Why you should use storytelling to build your brand

Think of an ad that’s stayed with you. Or a speech you heard someone give that had a lasting impact. Is it the brand or product that you remember being advertised or represented in these situations? Or is it something deeper – a story?

Most likely. Because stories inspire. They create meaning and connection.

We spoke to Managing Director of Ogilvy Brisbane, and former head of APAC Large Advertiser Marketing at Facebook, Ben Lightfoot, about why brands need a good story to remain relevant today.

“We have seen a shift towards inauthentic, schizophrenic communications from brands and businesses,” Ben says.

“But stories and ideas that manifest an authentic brand purpose provide the opportunity to engage with consumers.”

He says this shift has largely come about because the balance of power between consumers and brands has changed – thanks to social media and higher expectations around brand transparency.

“Consumers have an unparalleled voice and are calling brands to account. Not just in terms of what they say, but more importantly, in what they do.”

He sites PepsiCo’s recent TV ad, which features model Kendall Jenner easing tensions at a protest by handing out cans of Pepsi, as an example of inauthentic storytelling. “The public responded in their millions and cursed Pepsi for having the gall to present any view on a topic so delicate,” Ben says.

“Pulling the wool over a consumer’s eyes will only lead to one thing – trouble. Brands have to step up with purpose-driven marketing – championing specific values and causes rather than simply extolling their functional benefits."

“The most powerful way to persuade people is by uniting an idea with an emotion - telling a moving story, weaving information in and connecting to the raw emotion and energy of the audience.”

His insight is backed by the research of marketing effectiveness experts Les Binet and Peter Field. In their latest report ‘Effectiveness in the Digital Era: Media in Focus’, they render communications that leverage emotion as twice as effective as rational messaging and twice as profitable.


So how do you tell your brand story to elicit emotion – with integrity and authenticity? 

Award-winning author and Senior Lecturer at UQ School of Communication and Arts, Dr Kim Wilkins, knows how to elicit emotion and establish connection through a story.

She says businesses need to find the human element to their brands.

“Focalise your brand story through a character and where you can, put the audience in that character’s shoes. A quick way to do this is using sensory detail,” Kim says.

“Instead of saying, ‘Jane was worried her super wouldn’t be enough after her husband died,’ say ‘every time Jane thought about how she was going to support herself, her stomach dropped."

“All of a sudden the audience is able to relate more to the character and a connection or understanding is established.”

Kim reminds us that flaws and failures shouldn’t be omitted when telling your brand or business story. They add authenticity and allow people to further connect.

Both Ben and Kim use the example of American Idol to illustrate the impact of flaws and failures as a powerful storytelling element.

“American Idol is bolstered on emotive stories – the ups and downs of the life of the contestant in their journey to audition,” Ben says.

Kim adds, “If we just watched people audition, there’d be some entertainment. But once you hone in on a specific person and their journey, you’re focalising. The audience is able to imagine themselves in a similar journey and connection starts to build.”

“The show highlights the struggles characters have been through – how they came to be there, why they’re so passionate about it, what it would mean if they succeeded. We relate to them through their challenges and personal backgrounds.”


What if your brand has a bad name?

Of course, businesses – like humans - have ups and downs, triumphs, failures, and PR disasters, while others just aren’t “sexy”. So how do you tell your story in earnest, without skipping out on the stuff that doesn’t shine you in the best light?

Kim says use the element of surprise. Highlighting failures can be used effectively to show change and growth, and while showcasing features is often essential when selling a product, there may be elements of your business you don’t want to put a spotlight on.

“You don’t want to purposefully hide your history but you can draw attention to another side of your business.”

“So maybe your company makes toilets. That’s not sexy. But say you focus on someone who leads the company who donates business money to a charity that helps with sanitation in the third world – that’s a human angle and it aligns well with corporate social imperatives.”

Perhaps you still can’t find the human angle or surprise element to your business?

Remember – everyone is interesting. Kim says she could sit down with anyone for half an hour, have a conversation about their brand or business and find a story.

“Everyone has a story. Every business starts out for different reasons, because of different people with unique ideas or motivations.”

Search for the human-interest piece in your brand – whether it’s an external impact story, or an internal history. Kim assures us it’s there, and Ben reminds us it is an essential business tool if we are to effectively reach and engage our customers and build brand significance and advocacy.

“Focalise your brand story through a character and where you can, put the audience in that character’s shoes."
Dr Kim Wilkins, UQ