By Debbie Williams published November 1, 2012

Brand Storytelling: Why Words Matter as Much as Design

brand storytelling, tree illustrationAs important as a captivating design is to your content marketing, stories (and the words that tell them) are what make people decide if they like you, if you understand their needs, and if they want to do business with you. Brand storytelling can’t be done with visuals alone.

While great design might lure someone in, it’s not enough to sustain a real relationship. People communicate through conversation, and the words are essential to that dialogue.

Imagine if you were planning a wine tasting trip in Napa and you found beautiful pictures of vineyards but no descriptions of the types of wines they offer, or the notes or history of the grapes? What if you were searching for a new camera and just found visuals of cameras, with no information on features, and no product reviews? Words matter, and brands that tell their stories — not just show them — win.

Words are powerful

Words spark emotion and transport people into a different mindset. A great example of this is seen in a video that went viral in 2011 called, “The Power of Words.” It shows a blind, homeless man sitting on a city street collecting change. Initially he held up a sign that simply said, “I’m blind, please help.” The video shows most people just glancing and walking by. The turning point comes when a woman stopped and rewrote his sign to say, “It’s a beautiful day and I can’t see it.

Why do these new words become impossible to ignore? They forge an emotional connection between the experience of one person and another. They make the passersby relate in an entirely different way to what and whom they see. This short film illustrates how the power of words can dramatically change your message and effect upon people.

Words on the web

According to Google ZMOT, in 2011 people researched and digested 10.4 unique pieces of content before making a purchasing decision. If the internet was made up of only visuals and pretty designs, would it be any use? Your online content is the voice of your company, speaking to your customers and telling your story while you’re busy growing your business.

Words make the web work. We live in a time when most people instantly search online before making a purchasing decision. When you want to find information on something what do you do? You search online, sometimes over and over again, until you have a good idea about what you want and who you want it from.

So many companies focus on the visual side of their story and neglect the importance of the words. They put all of their efforts into the look and design of a website without carving out a carefully crafted message that speaks to their audience. At my company (Sprout Content), we often talk with clients who “want a new website,” but haven’t given any thought to what it will say or who they are saying it to. They’re neglecting brand storytelling. Businesses often work with web developers to create a new site, but lack of content holds up the entire process.

Visuals and words telling a story

We’ve seen that many companies often don’t understand their story or how it can be told to clients and prospects. If you’re selling a traditionally “boring” product or service (think accounting, or carpet cleaning), words can actually paint an exciting and interesting picture of your business and products.

Think your business isn’t that exciting? Paper converting likely doesn’t sound thrilling either — until the company’s story is told:

Oren International (full disclosure: It is a client) is a paper-converting company that had an outdated website that did not communicate its scope of services or, more importantly, what the company is passionate about. It offered basic square swatches of products — all of the content included factual information, such as a list of dimensions.

Here is a sample from one of Oren’s new product pages. It shows how compelling visuals work together with content to tell the brand story:

We worked with Oren to create new content that explains how it partners with companies to bring their visions to life and convey their passion for paper. It has a voice and perspective and effectively communicates what Oren can do and what all of its products are used for.

Words and visuals must work as a cohesive and complete team to paint the full picture of a brand story. Your package design, website, blog theme, catalogue, or brochure might be drop-dead gorgeous, but if the words in it aren’t compelling, no one will keep reading. When the design is interesting, all of your words create a more powerful experience. On the flipside, if the design is bad, your brilliant words will go unread and your story untold.

This post is an introduction to Chapter 1 of the upcoming CMI Books publication Brands in Glass Houses — How Transparent Storytelling Helps Brands Compete and Win, by co-authors Debbie Williams and Dechay Watts, co-founders of Sprout Content, and international brand marketing consultant Said Baaghil.

Image via Bigstock

Author: Debbie Williams

As co-founder of SPROUT Content, Debbie Williams is passionate about developing strategic, creative content that eloquently captures the spirit and emotion of brands through words. After more than 10 years of copywriting and creative marketing experience for global beauty brands and consumer goods companies, she now knows that content marketing is what she’s been doing all along. Follow her on Twitter @sproutcontent.

Other posts by Debbie Williams

  • Chris Adams

    You hit a home run with this article. This article has come out at the right time. Entire industry is focusing on infographics and better design. The risk of not paying attention to words is slowly emerging. Your article clears calls out for balancing words and design.
    Based on your exp have you seen any recent examples where the infographics and design have been great but the words were mediocre and thus impacted the branding?
    Thank you

    • Debbie Williams

      Hi Chris, thanks so much. So glad that you liked the article. As a former “traditional copywriter” all too often I had to write to design or retro fit words to a layout. It’s extraordinarily frustrating and counterintuitive to work in such silos, when the end result is to have a cohesive and strategic message. I’m usually focused on finding good content with bad design so I really appreciate the opposit challenge. I will find a few concrete examples and get back to you! Look for them in the book too! Thanks!

      • Chris Adams

        Thank you so much..

  • Claire Hibbert

    Great advice – thanks for sharing.

    • Debbie Williams

      Thanks Claire! We are ally appreciate the support.

  • Thierry Gillmann

    Thank you for this post. I would add, though, that words can be as meaningless as pictures, as most companies and brands are terrible and prolific BS producers… if not of course the case of your clients!

    NB: I’ve heard the story depicted in video from my very first day in advertising in, well… 1982. It was called ‘the blind beggar on Brooklyn’s bridge’ at this time. David Ogilvy’s still alive!

    • Debbie Williams

      Hi Thierry – yes, Olgivy is a legend and his ideas still and always will impact the marketing world. Bravo to Glasgow agency Purplefeather for bringing the concept into the light and technology of the 21st Century! I agree that’s there certianly is bad copy out there in the world, and its something that bothers me more than less quality design! Our point is that they should be cohesive, strategic partners that work together to tell a band story and bring a message to lif. 🙂 cheers!

  • dbarbush

    Nice article, but those examples aren’t stories. I can see it now: “Branded Butcher Paper” starring Kim Kardashian. Corporations should forget about it and give away free iPads.

  • thethreemarketeer

    Great article, I think its important for companies to IDENTIFY themselves today. I often hear that consumers don’t care about the company only the value the company can create for them…well I think value can play right into the brand and the company personality. i.e. if I am ready to purchase a watch and have narrowed it down to two companies, my selection process becomes about the company’s personality (is it American owned, what type of goodwill, my perception of the company personality, what I’ve heard/read in the news about the company, the leaders, their story…). I don’t think I am the only person who considers the brand story as part of the purchasing process. Why are people so loyal to the Apple brand? I think the massive Apple appeal started out due to the superiority of the product offering but today, I think it’s all about brand association (Steve Jobs is an icon, the brand story, the brand personality) which has created the brand stickiness (if that is a word). My two cents. Bottom line, the brand story matters, marketers must be able to communicate effectively and be genuine in living it.