Brand storytelling is an increasingly popular approach to marketing that taps into the foundational human need to connect with others through story. It’s a method that centers your customer as the main character in the story, not your brand or your product. When you share relatable stories about life experiences that matter to your audience, you create strong emotional connections with your ideal customers.
Those connections build brand awareness, keep attention on your marketing channels, and establish trust. Not everyone agrees on the best way to do brand storytelling, but everyone knows it matters. To get us started, we’ll talk about why it’s so important, show you some examples of brand storytellers you can learn from, and provide ideas on how to start using the tactic yourself. But first, let’s outline and agree on a clear brand storytelling definition.
What is brand storytelling?
Brand storytelling refers to the act of using narrative to create an emotional connection between your customers and your brand. Brand storytelling is not necessarily about your history or even your products (although it could be). The best stories are about human experiences that connect back to why your brand exists and what it values.
The best brand storytellers paint pictures of people, events, places, and experiences that connect audiences to the values a brand stands for. The great ones (e.g. Nike) do it without force-feeding anyone a direct narrative about their company, product, or offering. If you sell athletic equipment or are a pro sports team, you can tell stories about the thrill of the winning goal. Or the crushing disappointment of a missed free throw in overtime.
People are influenced by accounts of real-life challenges and victories, our emotional responses to the ups and downs, and inside looks at the lives of other humans like them. Your task as a storyteller is to consistently make your brand and products part of a larger story that’s meaningful to your customers. That means you can’t just repetitively talk about your product or brand. You get to tell stories about how people’s lives are impacted because of what you do. Share dreams for the future. Reminisce over shared histories.
Every channel from your website and social media channels to your product packaging and retail spaces provides opportunities to add life to your brand’s story. Make sure you weave all your individual stories together to create a brand experience that can build customer loyalty.
Why is brand storytelling important?
Your brand storytelling is a big part of what creates a consistent feel across channels. We interact with brands in many of the same ways we interact with people. Do we have similar interests? Do my friends and family like you? Do you stick to your proclaimed values? You want your brand identity, design, and content to create consistent, positive associations with your brand.
Besides setting you apart from competitors in the minds of your customers, brand storytelling can help you plan an effective marketing calendar for the year. A promotional calendar that’s based around real-life stories is going to be very engaging. If your only story is making a sale after a product launch, people are going to be less and less interested over time. When you mix in brand storytelling, you keep people’s attention and engagement across multiple channels so that the next time you need to sell a product, they’re already paying attention.
With that sustained attention, you can also build brand loyalty and maintain it. When you take time to create stories for the sake of connection and entertainment, people develop an emotional connection with your brand and develop trust.
Brand storytelling examples
Some brands have a meaningful story embedded in their company and product DNA (e.g. TOMS shoes) and some have to come up with a creative story that makes their product meaningful (e.g. most enterprise SaaS companies). From Warby Parker to Nike, here are some examples of brand storytelling from the world’s most successful brands.
Warby Parker transformed the eyeglass industry when they made designer eyewear affordable, better for the environment, and easy to try on at home. Their brand comes from a great story, too. One of their founders spent the first semester of grad school without eyeglasses because he lost his on a backpacking trip and they were too expensive to replace. They decided to fix that problem and do it with a plant-based frame construction that’s better for the environment.
Eyeglasses aren’t available to everyone, 2.5 billion people around the world need glasses and don’t have access to them. When you buy a pair of Warby Parker sunglasses, somebody in need gets a pair. That means your purchase changes someone’s life story by giving them the capacity to work or learn. Warby Parker designed their brand with a meaningful story as a foundation and they use their channels, like Instagram and YouTube, to expand it with expert insights about vision and tell interesting stories about people who wear their glasses.
Airbnb is a marketplace and the product itself isn’t worth telling a story about. Their audience doesn’t want to hear about the technology and filters that help them find places to stay, they want to hear stories about the experience of staying somewhere new. They want to know about the people they’re staying with. They want to know about the homes, the countries, and the experiences Airbnb’s brand makes possible.
No one can tell those stories better than hosts and travelers. Airbnb’s website has a section dedicated to giving you an inside look at the lives of their hosts across the world. This helps prospective hosts and travelers feel more connected to the people who run the properties they’ll be staying in. On their YouTube channel (with over 251,000 subscribers) you can see what Airbnb is like in different countries, learn from superhosts, and get useful guest tips.
This company started with a serendipitous hitchhiking encounter that led to the creation of one of the most well-known natural care brands in the world. Their first product was beeswax candles and their first one to hit it big was lip balm (which you might see in every Whole Foods).
Burt’s Bees does an incredible job of telling their story on their website. They tell their history in a visually appealing way that any brand can learn from. And their core values are on display in a rich media format. Everything from their imagery to their taglines match up with their brand story. With a solid brand identity established, they’ve built a strong foundation for some brilliant brand storytelling.
Their YouTube channel is full of high-production quality videos and Burt Talks to the Bees installments are educational and entertaining. They also include beauty tips and short instructional product videos.
Over the years, Burt’s Bees has issued over US$2.4 million in grants through The Burt's Bees Greater Good Foundation and used social media campaigns to cultivate more than 10,000 acres of honey bee forage. They’re a great example of a brand with a solid identity that considers brand storytelling in everything that they do.
Nike established itself in people’s minds with great storytelling in the 1990s. They released a brilliant commercial in 1999 to commemorate the career of Michael Jordan. At a time where everyone was pushing a hard sell (because TV airtime was expensive), Nike let Michael Jordan’s story speak for itself. “Just Do It” and the swoosh appear at the end and that’s all the space their brand took up. The story was the emotional connection fans had to the athlete and the career, Nike itself was a tiny part of the exchange.
Fast forward to today and Nike uses Instagram to share engaging video and photo ads that we can all learn from. Can you imagine what the “Best Day Ever” in global sports would look like? Nike already did with this video ad that includes amateurs waking up to run, female athletes launching video games, and running shoes grown from a seed.
Nike’s blog is filled with “Stories that move you,” and you can read about everything from a college athlete overcoming starting line panic to getting advice on how to help your kids fall in love with movement. These stories don’t push products directly. They inform, inspire, and solve problems. This kind of brand storytelling connects with athletes and builds brand awareness and loyalty over time.
You might not ever have their US$34B marketing strategy, but you can learn from them and start to reach for the substance of their storytelling.
How to use brand storytelling
If you’re ready to get started with brand storytelling, use some of the examples above as research and a roadmap for your own strategy. Create a solid foundational story of who you are, like Warby Parker. Identify your values, areas of expertise, and outline the real-life challenges in those spaces. Find or create stories about experiences that your customers might have in those areas. Solve their problems and entertain them without trying to sell them a product.
When you’re ready, create micro-stories on social media to get the hang of it. Interview an influencer or a customer for a blog post. Get your YouTube channel going and start sharing content. Just remember, brand storytelling does not mean telling the story of your brand or product over and over again. Center the experiences of real people and use them to show your customers that you care about the same things they do. Create an emotional connection. Product sales will follow.
Brand storytelling is a complex mix of branding disciplines. You need a solid brand identity, a brand management strategy, and a clear understanding of how to tell on-brand stories consistently. If you want to understand these foundational branding tactics and how to become a successful brand storyteller, you can to learn more about branding, storytelling, and technology.