Every brand has a story, but some have trouble telling it. From narrative devices to communicating on social media, the art of storytelling is what makes your business human in today's digital age. Learn how to do it effectively with this guide.
In 2014, Keith A. Quesenberry, a Johns Hopkins researcher, successfully predicted which Superbowl Commercial would perform best. Budweiser's 'Puppy Love', in which a golden Labrador with pleading eyes befriends a Clydesdale, delighted audiences with its tale of separation and reunion. It turns out the advert that tells the best story – structurally speaking – nearly always wins.
Quesenberry's research, published in the Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, proved that the content of the ad was basically irrelevant. Rather, it was the structure of that content – the shape of the narrative arc, so to speak – that best predicted success of an advertisement. Essentially, the takeaway is that the way you tell your story is as important as the events within it.
So: what makes stories so powerful? And what sort of formula makes for a good story?
To answer the first question, let’s start with oxytocin, a hormone. Speaking generally, oxytocin is released when we are in the company of people or pets. (You may have heard of it as the hormone that spikes when a woman gives birth, cementing her bond with her child.) This chemical spurs compassionate, cooperative feelings, and lays the neural foundation for all our relationships.
It was once thought that genuine, face-to-face interaction was the only catalyst for oxytocin synthesis. But researchers recently proved this thinking to be wrong.
A study from Berkeley University confirmed that viewers of character-driven stories do release oxytocin. This research shows that the volume of oxytocin detected in the blood of a viewer accurately predicts how likely he or she is to donate money. And other research tells us that a happy ending triggers dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter associated with reward.
In short, our brains are wired to receive narrative. We have an inherent cerebral architecture (essentially, circuits formed in our brains that determine how we interact with the world) that builds connections and generates positive emotions as we listen to stories. We are mentally prepared for stories to work, and even imaginary events produce real physical changes and emotions.
That’s why, for businesses, telling your story well matters. By framing the information you hope to communicate as a story, you are making use of the way humans build understanding of the world. It has the power to attract customers and foster loyalty. Which, by extension, means that stories can fertilise the ground where hearty business growth happens.
Here are four tips to help you tell your story, inspired by an episode of the Business Unusual podcast, our Vodafone series hosted by Claudia Winkleman, the TV presenter, film critic, radio personality, and journalist. In the podcast, Claudia gets to know the "UK's most innovative entrepreneurs behind exciting challenger brands."
Last year, Claudia spoke to Pip Murray, Founder of Pip & Nut, the boutique peanut butter business that has taken supermarket shelves by storm in the UK. Here are four pointers on telling the story of your business extracted from their conversation.
A good narrative distinguishes your business from the competition.
The average person sees between 6,000 and 10,000 advertisements every single day.
To cut through the noise, find something unique about your offering. Ask yourself: What makes your business special? What value do you provide customers beyond your product?
For inspiration, think about those brands with unique appeal – and that develop cult-like followings as a result. Hint: you may be wearing them right now or using their product to view this article.
Again, ask yourself: what do you love about them?
Typically, brand loyalty happens when customers derive a sense of identity or belonging from the product. You know this sort of story: a boutique brand grows first because of its diehard patrons, and eventually this community of like-minded individuals promote the brand by visible devotion.
To achieve this effect, think about what you have in common with your customers, and what sets our business apart from the competition. Then tell a clear story to illustrate it.
Pip, Founder of Pip & Nut, says that what distinguishes her business is its small-batch feel in a crowded space. According to her, when browsing in supermarkets, she found it impossible to avoid palm oil, and that the mass-produced options on offer, in addition to being bad news for Orangutans, were bland, overly processed and unhealthy.
“And I think that's really what kind of set me going really that sort of small niche within what is quite a crowded space…I bought a blender, literally started it in my kitchen and went from there really,” she says.
Pip tells a simple story: she was unhappy with the peanut butter in the supermarket, and so she makes high-quality sustainable stuff herself.
Simple. (And tasty.)
THE TAKEAWAY: Think about what makes your business unique in the eyes of your customers—and what separates you from the competition. This is the foundation of your brand's story.
You have no doubt faced obstacles whilst building your business.
When telling your story, you should see these moments as an opportunity to humanize your brand, and to frame it as a story of success, of getting past a hurdle.
In Quesenberry’s analysis of narrative, he found advertisements that adhered to Freytag’s Pyramid, a story structure first described by Aristotle, performed best. A Freytag's Pyramid diagram illustrates the steps that go into successful storytelling. As noted in the Harvard Business Review, “[Shakespeare] mastered this structure, arranging his plays in five acts to include an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and a dénouement—or final outcome. “In a famous lecture, author Kurt Vonnegut maps out the shapes of stories along an X and Y axis – with similar effect.
Essentially, any story involves characters that you care about who then overcome obstacles.
So, the obstacles you’ve overcome as you’ve built your business aren’t something to shy away from. Rather, they are tools to tell your story in a highly compelling way.
“I think only by failing, do you actually start to understand what you need to do,” says Pip. “Sometimes it’s absolutely a good thing that it happens even if that moment in time it doesn't feel like it.”
What did you overcome? What roadblocks, if any, made you want to give up?
You can share these moments, so long as you frame them as part of a story that resolves with you carrying on, better than before.
When Pip describes her own tribulations, she does so unabashedly, and is sure to find the silver lining. She talks about having to recall all her products from the shelves due to an error at the factory – a mistake that almost sank her.
“We had to pull basically all the products from all the supermarkets that were in so yeah, it wasn't the easiest of times,” Pip says.
“It's funny because you go through those moments where you almost can't see the wood through the trees, and you come out the other side. And it really does make you stronger as a business.”
Pip was transparent about this episode from the start, posting about it on social media and reaching out to customers. By doing so, she was later able to frame her overcoming of this obstacle as a success, rather than a weakness or failure.
THE TAKEAWAY: Storytelling is an opportunity to personalise your brand and connect with your audience. Use narrative devices to shine a light on your journey and the obstacles you've overcome.
Actions speak louder than words.
If you want to be a sustainable business, then you need to start by doing something. Use recycled plastic. Compost your own biodegradable material. Donate a portion of proceeds to a cause that aligns with your product or passion.
Do your research, find out the best way to be what you want to be, and then be it, before you declare anything. You need to live up to how you describe your business for your customers buy in. Puffed-up claims or empty lip service really does ring hollow – and people can tell.
But done right, it does wonders.
Consider the outdoor clothing retailer, Patagonia. Since 1985 the company has pledged 1% of sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment. They’ve also awarded over $89 million in donations to domestic and international grassroots environmental groups making a difference to their communities.
Their customers can buy their products knowing it’s benefiting the planet and local communities. Now how good does that feel.
Once your mission matches your actions you can now think, how can tell my story to customers in an interesting way?
In Pip’s case, she shows she cares for her local community in a simple authentic way. See her Instagram post here about she and her customers teamed up to deliver 6,000 jars of peanut butter to Hackney Foodbank.
Rather than declare that her company cares, Pip shows us that it does.
THE TAKEAWAY: How does your business have a positive impact on the world? If it doesn't, think of ways to make a meaningful contribution. Make it clear by showing, not by telling.
It's no secret that social media is a powerful tool for businesses. You're probably already using it to get your brand out there and connect with new customers, but if you've found yourself struggling to reach the right audience, or feel like your messages aren't really connecting with people, then you might be missing a central ingredient: storytelling.
Storytelling helps you create content that resonates. When people relate to the stories you share, they're more likely to engage with your brand and become loyal customers. Storytelling isn't hard once you know how to do it. Here are some best-practice tips for getting the most out of storytelling on social media:
Make it personal. What's your story? Why did you start this business in the first place? Authentic personal stories can help people connect with your brand on a deeper level.
Keep it real. Don't try too hard to make everything sound professional—when people see that you're authentic, they'll be more likely to trust you and what you have to offer.
Show your personality. Be approachable and conversational, just like when you talk to friends in person—it will make it easier for people to engage with your content.
Make sure that every post has a story behind it. Reach out to customers who love your product and ask them to share their stories on your social media channels. Share posts about other companies you admire or how they've influenced your thinking.
The key to storytelling on social media isn't flashy videos or creative graphics (though those things are nice). It's effective communication. You can communicate effectively with words alone if you choose them carefully, or if you use images like gifs or memes in the right way.
There are many effective ways to tell your story, but there’s no better place to tell it than on social media. With over four billion users, it’s the prime location for your story to meet its new audience.
Below are a few ways you can try it out using visuals, such as video and still photography.
Stories on Instagram and Facebook: These are great tools to tell your story to your audience with snappy and quick content using a mix of stills, quotes, and footage.
Reels on Facebook and Instagram: You can tap into trends and use your brand story to gain a bigger following.
Facebook & Instagram Live: Q&As are a wonderful way to lend your expertise, show off your product and for your audience to find out more about you.
THE TAKEAWAY: There's no better place to share your story than on social media. Think about your brand's narrative and how to convey it. A multi-pronged approach, using different content for different platforms, works best.
For more tips on visual storytelling, check out this guide to Instagram photography for small businesses.
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