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Brand Storytelling: What It Is & How To Use It

Brand Storytelling: What It Is & How To Use It

Last Updated:  
March 18, 2024

There’s a reason that so many media buyers and marketers refer to 2014-2016 as the “arbitrage era” of Facebook.

Arbitrage is the act of buying something in one market and selling it in another market for a higher price. To keep this up, you need the first market to remain ignorant of the second. And that’s why arbitrage opportunities rarely last for long.

What was being arbitraged in the Facebook scenario? The value of human attention. Let’s face it: Facebook revolutionized digital ad buying, democratizing access to audiences who were willing and able to shop online.

But when adoption of Facebook ads accelerated, the company fine tuned their pricing model and costs went up. Then, when iOS 14 reduced the amount of consumer data available, costs went up even more.

When the going gets tough, the smart money returns to the fundamentals. And what could be more fundamental in capturing human attention (and human wallets) than storytelling?

It’s more important than ever that your brand’s advertising and marketing provides a compelling narrative and a clear point of view. Here is some advice on how to do just that.

Pillars Of Good Storytelling

A good story is the difference between a meeting that gets you fired up and one that drains your energy. It’s the difference between a night out that you remember for years and one that has you watching the clock. And it’s the difference between a brand that customers seek out and one that they ignore.

If you want a deep dive into the craft of storytelling, I highly recommend the book Storyworthy by Matthew Dicks.

But to get you started, here is a summary of some storytelling concepts from the book that you can use to craft a compelling narrative for your brand:

Universal Values

The purpose of your brand story isn’t to sell your brand, although that may be the outcome. The purpose of any good story is to bring you closer to the audience.

You do that by being authentic and vulnerable; you need to tap into the deeper motivations behind starting your brand and/or the pain points and needs of your audience.

Try to develop a one-sentence value statement for your brand: “[Name of your brand] plays a critical role in our customers’ lives because we [problem you solve/need you fulfill].

That makes our customers feel [positive emotion or sensation].” Then use this as the yardstick against which all your landing pages, ad hooks, etc. are measured.

Some of you might be rolling your eyes–”We’re selling toothpaste here, not curing cancer!” But there is a reason why this tool is so powerful: it elevates your product above the level of a commodity.

A Good Beginning

We all have short attention spans, so first impressions matter. Think about it from your audience’s perspective–you are interrupting their busy day and stealing precious minutes of their time. So make it count.

A good beginning is the opposite of your ending: “I was once this, but now I am that.” Maybe that’s why before and after ad formats seem to work so well in paid social!

A good beginning is often unexpected. It grabs the viewer’s attention by throwing them into a completely new context or piquing their curiosity. If your product’s inspiration came from an unlikely source–the habits of monks, a science experiment, an ancient religion–lead with that.

Make A Big Story Small

If you’re a founder, there are parts of your story that are going to be completely unrelatable to your potential customers. Maybe you slept in your car for six months until your brand got off the ground.

Or maybe you funded your first year of operations with a trust fund. It’s generally wise to avoid those details because they’re not relatable; they’re about you more than your audience.

Similarly, there are probably specific details about the problem you’re solving or the solution you’ve developed that only you find interesting.

Your audience doesn’t care exactly how something works until they’ve established that it might be able to address their problem. Share the nitty gritty details if asked, otherwise avoid.

Little White Lies

It’s not ok to make things up in order to mislead people. But it is ok to omit details, condense timelines or make minor adjustments to the order in which events occurred. This is storytelling, not a legal deposition.

One thing to keep in mind though: the larger the gap you create between customers’ perception of your brand and their actual experience, the angrier your customers will be when the product arrives. This will lead to high return rates, low lifetime value and eventually a poor reputation for your brand. So proceed with caution here.

Brand Storytelling vs. Visual Identity

I wanted to add a quick note to address the distinction between visual identity and brand identity. You can have strong, consistent visual guidelines but no brand story.

Visual identity can help a brand stand out from the competition, but as we’ve seen in the DTC space, visual identity can be copied pretty easily.

A well-executed brand story is harder to copy because, when done right, it connects with people and draws them into a community. So if a competitor tries to copy you, your own customers will call them out as phonies.

A lot of performance-driven marketers bristle at the word “brand” because a brand is often framed as a list of things you can’t do.

And while that is true sometimes, a good brand story is flexible enough to exist on different platforms in a way that feels native to those platforms. Brand story is a big tent that contains UGC and polished campaign photography.

How To Flesh Out Your Brand’s Story

Get Inside Your Customers’ Heads

Your customers are often happy to tell you what problem your brand solves, or why they like you so much. Customers who made multiple purchases over multiple years are the best place to start for this research because they’ll have the most to say. You can send out a customer survey to your email list or contact individual customers directly.

Look For Problems

What sucks about most of the products in your category? Place some orders from the competition, use the products, and find out for yourself. Focus on the brands who are category leaders, as they often become complacent. Use this research to get fired up about your category and provide a counter-narrative. You’re working to combat your customers’ biggest pain points head-on.

Study The Competition

This is less about comparison shopping, and more about studying the competition’s marketing. What pain points or niches within the total audience do they speak to? Do you think you can do a better job of speaking to those audiences authentically? Then do it. Are there other audiences that the competition seems to ignore? It might make sense to seek them out.

Do Something Story-worthy

Sometimes there’s no getting around it: your brand is simply boring (sorry!). You’re selling a utilitarian product in a commoditized category. But that means the upside opportunity in differentiation is huge! But it might require a bit of extra effort.

Scrub Daddy is a great example here. Who cared about kitchen sponges before Scrub Daddy came along? The product is both visually playful and incredibly effective. And the brand’s social media strategy is…uhh…making waves.

4 Storytelling Frameworks You Can Use In Your Ads

#1: The Founder Story

If you were inspired to found your brand because of a personal frustration, or if your brand is tied into your family history in any way, this can be a powerful framework.

The “frustrated founder” is really the frustrated consumer who decided to transform that passion into action.

Speaking to the initial frustrations with the status quo and how your product addresses them will automatically resonate with those who share your feelings. I talk about Haus a lot, but the founder’s launch announcement is a great example of this framework.

Family history is compelling because it proves that your product stands the test of time. Luxury brands often leverage this technique when the brand really was a family firm when it launched.

#2: Let Customers Tell Your Story

When real people are compelled to praise your brand without financial compensation or other incentives it cuts through the noise of traditional advertising. If advertising is a filtered selfie, customer testimonials are “I woke up like this”.

You can leverage customers’ stories in a few ways. Collecting product reviews and featuring them in your advertising is the most straightforward.

You can also reach out to customers who leave the most detailed and impassioned reviews to see if they would be willing to do a video testimonial or interview. Sometimes you’ll find some epic stories this way.

“UGC” advertising also falls in this bucket. I put UGC in quotes because most of these ads are not real customers, but trained spokesmodels. This tactic is most effective when you use real customer feedback to inform the scripts.

#3: Fuel Someone Else’s Epic Rise

This one is tricky in today’s world because it is essentially another form of arbitrage. Michael Jordan’s relationship with Nike is probably the most well-known, most successful example of this strategy.

But athletes, celebrities and other influencers have caught on to their value in developing a brand’s story. Many of these folks now prefer to start their own brands from scratch.

The key to making this framework work today is being flexible with your definition of an epic rise. Look for “everyday heroes” or niche, emerging communities. You no longer need a single marquee “star” to make this work.

Red Bull built an association as the fuel of choice for extreme athletes by sponsoring lots of high-potential athletes across a variety of sports. The brand also funded some record-breaking feats that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

#4: World Building

A lot of consumer spending is fueled by escapism. And what better way to escape reality than to live in a fully fleshed-out fantasy world?

The brands that do this best are entertainment franchises like Disney, Star Wars and Harry Potter. And they have a major competitive advantage–source material that was developed by artists and already has buy-in from consumers.

Some fashion brands excel at this strategy because they are built around a singular vision and invest heavily in image creation and cultivation.

In their 1980s and 1990s heyday, brands like Ralph Lauren, Kate Spade, Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria’s Secret spelled out a singular vision of the world and enabled consumers to live that vision. And in doing so, these brands commanded higher margins than the competition.

Pulling this off as a DTC brand with limited physical touchpoints is hard, but it’s definitely possible if you lead with a narrative and let the products follow.

And if you want  data that can help you crystallize how much value you're getting out of your brand storytelling, give Triple Whale a try.

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