
Brands increasingly find themselves associated with societal issues such as action on the climate emergency. Clients, employees, and even media demand to know their stance. In today’s consumer empowered economy, storytelling becomes a powerful tool for companies to cut through corporate jargon and articulate how they intend to make a positive difference.
Brand storytelling isn’t about selling. It’s crafting memorable moments that engage the hearts and minds of your clients. For true success, it comes down to three words: tell, don’t sell.
This article is an extract from the book ‘Marketing with Purpose: a C-Suite guide to being truly customer-centric’ authored by Ric Navarro. Published 2019 by MWP Press.
1. Your Brain on Fiction, By Annie Murphy Paul, NY Times, 2016