Ouch! Using Science to Make Brand Storytelling More Effective

person falling off skateboard down a flight of stairs
Mar 3, 2015
Brand Marketing

Have you ever winced at the sight of someone else’s misfortune? Our unfortunate skater friend here is a classic example. Ouch, that is going to hurt in the morning!  But why do we also feel his pain? The answer is an important factor in why storytelling works as a way of communicating. Brands utilising this can make an emotional connection with their audience.

What makes a powerful story?

An excellent recent article by Nathalie Nahaï in Marketing Week identified the three key aspects of stories that make them powerful communication tools. She identifies:

1. Empathy is created by particular brain cells called mirror neurons, which allow us to feel the pain or pleasure of others, hence the ‘ouch’ moment described above.

2. Humans are hardwired to seek out the underlying narrative in stories to connect the participants, their challenges and their successes into one narrative arc.

3. When listening to engaging stories, our brains undergo a kind of neural coupling whereby our brain response patterns become markedly similar to those of the storyteller. We literally get on the same wavelength.

Natalie’s contention coincides with the Singer et al 2004 study in neuro-marketing which suggests the human brain processes information best when it is told in ‘story’ format.

What smart brands know about telling stories

Many brands have woken up to the fact that customers and prospects are more highly engaged if they can communicate their value proposition in a story or narrative format. Shouting your list of features and benefits into the cacophony of the marketplace simply does not give the audience enough reason to stop and listen to what you are saying.

Most of the claims bombarding the audience are simply ignored or disbelieved. This is because an advertising claim is typically a function of self-interest whereas stories persuade without the obstacle of resistance. Stories can have a very compelling and profound impact on customers. As Scott Bredbury, a former Nike and Starbucks CMO put it:

“A brand is a story that connects with something very deep. Companies that manifest this sensibility invoke something very powerful”.

Kendall Haven, in his excellent extensive study on the application of stories in the explanation of science, STORY PROOF: The SCIENCE Behind the Startling Power of STORY, summarised a story as:

“a narrative about a character overcoming some obstacle to achieve some important goal”.

But why should brands attempt to communicate with customers in story format?

Jim Stengel, Proctor and Gamble’s ex-Global CMO, said:

“What we really need is a mindset shift that will make us relevant to today’s consumers, a mindset shift from ‘telling & selling’ to building relationships”.

Likeonomics or the same old sales claptrap?

Rohit Bhargava calls it ‘likeonomics’, telling a story in a business publishing context.

Many brands are still confusing storytelling with regurgitation of the same old sales claptrap. Sadly, simply repurposing brochureware into a whizzy new format does not a story make.

Brands need to carefully consider what it is about their purpose, journey and actions that will empathise with customers’ needs from their product category. Then, they must articulate a compelling, honest narrative born out of the brand’s value set and not a diatribe of corporate technobabble bearing little relation to customers’ actual challenges.

Have you defined your brand’s story? Does your brand story drive a compelling, continuing narrative with customers and prospects? Does your story engage with them in a shared challenge you can both solve together?

-by Geraint Holliman, Director of Strategy and Head of Content Marketing at DIRECTIONGROUP

If you’d like to know more about how to use brand storytelling to connect with your target audience, get in touch.