Lifting the veil on one of B2B’s most talked about topics: Brand Storytelling
You get 87 million hits when searching the term “brand storytelling” on Google. You’ll find countless definitions, videos, and how-to guides, often with obscure and over-complicated messages that confuse more than they enlighten.
In its rise to popularity, we’ve lost track of what storytelling is, and we’ve simply started calling everything a story.
So even though the concept is well accepted, there’s a lot of miscommunication happening in the name of brand storytelling across business disciplines, organisations, and industries.
Sadly, many business leaders who would benefit from using brand storytelling in their organisation are simply putting it in the “too hard” basket because it’s confusing. And, frankly, they don’t know what exactly it is they’re supposed to be doing and where to start.
No More Story Washing
Let’s start with what not to do – story washing.
Like with green washing, many organisations have recognised the sign of the times and started incorporating “stories” everywhere. Ironically, without actually using storytelling principles or achieving their desired goals.
A couple of things fall into this category, for example:
- Renaming your “about page” to “our story” but keeping the company-centric descriptions
- Starting every LinkedIn post with a completely irrelevant story and then pivoting to a seemingly unrelated main message just to use a “story hook”
- Calling your content marketing team “storytellers”
All of these things are NOT brand storytelling.
And neither is telling a single story for your brand, or even a specific set of stories. It goes deeper than that.
So Then, What is it?
Brand storytelling is about creating a messaging strategy that communicates your brand identity over time to build brand awareness, authority and trust. It’s the combination of branding and storytelling.
Brand Storytelling = Branding + Storytelling
Let’s unpack that…
Branding is defining your business identity.
This includes defining your ideal customer and understanding their needs, desires, emotions, and stage of awareness.
It also includes discovering or defining your x-factor – what makes you unique – and what you can offer your audience.
Your brand messaging strategy should be created based on those two things: what your customers want to achieve and how you can help them do so.
Once you understand what your customers want and need every step of the way along their customer journey, you can create a seamless experience for them.
The Different Elements of Your Brand
The most obvious branding element is the brand look, or visual identity. This includes logos, fonts, colours, and imagery – which is what most businesses focus on when designing their brand.
But there’s more to it than that.
Three elements make up your brand identity:
- Your visual identity (logos, colours, fonts, etc.)
- Your verbal identity (tone of voice)
- Your personality (positioning, messaging, value system)
And by intentionally designing a brand where these aspects work together, you create a coherent experience for your audience. Which builds brand awareness, authority, and trust.
But only if your brand identity is communicated – consistently and effectively. Which is where storytelling comes in.
Because your name and your logo alone aren’t enough to convey your brand’s value.
When we talk about brand storytelling, it simply means using storytelling as a messaging strategy to communicate your brand identity and then deploying those messages through your content marketing and other marketing channels.
But here’s where the confusion often sets in: Brand storytelling is NOT the same as telling stories. It’s not about telling any one particular story, your brand story, or customer stories.
You will tell some stories for sure, but the “storytelling” doesn’t refer to that.
Rather, it’s about aligning your brand messages with your customers hero’s journey – with their internal narrative arc. In other words, the story they’re telling themselves – because that’s what our brains do – they tell us stories all day long.
And if you can understand where your customer is at – mentally and emotionally – at every stage of their customer journey, at every brand touchpoint, then you can create messages that deeply resonate with them every step of the way.
You can guide them along their hero’s journey until they reach their destination or outcome, which usually isn’t the obvious, surface level “solution,” but rather a personal transformation.
When you understand the transformation your customer is looking for, you can tap into a much more powerful, deeper level of messaging that blows features and benefits out of the water and creates a powerful emotional connection with your audience.
It’s much more than creating narratives that talk about the brand. Rather, it’s carefully designing every aspect of your message to reflect your brand’s core values and aspirations with deliberate intent to spark responsiveness.
And THAT’S brand storytelling – your messaging strategy that connects with your audience and consistently communicates your brand to build brand awareness and connect with your audience with empathy and authority.
Once you’ve got your branding and messaging strategy mapped out, you deploy those messages to put your brand out there – this is the actual marketing.
Your marketing encompasses everything you put out there to promote your brand and includes your website, your content strategy, your promotional campaigns, lead generation and events.
But the primary focus should be on content marketing, because that’s where you have the most opportunity to put your brand out there by getting the right information in front of the right people at the right time.
When you put all this together – Branding + Storytelling + Content marketing – you get story-driven content marketing. And that’s one of the most powerful things you can do for your business.
Story-Driven Content Marketing
You might have heard that content is king, but let’s take a look at what story-driven content marketing can actually do for your brand if you use it to communicate or activate your brand story:
- Builds trust and authority: It gives you a platform (many platforms) to put your brand out there. To spread your message, reinforce your ideas, demonstrate resourcefulness, innovation, and leadership. Which, in turn, strengthens brand awareness and helps you build a strong reputation for years to come.
- Amplifies brand value: Aside from your paid products and services, your content is THE best way you can provide value to your customers. You can use it to educate, entertain, inspire, and deeply move your audience, which, in turn, helps make you the obvious choice for them and increases your value in the marketplace
- Nurture avenue: Research shows that up to 95% of prospects are not ready to buy when they first come in contact with your or your brand, but up to 70% of those same people will eventually buy from you or your competition. So by creating content and staying at the forefront of their minds, you build trust and awareness, which greatly sways the odds in your favour when they are ready to buy (makes you the obvious choice)
- Organic community growth: Content marketing is the best (only?) way to build a B2B customer community, which is pivotal to your overall business growth and success. Having a customer community helps you generate a pool of user-generated content, gives you access to endless customer stories to grow your brand, improves your conversion rate (through customer success stories / trust factor), and give you access to the ultimate market research tool by allowing you to gauge (real) customer sentiment / interest when testing new ideas
- Higher retention/less churn: If we use our content to reinforce our brand story and add value at every stage of the customer journey, they have a more enjoyable experience and it’s akin to “becoming friends.” That’s what customers expect of brands these days – they want more than a transactional relationship, they want to co-create and interact with your brand on a deeper level. Especially Millennials and Gen-Z consumers see brands as an extension of themselves so brands can no longer afford to present only their products, services, and who they are as a company. They need to connect and stay connected with their customers on a deep human level, and that starts with your brand story, which is reinforced through your content. If you can make your story their story, you’ll start building loyal advocates – fans even – who will continue to buy from you and help tell your story / spread your message.
With all these benefits, it’s easy to see what all the fuss is about with brand storytelling and, by extension, story-driven content marketing, but at the same time it seems to really confuse people.
So, let’s break down the exact principles right now. Not the tactics or the methods. Not the 10-part story structure. Not the seven basic plots. Not any of the stuff that will trip you up and give you a headache. But the exact underlying principles of using brand storytelling as a messaging strategy.
Because when you understand the principles – the underlying fundamentals – you’re far less likely to get tripped up by the methods and tactics and less likely to struggle with the who, what, when, and where of effective brand messaging across the vast landscape of nuanced, ever-changing channels.
The 2 layers of brand storytelling
Before you can get to the activation part – the part where you communicate your brand story through your content marketing – you need to work out the two layers of brand storytelling.
This is the part that so many people get hung up on or confused about, because we typically only hear about these things in isolation and not necessarily paired together.The two layers of brand storytelling are:
1) your audience’s internal story arc – a.k.a. their hero’s journey, and
2) their customer journey, or how they progress through your organisation, which is the external story arc
When you overlay these two aspects, you understand exactly where someone is at mentally and emotionally at every stage of their customer journey so you can talk to them in just the right way and join the conversation that’s going on in their head.
And the result? Your message resonates with them, they feel like you “get” them, which leads to a sense of trust or connection and a relationship forming between your customer and your brand.
Now let’s take a closer look at the internal and external story arcs.
The Internal Story Arc
Let’s look at the internal story arc first since that’s what most people associate with brand storytelling.
The internal arc is often also referred to as your customers hero’s journey. Here it’s important to understand where they’re at, where they want to go, and what role your brand plays on that journey. Because once you’ve figured that out, you’ll be able to position your brand within that narrative appropriately.
But this step doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Although there are pretty complex storytelling frameworks out there, a basic 3-part structure is usually enough. This realisation should excite you, because it strips out so much unnecessary complexity compared to something like a 9 or 12-stage hero’s journey, which is pretty much the first thing you’ll be confronted with if you Google search “storytelling structure” or “storytelling framework.”
Because the typical “hero’s journey” includes phases like:
- The ordinary – everything is normal, the hero is living life at status quo
- The call to adventure – something happens that makes the hero want to act
- Refusal of the call – the hero puts off taking action because of fear, hesitation, insecurity, or whatever else
- Meeting the mentor – A guide or mentor enters the picture and helps the hero start down his path
- Crossing the threshold – The hero commits to the journey and there’s no turning back
- Tests, allies, and enemies – The hero meets other characters that help or obstruct his journey
- The ordeal – This is where the action happens, and tension is at the highest point
- Return changed – The hero comes back to a new, better status quo; he’s transformed
This nuance is absolutely critical if you’re writing a 300-page novel, but for brand storytelling purposes it really doesn’t have to be that complex. We can use the 3-part Stellar storytelling framework (Hall, 2019).
The three phases or parts that we need for your customers’ internal story arc are simply:
- The normal – start off by establishing the normal – the way things were before something changed
- The explosion – the moment things change
- The new normal – what life is like after things have changed – the transformation
If you want to split it into more phases, another good approach to the internal story arc is the StoryBrand SB7 framework, where you need to define seven parts: (Miller, 2017)
- A character
- Has a problem
- And meets a guide
- Who gives them a plan
- And calls them to action
- That helps them avoid failure
- And ends in success
No matter which framework you use, the aim is to understand where your customers are at, where they want to go (the transformation) and what gets them there – i.e., what they need to realise to start their journey (what’s the inciting incident) and how does your brand help them get there.
This informs your core brand messaging and positioning. It tells you how to position your brand into your customer’s narrative, but it doesn’t tell you what to say. Rather, you can see it as the filter or lens through which to position all your communication.
What to say within the context of that narrative depends on your customers stage of consumer awareness and where they are in their customer journey. Not in their hero’s journey – or internal story arc – but on where they are actually at in relation to your brand.
And that’s what we call the external story arc.
External story arc
The external arc spans both your marketing funnel and your customer journey.
It starts at the very top of your funnel, where customers are unaware of their pain or problem. It continues through the steps in your funnel until the point of conversion. And it spans the actual customer journey – so the journey your customers take through your organisation from the moment they say yes to your product or service, through the delivery of that product or service, right up to the point where they either become repeat buyers, or renew their subscription, or offboarding if they decide to move on.
Based on that whole journey, you can work out what you need to say to them at each step. This informs the content you put out, the actual stories you tell, your marketing campaigns, your touchpoints, and so on. And it should always relate to their internal story arc by getting them to identify with those before and after states.
To figure out what to say, you break your marketing funnel and customer journey down into the stages of awareness – unaware, aware, educate, consider, convert, and nurture – and think about:
- The problems they have at each step
- The questions
- The objections
- The considerations
You must go through this exercise for each audience group and figure out their topic knowledge at each step – do they have a problem that you solve? Do they know about the different solutions? How much do they know about your field? What do they need to understand so they can move forward?
Once you’ve identified these points, you’ll have a list of topics to create content about. Because you’ll know what you need to say to bridge the gap between where they are and where they need to go next. Like stepping stones, you can guide them along the path towards your solution and add tremendous value at every step.
And don’t forget to reinforce your brand message at every step by positioning each piece of content into their narrative and aligning it with their internal story arc.
Putting it together
So, if we layer that internal arc and external arc on top of each other, what we get is a powerful, story-driven content strategy that helps you consistently communicate your brand story and builds your brand equity over time.
Because stories are a natural component of the human experience, it makes perfect sense that we consider integrating them as part of the entire customer journey. This simply means that we must cease thinking of brand storytelling merely as a process of crafting and delivering a set of brand narratives and begin to recognise it as an influential source that can be harnessed to diligently map out the end-to-end customer journey, both internally and externally.Miri Rodriguez, 2020:9
And that’s nothing less than what your customer expects of you today. It’s no longer enough to simply exist as a brand and deliver a product or service.
Your customer is constantly and inadvertently weaving together every aspect of your brand story – every ad, email, and meeting or phone call – and using that experience of your story to evaluate your brand’s personality to judge whether you’re decent friendship material – trustworthy, sincere, values-driven.
If your story is not designed to be cohesive across the entire customer journey, there’s a great chance that you lose the customer somewhere along the way because you’re not living up to their friendship standards.
So, to make it cohesive and appealing all the way through, you must overlay that internal layer and that external layer to deliver the right message, to the right person, in the right way, at the right time.
Key to success is to ‘interpret’ the decision making process with your brand message in as appealing a way as possible. If you can push through the noise – be clever with your messaging, nut just shout the loudest – there is scope for brands to use storytelling to gain awareness and start the journey to a trust position.Gay Flashman, 2020:11
To summarise, brand storytelling is simply the combination of brand and storytelling.
It’s first defining your brand identity, then aligning your core messaging strategy with your customers’ internal narrative arc, and lastly communicating your brand through content marketing.
It’s not just telling a single story, it’s the act of repeatedly positioning your brand in your customers narrative through all your marketing materials in order to build your brand awareness, authority and equity so you become your customers obvious choice.
Powerful B2B Content: Flashman, G. (2020). Powerful B2B Content: Using Brand Journalism to Create Compelling and Authentic Storytelling. Kogan Page Publishers.
Brand Storytelling: Rodriguez, M. (2020). Brand storytelling: Put customers at the heart of your brand story. Kogan Page Publishers.
Stories that Stick: Hall, K. (2019). Stories that stick: How storytelling can captivate customers, influence audiences, and transform your business. HarperCollins Leadership.
Miller, D. (2017). Building a storybrand: clarify your message so customers will listen. HarperCollins Leadership.
If you want to build brand awareness, authority, and trust, your best bet is to start by nailing your brand story.
Whenever you are ready, there are 2 ways we can help you do that:
- Join The Storydriven Marketing Academy: Our FREE course that teaches you how to consistently nail your messaging across all brand assets
- Enquire about our Brand Storytelling Workshop: We work with you 1:1 over four guided workshop sessions to craft your storydriven brand messaging & content strategy