How to Use Brand Storytelling

How to Use Brand Storytelling


It's all about letting the brand take a backseat and putting your customers at the centre of the story.

Aug 20 5 minute read

As almost every marketing article you’ll read this year will tell you, great marketing is all about your ability to tell a story. But storytelling itself is far from being a new trend. So what’s new about it in 2020?

To understand modern storytelling, we need to take a quick step back in time to understand how it’s been used in the past. 

Research by Cornell University back in 2016 after an analysis of 1327 fictional books revealed that there are six basic shapes of storytelling:

  • “Rags to riches” (rise).
  • “Tragedy”, or “Riches to rags” (fall).
  • “Man in a hole” (fall-rise).
  • “Icarus” (rise-fall).
  • “Cinderella” (rise-fall-rise).
  • “Oedipus” (fall-rise-fall).

For marketers looking to develop their brand story, “rags to riches”, “man in a hole” and “Cinderella” are great models to follow, because they end with the main character on a high.

But these templates alone aren’t enough to create a brand story.

Another lens to look at storytelling through is the “character and guide” strategy. This involves several steps for the customer or the ‘main character’. Here’s how it works:

  1. The main character
  2. Has a problem
  3. Meets a guide
  4. Who gives them a plan
  5. There’s a call to action
  6. To avoid failure
  7. They achieve success

When combined with one of the shapes of storytelling, a powerful brand message can be created.

Inspiration comes from unusual places

An excellent example of this is the ‘Made in the Royal Navy’ advertising campaign by the British Royal Navy

While most brands won’t be able to relate to the Royal Navy, they can still take inspiration from their storytelling techniques and adapt this into the creation of their own brand story.

Each campaign story follows one person on their “rags to riches” journey, in which the Royal Navy itself features as the guide. 

For example, in ‘Louise’s story’ portrays the main character as a young woman working in a fish and chip shop in St Andrews, Scotland. She’s clearly bored and feeling unfulfilled. This ‘problem’ is where the story starts.

She goes on to meet the Royal Navy, which acts as her guide. With her guide by her side, she makes a plan, signs up, starts working out, learns new skills from scuba diving to navigating and pushes through the challenges that meet her to achieve success. 

Admittedly, it’s a heavy-handed approach to storytelling. But it works. 

It works because it’s a story that’s perfectly tailored to the Royal Navy’s target audience; young people who feel out of place in society, who are searching for structure, routine and responsibility, but who need someone to guide them through the next steps.

And, by placing real Royal Navy soldiers at the center of the story, they ensure that the stories they tell are as human as possible.

This is actually a form of anti-branding, a recent trend in storytelling that places the brand at the back of the story and brings the customer to the forefront. 


For another example of anti-branding, Airbnb created “stories from the Airbnb community”, which follows people’s experiences with Airbnb, and the impact that it has had on their lives.

One such story follows Tessa on her “man in a hole” story, with Airbnb again serving as the guide. Once a famously successful location scout, a neurological disease leaves her almost housebound - her “fall”. But through Airbnb, she rediscovers her neighbourhood via becoming an Airbnb host, overcoming her challenges, avoiding failure and ultimately achieving success - her “rise”.

For a fashion perspective, Patagonia follows a similar model with their “Worn Wear” customer stories. These showcase everything from adorable multi-generational hand-me-down Patagonia baby onesies, to the couple who were in a car accident while wearing their Patagonia pullovers. The items had to be cut off by emergency services and were still repaired by Patagonia.

Once again, we see the brand taking a backseat, embracing its role as a guide and leading the main characters through their journey.

The examples I used all have one thing in common. The brands don’t talk about themselves. 

People don’t want to hear your story. They need a guide to assist with theirs.

Kicking off your brand story

Here’s a basic checklist to bear in mind when you’re starting to craft your brand story:

  • Know who your main character is
  • Know how you act as their guide
  • Keep it simple (no big confusing words)
  • Make an emotional connection with your audience


And these are some great questions to kick-start the creative process: 

  • What role do you want to play in people’s lives?
    Trusted advisor, fashionable best friend or fellow hobbyist?
  • How can you make your story relevant?
    Consider your audience’s situation, emotions and desires.
  • How can you tell your story in an engaging way?
    A well-crafted, emotive story with a logical flow goes a long way.
  • What kind of personality do you want your brand to have?
    Does your brand speak in an exhilarating, excitable way, or it is calm and collected?
The best brand stories are those that spark human connections

In 2020, people are searching for brand authenticity more than ever, thanks to the intangibility of a world filled with Zoom meetings and virtual drinks.

A great brand story tells people what they want to hear. But creating a brand story is about more than just targeting people’s emotions. You need to be able to provide them with information as well. The perfect brand story will target both parts of the decision-making process. 

Back up a great emotional first impression by empowering your audience with facts and knowledge, and you’ll make a customer loyal for life.


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