Brand storytelling: What is it, who is doing it, and how you can do it too

Who’s your favourite storyteller? Dickens? Tolkien? Jobs?


That’s right, the late, great Steve Jobs wasn’t just a tech visionary. The temperamental former hippie was also a master raconteur who understood the power of a well-told story.

From his legendary product launches (in which he took us on winding journeys of anticipation, intrigue and revelation) to the Stanford commencement speech he gave in 2005, Jobs was a master of the storytelling art – and perhaps one of the best storytellers the corporate arena has ever known.

His ability to weave a narrative may not be the only reason Apple is the world’s most valuable company (there are many ingredients to that particular cocktail of success), or why you can’t go five metres without seeing an iDevice in someone’s pocket and why, upon hearing news of his death, the President of the free world, Barack Obama, said Jobs “changed the way each of us see the world”: but it certainly helped.

Jobs might be a fine example of someone who uses storytelling techniques to increase brand equity (little known fact: telling stories is in his blood – Jobs’ biological sister is an acclaimed novelist), but there’s no reason your brand can’t utilise the same storytelling techniques and achieve the same results. Albeit most likely on a lesser scale – I’m not promising you’ll be the next Apple!

The words ‘once upon a time’ tap into human memory and experience in a way marketers can only dream of. Image courtesy of Une Photos

Stories take many forms. But the really great stories, the ones you’ll remember well into retirement, share a few key ingredients:

  • authenticity
  • a clear message
  • they paint a picture with words (or these days with actual pictures, or sound, and even interactivity)
  • relevance (to its intended audience)
  • the ability to engage

These are the marks not only of a great story, but of a great marketing strategy. When you combine effective storytelling with the digital medium you get a potent mixture of the world’s best method of connecting with people and the most efficient avenue for mass dissemination ever created.

A 2007 study by Jennifer Edson Escalas, a marketing researcher at Vanderbilt University, revealed that product advertisements in the form of a story produced more positive reactions in people than when those same ads were presented as an upfront list of the facts. The lesson here is that people are hard-wired to remember a story – especially an engaging one – better than facts or figures (no matter how compelling Dave from Finance assures you they are).

When Nike hired filmmaker Casey Neistat to come up with a set of commercials to support the brand’s #makeitcount campaign they had no idea Neistat would instead spend the budget on a globetrotting adventure with his friend, Max Joseph. Instead of delivering a traditional commercial the filmmaker embraced storytelling, creating a four-and-a-half minute video that became a viral pandemic.

What do you think people are more likely to remember? Neistat’s exciting adventure clip, or a list of features about the latest Nike jogger? Exactly. (You can watch and read more about the ‘Make it Count’ video at Mashable.)

So what does this mean for you? It means it’s time to take a leaf out of Jobs’ and Neistat’s books and begin harnessing the power of storytelling to engage and attract customers to your brand.

At Edge, we’re always discovering new stories of innovation, breakthrough and success in our work with clients. Chances are, if you take the time to look, you’ll find similar opportunities within your own organisation; great stories that are waiting to be told by you.

Steve Slaunwhite at understands the potential of conveying a message through storytelling:

Storytelling can be used in just about any type of copywriting. In fact, whenever you have to describe how a product works, bring a benefit to life, explain a feature, tout an advantage, highlight a prospect problem, bring in a solution, or just about any other persuasive…task, you should try to do so using a story.

What Slaunwhite’s suggesting is using storytelling to achieve the ultimate purpose of content: connecting in a personal and meaningful way with an audience.

Charity organisation World Vision uses storytelling techniques to connect with its target audience on an emotional level – and elicit an emotional response. World Vision’s ‘Who is it Happening To?’ feature series tell the stories of different sponsor children and their day-to-day struggles to survive.

These online testimonies align with and support World Vision’s TV commercials to form a solid content marketing strategy that succeeds in pulling at the heartstrings of its intended audience.

I’m not saying you need to turn every product launch into an epic space opera or tear-jerking personal testimony, but there are a few simple ways you can start injecting some narrative flair into your content.

Oh, the humanity!

Ever wonder how those fluff stories about a 90-year-old woman being reunited with her decrepit cat make it onto the news? The explanation is simple: human interest. And while these two words have been a curse on the media since the industry’s foundation, they provide us as marketers with a proven way of easily connecting with our audiences. Learn to see the human angle in all of your messaging and you’re guaranteed to connect.

Keep it real, man

Always maintain authenticity. People don’t mind being manipulated – so long as there’s a good reason for it. Sure, Apple uses rhetoric to persuade people that they need the latest incremental update to their iDevice, but it’s clear they truly believe in their product, and consumers can tell. And they’re not the only ones feeding us what may seem like a line, but is in actual fact rooted in wide-eyed idealism.

This interview with the head of Google Search, Amit Singhal, dispels the myth that Google is ‘evil’, revealing an authenticity based on the eternal search (pardon the pun) for perfection:

[Singhal] winces when I ask: “What’s in it for Google?”
“We are a search people,” he says. “The thing that motivates me is to build a search engine that will outdo all my previous creations. Simple as that.”

That’s real, and your customers can tell.

Buy a notebook

Potential stories are all around you, just waiting to be transformed into quality content. But if you don’t record them in some way, they never happened. Get yourself a moleskine (or a digital equivalent) and carry it wherever you go. Remember: the dullest pencil is sharper than the sharpest mind. Jot down stories as they come to you and when it’s time to pitch your next marketing strategy you’ll have a plethora of ideas to choose from.

Play the journalist

Embrace the tools of the professional writer; use metaphors, archetypes, characterisation, conflict and resolution. If you don’t have the expertise in-house, your best bet is to partner with a credible content agency that has a strong editorial team and a journalistic approach to content marketing.

If you’re still not convinced, remember: creating content is your opportunity to shape the way outsiders view your brand, and stories are one of the most effective means of publishing content. There will always be people (critics, the media, and, of course, the cynical and ever-present internet troll) who are more than happy to tell their own stories about your organisation. Don’t let theirs be the only account.

Good stories not only help to establish exactly who and what your brand is, but they also provide a platform that acts as an anchor for more varied content. If you’re struggling for ideas check out There are loads of examples of how brands have turned their stories into fairytales through professional content marketing.

It’s time to start discovering your stories and sharing them with the world.

Richard Parker is the head of digital at strategic content agency Edge, where he has experience working with leading brands including Woolworths, St George and Foxtel. He previously spent 12 years in the UK, first at Story Worldwide then as the co-owner and strategic director of marketing agency Better Things.


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