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Brand Storytelling: Take the Narrative Path

By Lucas Clark


  • Find the right storyline
  • Define your hero
  • Show off the conflict and challenges
  • Begin with the end in mind

As far as marketing buzz words go, “storytelling” is up there with “personalization” and “big data.” However, unlike the latter two, storytelling has been around for thousands of years with a classic structure that draws people in. Well-told stories resonate (in and outside marketing) because they serve as metaphors for life and the human condition.

Screenwriters have taken this basic once-upon-a-time story structure and built on it to create engaging stories for television and film that offer an emotional experience for viewers. By applying the tools and guidelines favored by Hollywood pros, marketers can create entertaining and compelling stories, too.

But rather than offering a passive viewing experience, brand stories can inspire audiences to act.

Whether you’re a brand, an association, or a screenwriter, the goal is the same: tell a good, relatable story that engages audiences in a meaningful way.

To help you become a more effective brand storyteller, we’ve compiled the standard outline, or “beat sheet” as the pros say, and how to apply its structure for business.

Follow the essential storyline

From oral history to the cinemas of today, the essential story archetype presents a hero who goes on a journey and must overcome challenges to achieve a goal. This structure holds true for well-executed marketing stories — whether they’re created for commercials, events, or case studies.

Consider “Customer Success Stories” on any company website. All largely follow the same structure: A customer (hero) overcomes internal or external obstacles such as managing business complexity or industry pressures (challenge) by using a product or service (journey) to achieve business objectives (goal). While the structure is simple, many organizations miss the opportunity to maximize the telling with a proven structure that connects consumers to their brand.

To really get an audience’s attention, you need to SHOW them why they matter.
Define the hero

Choosing the right hero is the most important part of telling an effective story. And spoiler alert! In most cases, the hero is not the organization telling the story. In fact, if your brand is at the center of your stories (or your event, for that matter), then it’s time to go back to the story board.

As brands and organizations, you want to depict the most favorable impression. But to really get an audience’s attention, you need to SHOW them why they matter. For audiences to engage with the story (and become interested in the product or service), they must be able to connect to the hero — this connection happens through empathy. In essence, the customer feels empathy for the hero because they can see themselves in the story — it’s relatable to their own experience.

As renowned screenwriter Blake Snyder explains in Save the Cat, one of the most famous books on screenwriting, “The job of creating heroes that will lure the audience into the story is unique. We have to create audience stand-ins that resonate for our target market AND serve the needs and the goals of the story.”

Set up the goal & challenges

Once the audience’s way into the story is firmly established through a relatable hero, it’s time to develop the story arc and pepper it with unanswered questions that evoke curiosity. This content is driven by the conflict that arises between a hero’s goal and the challenges that prevent the hero from achieving it. As Syd Field, the godfather of screenwriting structure, states in Screenplay, “All drama is conflict. Without conflict, you have no action; without action, you have no character; without character, you have no story.” Put simply, story is conflict.

There are two key principles to developing captivating story content, centered on conflict:

  • The goal and corresponding challenges must both be specific to the context of the story, while representing universal goals and challenges that we all face.
  • The challenges must be impending and require action now.

In screenwriting, two frequently used checks for these principles are if the hero’s motivation to succeed boils down to a primal need such as survival, love, or protection of one’s family, and if a timeframe is established — the proverbial “ticking clock.”

The same goes for marketing. While a customer story addresses the specific context of that company, to grab the attention of prospective customers, the challenges and goals of the depicted company/hero must relate to the prospect’s own objectives. Likewise, the nature of the need must be imminent.

At the end of the day, the purpose of any marketing or brand story is to get more prospects to use a product or service. If a sense of urgency isn’t established, neither is the need for prospects to act. If they can’t relate to the challenges and goals of the customer in the story, neither will they see the relevance of the product.

In other words, if your audience feels nothing, they will do nothing.

Structure the journey to a compelling end

While every well-told story must include a hero, goal and challenges, the number of important plot points in the journey will vary depending on the length, format, and distribution medium. Clearly there will be differences between entertainment and marketing here. However, all stories share the same dynamic between their endpoints: the before and after. Who the hero was before the journey and then who they’ve become as a result of the journey.

The same tenet applies to the hero in the marketing story — how has the hero’s (remember, we’re talking about the customer) world changed and been improved by the product or service? Without the juxtaposition of these endpoints, the impact of the product is unknown, or to put it in business terms, you can’t evaluate ROI without knowing the values at both end points.

Salesforce does an exceptional job demonstrating the impact of their Trailhead learning platform by establishing a before and after state in the story of Trailblazer Zac Otero. Zac wants a good life for his kids, but with no formal education is forced to supplement his income by donating plasma just to get by. By taking advantage of free education through Trailhead, he is able to get a more stable and lucrative position as a Salesforce Admin.

Now consider this in comparison to a typical case study you might read on a website or see presented at an event that focuses primarily on how a customer is currently using a product. Without effectively establishing the concept of life before the product/service, it is not feasible to evaluate its impact on the hero. So, what you have is not a story, but a product demo. Product demos have merit, but a compelling story that demonstrates the value AND pulls audiences in is much more effective. Audiences get invested in the hero’s story and want to know what happens next.

What’s going to happen to Zac? How will this turn out for him?

Think about it — if Zac’s story was simply the current view of his life as a Salesforce admin, his emotionally charged journey is lost. What we see is a typical day-in-the-life of an administrator — good for him, but what does that mean to you as the viewer? You have no context of why it matters and therefore you may not care much about the product or service being promoted.

Establishing a clear before and after allows the audience to fully understand the depth of the story, and consequently the business impact.

Embrace the rules, relish the outcomes

The art of storytelling has been refined over thousands of years. The elements are so intrinsic that today a screenplay won’t get past a production assistant’s desk if it neglects these basic principles. While consumer needs may change, their reception to and interest in well-told stories remains.

With the growing importance of business storytelling, it’s time to pay closer attention to these simple rules. If it works for Hollywood, it can work for your business and make your events even more compelling.

While the entertainment industry has numerous storytelling insights to provide, these four tenets serve as a basic framework for delivering an engaging story.

To get the attention of your audience and avoid missteps, remember these tips:

  • The essential story depicts a relatable hero who goes on a journey and must overcome a challenge to achieve a goal.
  • The ideal hero for a brand story is the someone or something that most relates to (or represents) the organization’s ideal prospect or customer.
  • To grab the attention of prospective audiences, the challenges and goals of the hero must relate to the prospect’s own challenges and the nature of the challenge must be pressing. Essentially, this is the call to action. Or as screenwriters say, “the call to adventure.”
  • Established before and after sequences are required for the audience to clearly understand the impact of the story, and likewise the business impact of using a product or service.

With the time and investment put into developing stories for business communications, it’s critical to do the work. Apply these rules to ensure you’re telling good stories that engage your target audiences. Good stories do more than educate, entertain, and sell — they create a shared experience that connects audiences to your brand.

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