‘It is a cold winter morning and you plan to step out of the house in your warmest clothes. This season always puts a spring in your step. It is as if the chill permeates your body and mind and acts as a stimulant improving the acuity of your vision and the grasping power of your brain. You blow out a stream of warm breath, just to revel in the sense of how the moisture immediately condenses on the glass surface of the window. In a fit of childish pleasure, you scrawl your signature in the rapidly disappearing foggy patch. What a wonderful day it is going to be!’

Before you assume that you must hit the ‘back’ button because you have landed up on the wrong page, think about how those few lines of descriptive text made you feel. Did you experience nostalgia? Did you long for a warm cup of coffee to wrap your hands around? Or did you start wondering about the life and the preferences of the main protagonist even though no personal details were revealed? If you are like most people, it is possible you nodded yes to one or all of the questions. It is not your fault! That is exactly what an effectively woven narrative can do. It pushes the brain into overdrive and allows the establishment of left brain and right brain harmony. A story is the perfect hook and over this short article, we will explore its usefulness to brands in the fragmented media landscape of the internet driven world.

Why do we resonate with a story?

Stories are undeniably powerful. Their appeal is raw and visceral. We do not judge how engaged we will be with a narrative using our logical brain. Stories are encoded in our DNA and we respond to the allure of an expertly crafted one emotionally.

In order to understand the power of storytelling, it is imperative to familiarise ourselves with how we make decisions and form habits.

Most of us understand that the subconscious is a million times more powerful than the conscious mind. It is in charge of regulating all the critical involuntary functions like the beating of the heart and the stabilisation of the body temperature. This subconscious also happens to be primitive. It thinks in terms of images and reacts to emotions. It needs to understand the ‘why’ behind a cause before it can empathise and identify with it.

The conscious on the other hand is reliant on logic. It can be persuaded with facts, figures and statistics. However in a tussle between the conscious and the subconscious, the latter emerges victorious.

When a story is told and it has the right mix of drama and emotion with a strong sense of purpose, it immediately appeals to the subconscious.

Not only that, the process of assimilating or understanding the story requires both deciphering language and the art of imagination. Thus in short when a narrative is recounted, the audience is completely enthralled. The brain in its entirety and the subconscious are focused on the story, trying to find patterns and give it context. There is literally no escaping the experience.

Now do you understand why movies gross billions of dollars at the box office? Cinema is popular the world over and stands testament to the fact that irrespective of race and social background we all fall prey to the magic of storytelling.

A story may be the most ancient and potent weapon of seduction in the tool kit of marketers and entrepreneurs.

Why do brands today need a story to succeed?

When was the last time you purchased a product because it was endorsed by your favourite celebrity? Do you scour the highway for billboards and then plan your shopping list accordingly? Obviously not right!

There was a time when the brands with the most resources could plaster all the available communication media with glossy and persuasive advertisements. It was the ‘one size fits all’ approach in which companies funnelled every available dime into purchasing space to showcase their products and services. They came up with generic brand messages and the justification behind the practice was ‘Touch enough people with your outreach and it is bound to resonate with some’. These advertisements spoke to very few people and were put together with not much thought to the ideal buyer and his/her preferences or pain points.

The conversion rate was dismal. But nobody knew any better. Conventional platforms like radio, newspapers, magazines and the television ruled the world and since there was nowhere near as much ‘variety’ in terms of what was available in the market, when a brand message came on people paid attention.

But thanks to the internet and the age of information people can easily conceptualise a business, access the know-how to orchestrate a launch and leverage affordably priced tools like WordPress and pay-per-click ads to establish a business. Relative start-ups are wrestling for control with established companies and in many cases are emerging victorious.

Consumers today have more options to choose from than ever before and even the means to indulge in every luxury imaginable with the help of EMIs and quick personal loans. The marketplace has become global and the available mental bandwidth of buyers is almost depleted. There is just too much frivolous noise and intrusive advertisements without a soul or a purpose are now viewed as annoying.

The equation of power has irrevocably tilted in favour of consumers and they no longer rely on the word of companies. Through social media channels people seek the opinions of their friends and niche influencers.

And these influencers are perpetually on the look-out for something novel to share with their circles.

Under such circumstances a story:

  • Appeals directly to the sub-conscious thus bypassing the trivia overfed conscious mind.
  • Evokes emotions and appeals to large sections of the demographic. Influencers feel more comfortably sharing it and thus brand messages cleverly couched in narratives go viral with relative ease.

As a matter of fact neuromarketing, a new discipline that looks into the validity of ‘triggers’ to influence buyer decisions has given credence to the concept of stories being better at boosting brand awareness than other forms of outreach.

Dr. Carl Marci, CEO and Chief Scientist for Innerscope Research says, “Great stories told well, engaging videos, and simple take-home messages consistently increase the audience’s emotional engagement.”

According to a recent post on Adobe’s Digital Marketing Blog, 85% of people describe themselves as fond of stories. Numbers say that Facebook has seen click-through rates double for posts and ads that hint at a story or use powerful visual imagery to strike the point home.

The quantification of its impact may be new, but storytelling itself has been used remarkably well by some of the biggest brands in the world.

Nike and Apple:

Nike and Apple are both visionary companies with dominant market presence. ‘Just Do It’ and ‘Think Different’ are iconic catch phrases reflecting the spirit of the companies behind the taglines.

Steve Jobs, Apple’s main man was a powerful storyteller. He created the concept of luxury technical goods and took the computer (and eventually the smart phone) from the realm of being a clunky necessity to the sleek object of everyone’s desire. Granted the Apple merchandise is well crafted, but its frenzy doesn’t come from the actual product. It stems from the story behind the brand. The story which says independent, strong and motivated individuals attain all the success in life and only the successful and the elite deserve an elusive Apple! Nike on the other hand talks about the inventor of its famous waffle sole Bill Bowerman and his relentless drive to innovate. ‘Just Do It’ stands for persistence and resolve – both highly in-demand traits of the 21st century.

Storytelling with an impact creates what is known as ‘top of the mind’ awareness. Since it appeals to the emotional, rather than the intellectual part of buyers, they tend to remember how the brand ‘made them feel’. When this happens a loyal advocate is born who unerringly gravitates towards the espoused company and a guaranteed sales opportunity is created.

Finding your story and articulating it right:

Knowing the importance of telling a story is not enough. Finding the right one and delivering it effectively to the target market also constitute a major part of the challenge of storytelling.

Collating the experiences and best practices of seasoned brand analysts and marketers from all over the word, the following system has been distilled. It guides a company through the process of crafting a killer story and maximising its impact:

#1: Find ‘story-worthy’ material – Not everything in your company’s legacy or archive is worth creating a story around. To find the right kind of information brands should first take stock of the most pressing pain points and imminent desires of its ideal buyer. Holding focus groups and polling existing customers to find out the uniqueness of products/services also works well. The important thing to remember is ‘Don’t Assume’. You may perceive your brand value very differently from your target market and it is advised that you tap its opinions.

#2: Structure your story – A story needs a ‘hero’ to succeed. It can be an actual person, a mascot or an idea. Apple for instance never pushed Jobs as the star in any narrative. It has always made its campaigns buyer-centric, insisting upon finding the ‘hero’ in the customer. A hint of mystery also enhances the appeal of a story. Pique the interest of your market and then lure buyers to your store, site or landing page for more information.

#3: Target the right platform – A story is effective only when it reaches the right audience. Brands must keep in mind that their buyers are ‘omni-channel’ savvy. They flit from one platform to another and are competent at consuming content on each. This is especially true for social media. Pinterest for example is a favourite haunt of upscale, well to do women and a story targeting this demographic should be largely told through images which can be pinned to boards and shared.

Over and above all the guidelines, a brand story should be authentic. It should be in alignment with the values a company stands for and institutionalises as part of the work culture. Amazing brand presence in not built in a day but finding and bringing to light an honest and appealing story is the first step.

Just refrain from being disingenuous because there is nothing worse than phoney publicity and the discerning buyers of today can spot ‘fake’ from a mile away.