How not to tell your brand's story

Brand storytelling: it’s old news, but it’s not going anywhere. In the age of information overload, it could be the only way to make your business stand out. It has been estimated that, on average, we see 5,000 marketing messages and consume 100,500 digital words every day.

We scroll and scan our way through them, desperate for something we actually want to read. Something that engages us, that isn’t just marketing noise. We’re looking for really great stories - and many discerning brands are happy to oblige.

Look at Stories from the Airbnb Community on the superstar start-up’s website. It’s hard to imagine a more overt testament to the supremacy of stories in business. Stories about real people, emotions and experiences. And we’re hardwired to love them.

Neural coupling: the science of story

Research suggests that our natural human response to stories affects both the sensory and motor cortices of our brains. If we are engaged with a story, we feel it as an experience as well as participating with it mentally. Scientists call this neural coupling. Groundbreaking work at Princeton University shows that the brain of someone receiving a story actually synchronises with the brain of the storyteller. Successful neural coupling enhances comprehension and receptivity - which in turn generates that most precious commodity: trust.

Stories that build trust

To connect with a reader, a story must reflect their values. It needs characters they can relate to, problems that really exist, and narratives that ring true.

So for a moment, forget everything you’ve heard about what makes a good story, whether that’s the 5Ws, the 4Es, or simply beginning, middle and end. Focus instead on creating a connection - because only then can your story drive emotional engagement and, ultimately, make a difference to your bottom line.

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How not to do it

The somewhat startling rebrand of Siemens’ healthcare business as Siemens Healthineers in 2016 is a brilliant example. A video of the launch event [below] was widely mocked online. One commentator described it as "a writhing, Spandex-clad horror" and "possibly the most embarrassing corporate rebranding event ever".

But a company statement shows that Siemens had indeed given consideration to their brand story: "The new brand underlines Siemens Healthcare’s pioneering spirit and its engineering expertise in the healthcare industry…". What they hadn’t thought about were their customers.

Nick Reese, a marketing strategist and start-up advisor, explains: "I think it’s important for a brand not to consider the story they’re telling, but instead examine and fully understand the story their customer is living and how their customer’s experience with their brand will shape that customer’s story."

Read: The Dollar Shave Club guide to storytelling 

Positioning power

According to Reese, your goal in creating a brand story is to position yourself in one (or more) of four categories in the eyes of your ideal audience: inspire them, challenge them, educate them, or get them emotionally charged. He cites GoPro as an example of great brand interaction and story: "The focus isn’t put on the brand or the product; instead the entire experience is focused on the user and what the product allows them to achieve."

Customer as hero

"When GoPro first arrived on the scene, it literally made its users look like a hero," Reese explains. "Back when they launched, it was hard to capture great video of extreme sports, but GoPro’s product made it easy. It made it easy to capture, easy to share, but most importantly, their cameras gave viewers the point of view of the user… of the hero."

The Healthineers Song

Storytelling for fun and profit

Another story that Reese agrees ticks all the boxes is the Ice Bucket Challenge, a social media campaign that raised awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and millions of dollars for The ALS Association: "I think it is a great story, incredibly well engineered. The best part is the challenge aspect of it."

Reese’s 'Storytelling for fun and profit' gives more advice about crafting brand stories. He advises against following formulas like the 5Cs or the 4Es: "Unless you’re planning a major multi-year campaign, it is likely overkill".

What he says is important is making your story matter - for which you need conflict. "Conflict doesn’t just have to be interpersonal," he adds. "It can be any sort of struggle."

A last word of caution: patience

Talking of struggles, you don’t need a marketing strategist - or, indeed, corporate technologist Gunther Sonnenfeld - to tell you that building brand value through storytelling doesn’t happen overnight. But, as Sonnenfeld observes, "Better stories lead to better communication and better experiences, which ultimately result in better sales." So, do it right, and it will be worth the time and effort.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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