3 Brand Storytelling Secrets the Big Guys Don’t Want You to Know

You’ve heard the term brand storytelling so many times, it’s probably starting to sound meaningless to you. It’s definitely  been used around the Explainify HQ a few (thousand) times in the past few years.

But, buzzword or not, we are totally unapologetic about the power of story… and you should be too.

Here’s why.

According to a Johns Hopkins University study, whether or not your content is structured as a narrative can be way more critical to the success of an ad than the content itself.

Brand storytelling positively influences the way people feel about your company better than any other method. And if you can make people feel the way you want them to feel, their behavior will follow. In other words, purchasing is simply a natural response to how your marketing makes consumers feel about your brand. While this post isn’t about the finer points of behavioral economics, it serves the point.

The world’s biggest brands are successful, in part, because they get storytelling. They know how to sweep their audience up in a narrative that’s bigger than them, that has meaning for them. And frankly, these big brands would just as soon you don’t learn how to tell stories like they do.

Related: 4 Ways Video Marketing Helps Dominate Your Objectives

Unfortunately for them, we’re here to show you how.

We’re calling these tips “storytelling secrets,” but really, much of the intel around this topic is common sense. Tell the truth, have personality, create characters and/or personas that your target audience can relate to. This is good advice, but we wouldn’t really classify these tips as “secrets”. However, they’re so often forgotten by brands in so many industries, they might as well be.

So, let’s take a look at some of the best brand storytelling open secrets out there.

Ancient Structure for Modern Brands

While your goal may not be to produce the next Hamlet, Citizen Kane, or Star Wars, your brand story should share a few basic similarities with these classics.

One way to think about the framework underlying all great stories is the use of Acts. In fact, the basic 5 Act structure has been used by the best stories for about 2500 years or so – and it’s still going strong.

You may feel like this is something you should have left behind in high-school English, but if you want to captivate your audience until the end – listen up. Here is how dramatic structure translates to the world of brand storytelling:

Act One: Entice your audience. Draw them in from the start with something worth sticking around to see it play out. The ancient playwrights called it “in medias res”, which is Latin for “in the middle of things.” Draw them into your story and make them wonder where you’re headed.

Act Two: P>resent the problem(s) that are common to your customers as the “evil villain”. If you’re an athletics company, the villain is your audience’s limitations. If you’re a SaaS startup, the villain might be something as (seemingly) minor as siloed communications between teams.

Act Three: Bring your story to a climax with the raw pain points of dealing with those villains. Remind your audience of how frustrating their obstacles are, without making them feel hopeless. As we’ll see in Act Four, there’s light at the end of the tunnel!

Act Four: This is where the hero (your viewer) finds the solution (your solution) and things start to take a turn for the better. It’s important to remember that your customer is the hero – not you. Your product is simply their Excalibur, the tool they’ll use to vanquish the enemy and achieve their goals.

Act Five: The villain is defeated through the newly discovered power of your newly discovered customer. That’s a happy ending, yo!

If you treat you next ad, explainer video, or an entire marketing campaign like an epic play you may find yourself rocking your story. And when this dramatic/narrative formula is used really well – it feels anything but formulaic.

Related: 3 Companies Who Are Absolutely Rocking Their Brand Story

Don’t believe us? Check out this video by Nike, profiling the runner Mo Farah.

All five Acts are featured in this 90-second spot: We’re thrown into the middle of things (Act 1), and we’re introduced to our hero (Act 2), who has plenty of obstacles to overcome (Acts 3-4), but we’re given hope that he’ll achieve victory in the end (Act 5).

A Little Bit of Mystery Goes a Long Way

At Explainify, we think it’s important to create clarity around your brand story. So obviously, creating ads conveying your UVP with crystal clarity is the single most important thing you can do, right?

Well, yes and no. While it is crucial to convey your story with clarity, sometimes less really is more.

As human beings, we have an innate desire for mystery. And if you’ve read Oren Klaff’s Pitch Anything, you know this is because our pre-rational brains deeply crave novelty. If we are presented with information that we already know, our brains are happy to shut off and stop listening – but if we hear something new and unexpected, we’ll give of our attention long enough to see what’s going on.

This is why M. Night Shyamalan’s movies are so compelling (except for The Happening, of course); people watch his films with bated breath because they know there’s a twist coming – but because they don’t know what exactly that twist will be, they’re hooked from the opening scene.

It’s also why you should weave a bit of mystery into your brand story. Rather than telling your audience everything they need to know up front, give your audience a trail of bread crumbs to follow. Captivate them with your company’s mission, then invite them to dig deeper to learn what you’re actually offering them.

Related: Why You’re Not Educating Your Audience Right (and 4 Ways to Start)

Of course, you also can’t make your audience work too hard. Mystery is a balancing act between giving people enough information to keep them moving forward, but not enough to satisfy their curiosity all at once.

Mystery within your brand storytelling is the key to drawing people deeper and deeper into your world. While we could go into the finer points of revealing your message slowly for maximum effect, we’ll defer to Mr. Mystery himself (J.J. Abrams). Below you’ll find a video of his fantastic Ted talk explaining the value of this tactic.

Features Never Win. Seriously.

Boil down the greatest tales in history and you will find a similar story structure underlying each of them, but that doesn’t mean they’re all copying each other. In fact, sometimes key elements of different stories might be nearly identical – but they are still entertaining. For example, in 4 of the 7 Star Wars films a little ship is used to fly into a big weapon and blow it up.

What does that have to do with brand storytelling? Glad you asked.

Everyone’s heard of “New Coke”, right? It was a massive failure for Coca-Cola.

But why? 53% of people preferred the taste of New Coke to Pepsi. So how could it have flopped so miserably?

Okay, so there are a ton of reasons why New Coke didn’t work, including the fact that most consumers liked the original recipe better. But one reason it flopped is because Coke failed to tell a compelling story around the product, as seen in the 1985 ad below.

Coca-Cola took decades of good feelings and associations people had made with their product… and tried to replace them with facts. But proving statistically that people prefer your product over another can never substitute for a great story.

If there had been a cute polar bear or a famous football player involved, we may still be drinking New Coke. The takeaway here is that a great story really and truly trumps facts – every time. So next time you’re about to bust out your spec sheet, ask yourself: What is the underlying, overarching story that gives my product features meaning. What’s going to make people care about this information?

Of course, there are so many facets to incredible brand storytelling, and this post only scratches the surface. But if you can tap into the power of storytelling – by harnessing dramatic structure, making it about more than your features, and keeping a bit of mystery in the mix – you’ll be well on your way.

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