Category Archives: Brand Storytelling

The Real Story behind Brand Storytelling (Part 2: HEARTFELT Emotions)

Without a doubt, content strategies are reaching new heights. Brands are not only becoming their own publishers, they are turning to stories to connect emotionally with their audiences.  And as we saw from Part 1 of this series, emotions rule the day. So what kind of stories strike this emotional chord?

Creating H-E-A-R-T-F-E-L-T Emotions that Trigger Content Sharing

An examination of audience reach and engagement leads us to nine story techniques that show the most promise for connecting emotionally. And by connecting through emotions, research suggests that the brand benefits from:

  1. Greater awareness
  2. Quicker grasp of the brand message
  3. More lasting recall
  4. More powerful brand association
  5. Greater opportunity for sharing content

brand storytelling

Humanitarian Acts Tug at the Heart of All Souls

When acts are performed by a person to protect life or human dignity, it rarely goes unnoticed. Like the Parable of the Good Samaritan, stories of personal sacrifice touch us all in a deep way. And when they are based on random acts of kindness or involve personal risk, it summons the compassion in many that long to see fresh glimpses of a benevolent world.

Arguably, it’s among the few story themes whose moral fits almost every culture. And because it follows a familiar story arc involving a hero, obstacles to overcome and a favorable transformation, stories of humanity seem to have universal appeal.

Some great stories of humanity involves brands that stepped up to resolve a food or water shortage.  DuPont stirred the hearts of many in their film showing how their hybrid rice approach helped sustain rice production in Vietnam. 

Similarly, Charity: Water’s role in solving a water crisis gained notoriety through the world. The founder, Scott Harrison’s “Water Changes Everything” story is featured in conferences around the world. The popularity of their videos are testimony to the strong emotions roused when we witness people surviving hardships. 

Exhilaration Tops the List of Positive Emotions

A study of the emotions most likely to generate social video success rated ‘exhilaration’ number one. From scenes of jubilation or ecstasy, this form of emotional connection typically lasts longer and gets shared further than any other form of entertainment.

WestJet’s Christmas Miracle garnered over 200,000 ‘likes’ that brought tears of jubilation to the 35M+ watching unsuspected passengers getting their Christmas wish. The real-time giving turned a fairly unknown airline into a fun and caring brand.  

Others like Red Bull and GoPro went the euphoria route with jumps from the sky that pounded the hearts of audiences sharing the exhilaration. On one notable jump, Felix Baumgartner broke the speed of sound in a 24 mile jump out of a stratospheric balloon that stunned millions. Stories like this inspire us to reach beyond our limits.

Astonishment Dazzles Us with the Spectacular

For centuries, we have marveled over athletes and magicians that entertain us with the “wow” factor. Our fascination with the extremes of beauty, craftsmanship and human potential can especially stir emotions when we take it in with all of our senses. 

Extraordinary Beauty
astonishment in storytelling
Master Craftsmanship
astonishment in storytelling
Incredible Human Potential

Rebelliousness Let’s Us Escape from Our Roots

A common story form used by brands today taps into our rebelliousness natures. Consider how this was done by The Pioneer Woman as a way to encourage other women to escape from their uneventful life styles. Others like the Mini Cooper appeal to those trying to stand out as they make the case that “normal is not amazing.”

In her book, The Fortune Cookie Principle, Bernadette Jiwa discusses the mystique of the Vespa and the joy of riding uninhibited with the wind in your hair. “To these people, the Vespa was a style statement that helped them to feel like they could escape their own working-class roots. (p. 105).”  

Another technique involves an appeal to independent thinkers. This is done well by Virgin Atlantic as well as Nike in their Nike Girl Effect videos.

Tenderhearted Moments Bring Tears to the Eyes

One way to connect your audience through emotions is through tear jerking stories. Many stories went viral on YouTube when they featured sentimental memories in scenes of puppy love, cute romances and nostalgic connections.


Stories that cry out for animal care or reveal families reuniting can especially provoke a tenderhearted emotion. Hallmark, Google and BERNAS all use this story technique in very dramatic ways.

Similarly, tears of pride can stir an emotional response. Tributes to our heritage can foster a community bond that runs deep and lasts long. Consider how New Zealand mustered up team spirit while reaching millions with their “Haka War Dance” and “This is Not a Jersey.”


Following 911, Budweiser’s commemoration to New York City led to YouTube video shares in the millions. Other stories, like Volkswagen, tap into these tenderhearted moments with their farewells to the good old days.  

Feeling Savvy Fuels a Sudden Glory

Another way to provoke emotions with our brand stories is to poke fun of bureaucratic institutions.  This often leads us to a feeling of ‘sudden glory’ as we bask in the sunlight of our superior choices.

Oftentimes, we revel in our removal of unnecessary middle men. Consider, for example, how Amazon makes an emotional connection with us by removing retailers who stand in the way of efficiency. Similarly, Nespresso, Warby Parker, Zappos, and Spanx all represent cases where audiences celebrate their “feeling savvy” from saving money.

One of the most viral of videos in this domain are the razor blade putdowns sponsored by Dollar Shave Club. One of their videos reached 13M views as an amateur acting host describes how their more sensible approach to purchasing razors avoids unnecessary overhead costs.

This “feeling savvy” story-line technique especially works well when aimed at the socially irresponsible or artificial foods. Brands like Bahen & Co. and Chobani tap into our desire for real natural ingredients. By reaching 2.6 million views on YouTube, Chobani’s Bear Game Day Commercial is a testimony to this story telling effect on our emotions.

Encouragement Comes from Witnessing Turnarounds

Audiences, for example, love to witness a remarkable turnaround. Consider how popular Marcus Sheridan became after turning around a near bankrupt swimming pool company to a world leading installer of fiber glass pools. His story resembles that of David and Clare Hieatt, who resurrected legendary jeans brand, Hiut Denim.   

Other stories that rouse emotions through encouragement are those involving life-altering choices. Weight Watchers and Splenda do this in their stories of living healthy or losing weight.  

Legendary Sentiments Tap into Better Times

Following the saddened demise of Detroit’s car business, Chrysler’s YouTube video tribute to the Motorcity reached millions. Like other legendary stories, tributes like this rouse our emotions from a sense of pride and longing to return to better days. The NFL and Budweiser often use these story techniques as a way to rekindle our ties with the past.

Microsoft’s ‘Child of the 90s’ Internet Explorer ad is a sentimental trip back to when Gen Y’s appreciated a simpler, slower and more affordable life. The fact that it reached over 50 million views attests to the power of stories that are reminiscent of better days. 

Triumphant Against all Odds Makes us Thankful

Everyone loves the success story of an overachiever. And like any story of triumph, we pull for an underdog or a handicapped individual to overcome their obstacles.

But we also experience a moment of truth when realizing our lives have been spared against all odds. Chevy and the American Cancer Society celebrated survivors of cancer as well as those who support them on the road to recover. Their 2014 Super Bowl commercial reached 1.7 million views in just three weeks.

Knowing this could happen to all of us, it is easy to live vicariously through the grateful hearts of the triumphant.

So what other brand storytelling techniques do you feel are effective in striking an emotional chord?

Stay tuned for “The Real Story Behind Brand Storytelling (Part III: HEARTFELT Elements)”



The Real Story behind Brand Storytelling (Part 3: HEARTFELT Elements)

Few would debate the success that stories have on legendary brands. According to Seth Godin: Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell.” 

From Disney to Apple, Coca Cola and Chipotle, we have seen the power of storytelling in providing emotional connections that supersede the best of any product facts and figures.  But how can entrepreneurs adopt stories that have real traction?

From Part 1, we found that storytelling lives up to its hype as a competitive advantage in the growing clutter of content overload. It creates a lasting emotional bond with fans by permitting a brand’s personality to shine through the eyes of the audience. And by connecting emotionally, stories are more easily remembered and shared than value propositions. Much of this is the result of a new consumer seeking ways to connect to “what brands stand for.”

Part 2 pointed out the effective ways brands have developed stories that truly strike an emotional chord. 

In this latest part, we explore the elements of storytelling that entrepreneurs should consider in designing their own content strategies.

Design H-E-A-R-T-F-E-L-T Stories

Common to stories cited in the brand and content marketing field is a narrative that inspires audiences to consider a change in their behaviors.  And although the emotions elicited by the best of brand stories vary widely, the elements of HEARTFELT storytelling are fairly consistent. 

brand story

Heroes, Villains, Mentors and Moral

Common to the effective brand stories shared in Part 2 are the story characters that permit a dramatic narrative. For a story to be relatable, it should feature your customers as heroes cast against villains standing in their way of living a better life.

Chipotle’s campaigns casts a scarecrow as a superhero that represents socially responsible and healthy eaters. The hero is up against greedy farmers seeking to exploit hormone injected cows. In their fight against these villains, Buck Marshall of the Industrial Food Image Bureau, invites us on his crusade against harmful farming practices.


Chipotle’s Hero Struggles Against Greedy Farmers

As the protagonist in Farmed and Dangerous, Buck exposes the criminality of farming with scenes of exploding cows. But like most great stories, he serves as a mentor guiding us through a “hero journey” toward “cultivating a better world.” Without these roles, the story follower has little involvement in a promising outcome. This is why brand stories are better left with audiences driving their own conclusions than brands “telling” them what to do.

Episodes of Themed Micro-Content

Weaving stories into content is much like casting a TV series over a season of episodes. Most TV narratives have an overarching theme played out in part by each episode. But much like each series episode, you can’t convey an entire story in each piece of content you post.

Great stories adopt themes that are consistently applied to each episode. In Geico’s caveman series, a theme of “easiness” was played out in the form of “disrespected cretins.” Each episode featured one more bout of disrespect. The same episodic style should apply to any micro-content (e.g., blogs, ebooks, etc.) covered under the banner of a brand story. Each episode should stand on its own merits while supporting an overarching moral to or changed life experience from the entire story.


Geico’s Episodes Carried a Common Theme

Affirmative Value for an Audience’s Life Choices

Filmmaker Andrew Stanton attributes our love for stories to their affirmative value. He claims that an effective story is one where the audience sees the storylines and characters as similar to their own. This connection not only creates a bond of shared values, it validates the reader’s own life choices. 


More than just a checklist of buying criteria, stories we like should have real meaning to the point that it actually shapes an audience’s perception of value.  In effect, the story connects to an audience’s own narrative. It is at this point that the storyteller has an opportunity to persuade the audience with its brand ideas.


Relevance to Audience Needs

But to truly understand an audience’s own narrative, the story itself has to be relevant to something the audience needs. Without this, the story merely becomes an episode of entertainment. It’s when a story makes sense to other people’s lives that it gains real traction. This can often be done by relating with your audience how your company overcame a similar challenge facing the audience.

Consider how Apple’s and Virgin’s story of reaching beyond the norm resonates with independent thinkers who thrive on raising the bar. Much of the success in attracting their followers has to do with Steve Job’s and Richard Branson’s penchant for overcoming odds. Similarly, Ree Drummond likely attracted millions of women to her Pioneer Women blog that shared her desire to escape their hectic and complex urban lives.

Trusted Source

A fundamental tenet of any great brand story relates to its influence on audiences to trust the story teller. Creative brand strategist, Mark Di Somma, perhaps said it best:  

“…The story has to come from a credible source – buyers need to know the storyteller can be trusted. Your story needs to be consistent with the receiver’s understanding of you because the person telling the story is in a position of trust. They have control of the narrative. To me, this is the make or break of storytelling. If we don’t believe the storyteller, we’ll never believe the story. Southwest Airlines have been telling a wacky story about loving to fly for decades. They absolutely walk the talk…”

-          Mark Di Somma

brand storytelling

Familiar Story Arc and Brand Connection

At the heart of every great story is a narrative arc that includes a beginning, a middle and an end. Normally obstacles are placed in the path of the hero so as to advance the story across episodes of adversity. Where brands can especially capitalize on this story arc format is in their Origin Story. Part 2 demonstrated a number of stories where entrepreneurs overcome adversity in their early stages of growth or during a turnaround.

brand stories

Origin, Product and Customer Stories

The same portrayal of struggles can be harvested in customer stories that highlight the worries facing customers. In the case of product stories, this adversity presents an opportunity for the brand storyteller to bleed the pain of their audience. 

Key to any effective brand story is its tie to the brand message. Duracell’s video of NFL player Derrick Coleman’s struggle with hearing  tied very well to the battery company’s “Trust Your Power” theme. 


Duracell’s Trust Your Power Story Ties Well With Brand Intentions

Finally, great stories require a meaningful purpose often translated into a “moral of the story.” Chipotle unfolded a story of greed and animal abuse in the context of farming for cheaper food. But in the end, audiences are easily convinced that organic farming and sustainability pays off.

Emotional Content to Inspire Action

What separates a business story from the facts and figures associated with brand’s product promises is its ability to tap into an audience’s beliefs, passions, sympathies or sentiments. And evidence shows that this type of connection has greater impact on both brand awareness and loyalty.

Brand Stories

Great Stories Inspire Action

“…When you tell a great story, people connect with you emotionally and want to get to know you. You become likeable…”

-          Dave Kerpan

But the key to making this emotional connection is first recognizing that audiences want to connect with something important or of a higher purpose.  If a brand’s story can accomplish this, audiences can be “inspired to act” as opposed to “convincing them to act” from product or service claims.

Language of the Audience’s Story

“…To make a connection with customers and prospects online we need to tell stories that build empathy, create curiosity, evoke emotions and establish a sense of community…”

-          John Gregory Olson

The right story has to be the audience’s story. Common to the narratives highlighted in Part 2 of this series is a storyline that speaks the language of the audience. In effect, the story empathizes with the audience’s situation to a point where audiences see themselves in the story. A great example of this is the Story of Kate offered by Sprint Small Business Solutions.

Transform Audiences into Wiser People

Like any story, an objective of a brand story is to shape audience decisions and change their behaviors through a series of episodes. An effective story arc essentially sets the stage for meeting an unmet desire of the audience with a product that transforms their lives.

And to do this effectively, the hero must face numerous setbacks as their journey plays out. Story arcs typically advance the hero from a low point to the removal of obstacles in their path. If handled effectively, the hero gets transformed into a wiser creature as they triumphantly face adversity.

 “…The end of a narrative arc is the denouement. It shows what happens as a result of all the conflict that the characters have gone through…”

-          Author Jenna Blum, The Author at Work, 2013

 Brand storytelling

So what other elements of a brand story do you find effective in your content strategies?












The Real Story Behind Brand Storytelling (Part 1: HEARTFELT Impacts)

“…For years, she fashioned herself as a fast tracking, glamorous woman from Los Angeles. After 25 years of city life, the stage was set for a cosmopolitan lawyer to hob-knob in the country club settings of corporate America…”


Do you believe the hype surrounding brand storytelling? It is highlighted in dozens of 2014 social media predictions as the key to standing out in a noisy world of content. The following first of a three part series explains why brand storytelling can build an emotional connection with your content audiences.


“…One day when paying a visit to her childhood hometown in the American Midwest, Marlboro Man captured her glance. Soon after, she found herself in the arms of a cowboy who would be the father of her four children. Her black heels turned to tractor wheels as she rode into the sunset with a slow-talking, easy-going cattle rancher.”

Pioneer Women Story

Ladd Drummond & Lee Drummond, The Pioneer Woman

“Once Upon a Time” Content Marketing Explosion

This prairie-tale romance led to Ree Drummond’s story as The Pioneer Woman, an award-winning American blogger and a No. 1 New York bestselling author. Now the wife of cowboy, Ladd Drummond, her story attracted 1.4 million Facebook Likes and a blog reaching over 30 million page views a month while earning millions of dollars annually from display advertising.

What fascinates Ree’s readers are her stories of ranch life and home schooling that feature real country-life characters. Her home page persona essentially implies that those dreaming of being lassoed by a cowboy should follow her story of city girl turned country gal. 

Ree Drummond Persona

Ree Drummond’s Persona Epitomizes the Sensibilities of Country Living

Ree Drummond, The Pioneer Woman, represents a style of storytelling where alter egos long for the freedom to escape their hectic lifestyle roots into a more sensible and care free world. Much like the “la dolce vita” persona of Vespa owners or the rebellious demeanor of Harley Hogs, she appeals to an audience longing to let loose of their complex and regimental lifestyles.

But what about B2B content? Is there really any place for storytelling? Consider the way hundreds of business schools and thousands of operations managers learned about the Theory of Constraints. This popular management philosophy was introduced by storyteller, Eliyahu Goldratt in his 1984 book titled “The Goal.”

Eliyahu Goldratt Story

Eliyahu Goldratt’s “The Goal” Used a Story to Sell 3+ Million Copies

Can you ever imagine a college textbook that you could not put down?

Eli’s sale of over 3 million copies and a movie is testimony to the power of story when solving production problems. Written as a suspenseful piece of fiction, Eli hooks his reader into an episodic work of adventure juxtaposed with his marital life. The main character, Alex, has a mentor, Jonah, who helps him solve the company problems and his marital challenges. 

What’s Behind the Brand Storytelling Hype?

Hardly a social media prediction went by this past year that did not mention brand storytelling as among the top trends to watch in 2014. Brands are jumping on this bandwagon as a way to connect with their audiences on an emotional level – and for good reason. We are being bombarded with so much content that many brands see the emotional route as perhaps the only way to standout.

Building an Emotional Connection

So why storytelling? Let’s start with the concepts most often used to create an emotional connection with our content. For content to provoke an emotional response, it helps to have entertaining value. Our own study of the top 15 ways to creating entertaining content found commercials involving astonishment, heartfelt moments, sentimental humor, put-downs and performing arts to score extremely well on engagement.

entertaining content

Six of Fifteen Entertaining Concepts Tap Into Emotions

Besides entertainment, humanizing and personalizing content also creates an emotional attachment as audiences credit our empathy as being oriented to their personal needs. Having an authentic voice, in a context that involves our audiences, is a great start towards connecting at an emotional level.  

And by creating content in a visual format, audiences can quickly see a connection to our brand’s message hopefully in the context of their own experiences. In essence, we are telling rather than selling so that audiences grasp ideas over product pitches.

Adding Compelling Narratives for Brand Recall, Involvement and Inspiration

But storytelling not only combines personalization, involvement and entertainment, it provides an opportunity for brands to inspire audiences. By offering a persuasive narrative, equipped with a hero, a conflict and eventual resolution of the conflict, audiences can become part of the storyline.

brand story

Stories inspire audiences to live vicariously through your brand’s story

If done right, the story could hook audiences into an anticipation for upcoming episodes while creating a growing connection with the stories protagonist. Over time, the brand is seen as providing something meaningful to the audiences’ own challenges.

And this can be done without pitching product features or directing your audience on what to do. It’s done by allowing the audience to live vicariously through your brand’s story; which, according to Dave Kerpan, is the secret to making a brand likeable

Without a compelling narrative to capture your brand’s vision and personality, personalized messaging and entertainment merely offer moments of attention and engagement. To be remembered, however, audiences need repeated doses of emotional lift often brought about from ongoing episodes and a story-line that resonates with their own life challenges.

Stories Abound in the Age of Information Overload

So how far have we come in adopting brand stories?  In our study of the Top 15 Ways to Create Entertaining Content, over 50 high performing videos (> 50,000 views) released in the past few years were found to involve some form of brand storytelling. This included 30-60 second slice-of-life narratives as well as plotted story-lines.

Since then, we have seen numerous releases of the 2-5 minute brand story captured in animated storylines and mini-films, many of which garnered millions of views.  This longer-form release captures the true essence of storytelling. Some great examples include:

  1. TSB: The Story
  2. Glenlivet’s Brand Story
  3. Chipotle’s Back to the Start and The Scarecrow 
  4. Nikon Brand Story “THE DAY”
  5. WestJet’s Christmas Miracle
  6. Jose Cuervo
  7. Dove Real Beauty Sketches
  8. Google Chrome: Dear Sophie
brand stories

Growing Popularity of Long-Form Brand Stories

Storied Content Sponsored by Brands

But this year, we have seen the adoption of brand stories in multi-episode web productions like Chipotle’s Farmed and Dangerous, Chanel ‘s Reincarnation, Sony Cracker’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee shown during the Super Bowl, and the Brotherhood Pilot presented by Esquire TV and Chivas. The high performance success of these native advertisements shows early signs that branded entertainment may be a powerful vehicle to create brand stories.

web brand stories

Emergence of Brand Stories in Multi-Episode Web Productions

Common to this long-form storyline is a musical journey into the brand’s roots often leading to obstacles, a perseverance to overcome and a moral to the story (e.g., Chipotle’s call to cultivate a better world).

Brand Stories Adoption will Accelerate

But the growing trend towards brand stories does not just include mini-series productions and slice-of-life narratives recast on YouTube. The concept of using storytelling is now be applied to web design, podcasts, imagery and even data.

What’s fueling the rapid adoption of brand storytelling is incredible content overload hitting social channels. We are now producing enough content to explain why 90% of the world’s data ever produced was created in the last two years 

Brand stories offer an option to distinguish yourself from the noise. By provoking feelings and emotions, stories stand a greater chance of reaching prospects at the awareness stage of their buying cycle. And by allowing audience’s to easily visualize a brand’s vision, stories have a better shot at conveying meaning to an audience’s own pain points. Add to that the more lasting impact that visual storytelling has than factual-based messages; and you can see why stories resonate more in an age of information overload.


Information Overload Demanding Stories with Heartfelt Connections

Brands are also recognizing in a bigger way how their unique personality can distinguish their content from that of their competition. Ample evidence shows that audiences seek connection with an authentic brand voice whose values resonate with their own. This emotional connection overrides even the most powerful of value propositions especially at a time where trust in messages is at an all-time low.

Finally, brands are seeing how they can strike an emotional chord with their target personas from the vast amount of big data characterizing their audiences. Today’s marketer has sufficient profile and behavioral data to craft a brand story that truly resonates with their followers.

So be prepared for the incessant “Once Upon a Time” approaches to content strategies as brands seek to distinguish themselves with a lasting emotionally connection. Boardroom meetings may even occur around a campfire previewing their latest “Tale of Two Budgets.”

Part II Storytelling

So do you buy into this trend towards storytelling as a mainstream content strategy? Or do you think it will only create a new wave of content saturation?

Stay tuned for “The Real Story Behind Brand Storytelling (Part II: HEARTFELT Emotions)”