In the Information Age, brand storytelling has become all the rage. We no longer just read an advertisement and take its words at face value. And we rarely lean on a salesperson to talk us through the purchasing of a product or service. We read about it online. So when you’re marketing, you’re operating within that vast digital field of information filled with messages from the competition. In order for your business to succeed in this knowledge economy, your brand needs to be an expert.
Stories resonate for a reason. From childhood, we use stories to be entertained and inspire our imaginations. But also, we use stories to learn. (Remember that teacher who made lessons stick because she packaged it with an example or an anecdote that brought the concept to life?) For better or worse, much of how we interpret “facts” is influenced by the stories that present them.
I got into the branding and design business almost 20 years ago, but first I studied to be a journalist and worked for a few years as managing editor for several business trade publications. This was long before content marketing. And frankly, it was before branding had become a concept used by companies outside of those with huge budgets selling the most popular consumer products. In the B2B space where I found myself, branding was still for cattle. But now, branding is the given framework for building any business in any sector.
A well-defined brand is the ultimate expression of why your business exists. It explains why you develop the products and services you do and why your customers will want to work with you. So even before “branding” and “brand storytelling” existed, as a young journalist, I was discovering them. Each entrepreneur and business owner I profiled relayed their stories about fulfilling needs, responding to challenges and engaging on an emotional level. And when it comes to the B2B sector, that last one—emotion—is important. As a recent episode of CBC’s Under the Influence pointed out, there’s a common false assumption that provoking an emotional response is more important when selling jeans than it is when selling an expensive product or service to a business, whose expert purchaser is assumed to only require technical details. “There’s more risk,” Terry O’Reilly says of the B2B purchaser. “Make a wrong choice and the buyer might not just lose credibility, but possibly her job. So when there is that much stress present in a purchase decision, it pays to frame that choice in human terms.”
We all learned in grade school that there’s a theme behind the best stories, and the same is true for brand stories. Defining that brand theme starts with understanding its reason for being, or that feeling that you want your brand to represent and communicate. At Parcel, we call this the brand subtext, but other firms refer to it as a “brand essence” or “the why”. Once the subtext is articulated, brand storytelling puts it into context. So that it may read one way for a brochure that will be glanced at for a few seconds, another way for a website or blog post that will be investigated for longer, and even a different way when wielded by a brand’s employee on social media. (Always remember that stories are not scripts—they’re narrative messages that can be reshaped to suit the medium). But no matter how the story is told, one thing is very important—the story should be true. That is, it should be rooted in an authentic source. Audiences are very attuned to contrived stories, and even if they don’t know why, they reject them. That’s not to say that a brand trying to pivot its service offering and change the conversation can’t invent a new direction—but the story behind that change must also be true.
Once you’re ready to begin storytelling, it’s also important to do so in a highly-engaging format. We know that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but the cover is usually why that book gets picked up in the first place. What’s the point of a story that nobody reads? Editorial packaging. Infographics. Supporting visuals. Whether it’s a book, an e-book, a website, a blog, or a social media post, great design plays a role in delivering your brand story in a way that resonates and builds a loyal following.