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Storytelling in Marketing: 3 Successful Examples

Most brands are poor at brand storytelling. They take the “brand” component too literally and make it all about them. Or they create content without a real story.

Done well, brand storytelling can be not only a differentiator but a memorable opportunity to draw and engage an audience.

Let’s explore three avenues for successful brand storytelling shared at Content Marketing World 2019.

But first, let’s look at what brand storytelling is.

What is brand storytelling?

On the Scribewise blog in Brand Storytelling, Defined, Kaitlin Loyal offers this good definition:

Brand storytelling is using a narrative to connect your brand to customers, with a focus on linking what you stand for to the values you share with your customers.

Breaking down the key elements of the definition, she writes:

  • “By narrative, we mean storytelling elements. A story includes characters, setting, conflict, rising action, climax, and dénouement.”
  • “By what you stand for, we mean the essence of your brand. It’s not the product you sell, and it’s not to make money. It’s the driving force behind your business, and it differentiates you from the competition.”
  • Values are the character traits of your company that define it … A company’s values are the best behaviors of your best employees on their best days.”

Debbie Williams, in a CMI post, Find the Heart of Your Brand Storytelling with These 6 Questions, echoes Kaitlin’s sentiments. As Debbie writes:

A brand story is made up of all that you are and all that you do. From the company’s history, mission, inspiration, goals, audience, and raison d’être, it’s why you exist.

Debbie believes that while all brands have a story to tell, some don’t know how to find or share theirs. To help, she provides six questions to draw out brand stories:

  • What’s your reason for being?
  • What’s your history?
  • Who are your main characters?
  • What’s your corporate mission?
  • How have you failed?
  • Where are your gaps?

For a brand story to work, it must go beyond a brand’s products and services. “You have to create something that they [members of your audience] want to be a part of and show that you really ‘get’ who they are and what they need,” writes Debbie.

Brand stories work when they go beyond products and services, says @DennisShiao via @cmicontent. #CMWorld Share on X

As Kaitlin writes, “(F)ocus more on why your business exists at all. When you tell this story and explain your values, you’ll engage the customers who share your values.”

Now, let’s consider some approaches to brand storytelling from the Content Marketing World sessions.

Data-driven brand storytelling

In Speaking Their Languages: How to Engage Different Audiences With Meaningful Content,

Annie Granatstein, head of WP BrandStudio at The Washington Post, details the data-driven strategy her team employs for brand storytelling.

WP BrandStudio creates investigative pieces for brands, including op-ed articles, newsroom-style articles, visually driven experiences, and bespoke executions. Though WP BrandStudio operates independently from The Washington Post newsroom, it holds to the same journalistic standards.

The team conceives a brand storytelling campaign at an intersection where cultural insights, brand insights, and editorial insights meet.

To accomplish this, team members obsess over performance data, from the traditional newsroom to the custom content. They also test everything in a UX lab to see how readers engage with the content.

Click to enlarge

Annie shares a brand storytelling campaign they did with Optum, a pharmacy benefit manager that’s part of UnitedHealth Group. They first developed the three-road intersection where the data/goals meet:

  • Cultural insight – Every 13 minutes, someone dies from an opioid overdose in the United States.
  • Editorial insight – The Washington Post had over 600,000 page views from the top five opioid-related stories in a year.
  • Brand insight – Optum uses an evidence-based approach to fight the opioid epidemic.
.@WPBrandStudio bases story campaign on cultural, editorial, and brand insight, says @anniegranat via @cmicontent. #CMWorld Share on X

Using these insights, WP BrandStudio created a multimedia piece, Working To End The Epidemic. The piece centered on a Massachusetts town with the highest rate of opioid overdoses in the country. It included interviews with people struggling with addiction as well as their caregivers.

The piece alternated between educational information (e.g., how do opioids work on the brain and body) and emotional stories – the human toll of the epidemic. The brand storytelling project earned high organic traffic and engagement and was recognized with marketing industry awards and even a tweet from Katie Couric.

Audience-centered brand storytelling

Marketers should take the “brand” out of brand storytelling. “You need to let go of your brand ego,” says Raymond Roker, head of AEG Studios.

In his presentation, Content Marketing: Where Branded Storytelling and Music Collide, Raymond notes that consumers, not brands, are in control. They have a wealth of content sources vying for their attention. They don’t need to listen to your brand. They can skip past your blog post, install ad blockers, and use any means necessary to avoid you. They also can pay attention when they find something meaningful to them.

Lead with audience needs and let the brand trail behind. That can’t happen if you’re reviewing your content to assess how much of the brand logo or product shows.

Lead with audience needs and let the brand trail behind, says @rroker via @cmicontent. #storytelling #CMWorld Share on X

“Your content should first serve your audience with value. Your brand is not the important thing. If you’re starting a podcast or a blog or an Instagram account and your first 200 posts are all giving value back, that will pay off in dividends later,” Raymond says.

An audience-focused approach requires patience as it’s often a long play, but the payoff will come. As Raymond explains, “If you think value first, your brand can always follow.”

News outlet as brand storytelling

What if prospects and customers looking for industry news came to recognize your brand’s site as the provider of that news? Wouldn’t that be great?

Sarah Mitchell and Dan Hatch, co-founders of Typeset, achieved that with Traction News, an industry news site owned and operated by Tireweb Marketing, a marketing agency for tire business owners.

In their presentation, How to Transform Your Tired Blog Into a Powerhouse Brand Newsroom, Sarah and Dan shared how it works.

Traction News is an online magazine for people in the business of selling tires. Coverage of an industry conference was a key feature of their annual content marketing strategy. Dan secured media credentials as a reporter for Traction News. He interviewed tire manufacturers on the show floor. As Sarah says, “They were thrilled to get on camera. They didn’t know that they were contributing to somebody else’s marketing. They didn’t care.”

Dan and Sarah also launched a podcast and recorded episodes featuring interviews with people from the tire industry at the event. Both Dan’s videos and the podcast were a hit. Event attendees appreciated the content and so did industry professionals who were not able to attend.

Tireweb Marketing took the news site to the next level and submitted it to Google News. Because Dan used journalist-style objectivity in the reporting, and left any obvious marketing out of the stories, the content qualified as news. Shortly thereafter, Google listed Traction News as a news site in search results:

Take your news site to the next level and submit it to @googlenews.@sarahmitchelloz @daniel_hatch via @cmicontent #CMWorld Share on X

The Google News placement elevated Traction News’ credibility. It also generated a lot of organic traffic.

TIP: To submit a site for Google News consideration, read this Google Support page.

Dear brand, tell me a story

In reviewing these Content Marketing World sessions, I kept thinking of Simon Sinek’s Start With Why and his famous TED Talk quote, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.”

I’ve come across a lot of brands that do not clearly identify or document their why. Ask an employee of the brand to explain the why and see many blank stares. For brand storytelling, defining and documenting your why is a critical first step.

For brand #storytelling, defining and documenting your why is a critical first step, says @dshiao via @cmicontent. #CMWorld Share on X

From there, you can apply data-driven insights, focus on audience needs and become the media. How are your brand storytelling efforts coming along and what are your biggest challenges? Share with us in the comments.

Here’s an excerpt from Annie Granatstein’s talk:

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute