“Once upon a time …”

Four words we’ve all heard many times. But as kids, unless your name is Arthur Rimbaud, you probably didn’t think much about the intention of the author nor the structure of the prose that took you to fantasy realms of fire-breathing dragons, ludicrously long-haired princesses, and the sword-wielding princes who rescued them. Rather, you likely sat back and just listened – immersing yourself in the stories without thinking much about why you were getting sucked in.

Of course, not all books start with the ubiquitous phrase, and not every story triggers an emotionally gripping response from the audience reading it. And so goes branded storytelling – a term often bandied about in theory, but in practice many content creators still struggle to do well. How ironic, considering each of us literally lives in our own personal story – one we’re often happy to share on social media with our families and friends, and even our not-so-friends.

So why is it we know a good story when we hear one, but often have a hard time finding compelling stories to tell as marketers within or without the business, let alone telling them well?

While there are many variations and interpretations on how to craft a good story, let’s focus on two central concepts; the brand narrative (your primary story), and the content (the stories within the story). Together, these create a story loop that tells the world who you are, what you stand for, and your contribution to humanity. (Not feeding-the-world humanity – just the human problem your audience is beckoning you to help them with.)

Find your brand narrative

Your brand narrative forms the story arc all your content will loop back to. Documenting your brand narrative is smart and, at a minimum, should be included in your editorial style guide.

A good place to start building the brand narrative is your company’s origin story. Hopefully, your company started with an idea to solve a problem, heal a pain point, or serve a need. Perhaps it was to disrupt, upend, or improve something that needed disrupting, upending, or improving. Start there. (Uber, for example, might sell ride sharing, but its narrative is a quest to transform the way we think of transportation.)

TOMS Shoes: TOMS Shoes is a famous example of a brilliant brand narrative – and founder Blake Mycoskie credits TOMS’s origin story as the primary driver of its success. Through a “conscious capitalism” model, TOMS told a simple story of putting shoes on the feet of those in faraway countries who can’t afford them, which resonated with their clientele. Their “buy a shoe, give away a shoe” narrative was so effective, it put them in business. And it didn’t hurt that the shoes were pretty cool, too. In the beginning, word of mouth and social media spread the story so quickly that, within a few months, TOMS had to find ways to keep up with the thousands of orders pouring in.

Dave’s Killer Bread: Co-founder David Dahl’s story is literally on every package of Dave’s Killer Bread – a comeback story about an ex-con who re-enters the free world with a minimum wage job at the family bakery, where he started experimenting with great tasting organic bread recipes. Because Dave’s story is so transparently honest, it resonated with a public who not only loves a good redemption story, but also looks for healthy alternatives to bread without feeling like they’re eating alfalfa powder and rice cakes. Today, Dave’s Killer Bread has become the most successful organic bread company in the world, with ex-cons making up 30% of their workforce. And they continue to tell some cool stories about “breadheads” – their biggest fans.

Red Bull: It’s been said many times but it’s worth repeating: Red Bull is the crown jewel of branded storytelling with a brand narrative about athleticism, extreme sports, and thrill seekers. In fact, story is so deeply entrenched in Red Bull’s content that the brand and its primary product are almost afterthoughts. So, it’s always worth taking a look at any content it puts out. Red Bull’s storytelling prowess helps its products grab 46% of the global energy drink market. That’s crazy, considering the taste of Red Bull (a testament to just how effective their stories are). But despite my gag reflex, its content is so good that, if it wants to sponsor my ageless quest for finding killer jumps at local ski parks, I’d be happy to drink the bubbly turpentine.

Once you have your brand narrative, use it to influence every piece of content you produce. Each blog, video, and podcast should be a story within the story that connects somehow to your brand narrative.

Find your stories

What’s typically missing in the interweb’s vast crevasse of sterilized, brand-centric content is the human story of the hero’s journey from struggle to triumph. No good story ever started with, “Once upon a time, there was a great company with an amazing product that will save you time and money. The end.” Yet that’s how so much content comes across. Blech.

If you’re going to connect with an audience, you need good storytellers. And good storytellers follow a proven story structure template that works whether it’s a tale of princes and princesses or your own heroes and damsels.

1. The hero: 99% of the time, the hero represents your audience, not you. In a case study, for example, the hero would be the customer in a familiar situation your audience can identify with.

2. The hero’s quest: A journey has to go somewhere. What triggers the hero to start the quest? What is the goal? What problem will this story help your audience to solve? This gives a story its focus.

3. The hero’s conflict: The story comes from the conflict the hero experiences along the journey – the struggles to be overcome if they are to reach their goal. In content marketing, the point of storytelling is to mirror the pain points or struggle your audience hopes to overcome.

4. The hero’s resolution: A hero triumphs. If your audience sees they can follow the same path to ride into the sunset, you’ll also chart a path to purchase.

5. The lesson: “We crush the competition” is not the lesson. What’s the educational value you want the audience to get from this other than you make great stuff? Take Little Red Riding Hood. The point isn’t about wolves or best practices in food delivery in aged care. It’s about obeying your elders, heeding the warnings, and not straying from the path. Channel Li’l Red when you’re crafting each story.

6. The sequel: OK, not every story has one, but yours should. When someone engages with your story, they’ll want more. Where do you want to take them next? Have enough good stuff across different channels so they can choose their own adventure.

The hero’s journey template makes it easier to create individual “plots” for each new piece of content, while ensuring all the necessary elements are there.

If your task is to promote a product through your content, craft a hypothetical conflict your audience might find themselves in that you can help with, while avoiding the temptation to talk about the product. Focus on the knowledge that will put them on the path that leads toward your product as the solution (the end result of the hero’s resolution).

Sounding story-ish

If you’re managing the quality of your company’s content that goes out into the world, and you’re having trouble getting into the story process or capturing good stories from your team, breathe easy. No one was born a great storyteller. It takes practice. Some people are just quicker studies than others. If you follow a few basic ground rules you could be the JK Rowling of your industry.

If it would help, feel free to cut and paste these rules of thumb directly into your style guide, and share with your writers. You may not be doing the storytelling yourself, but you should know it when you see it.

1. Don’t be a hero: It’s worth repeating – the brand is not the hero of the story. Your customer is. Don’t talk about yourself (yet).

2. Incite an emotional response: Laughter, anger, sadness, pride, joy – it doesn’t matter. When we feel something, our emotions create memories that linger. People may argue with your ideas, but they’re less likely to forget them if you make ‘em laugh or cry. And they’re more likely to share them. Viral is your best friend, but 100 likes aren’t bad either. Sharing is content utopia.

3. Use metaphors and analogies: Create the relatable from the unrelatable by framing difficult concepts within familiar ideas. Remember: Movie popcorn sales plummeted when the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) launched a PR campaign to tell us that a single large tub of buttered deliciousness was the same as eating the fat from six Big Macs. The comparison was more memorable than if the report had said a tub of corn has 37 grams of saturated fat (yawn). Pass the salt, please.

4. Inspire: Give purpose to what you do. The solution your content provides should leave the readers feeling it will have a positive impact in their lives. This isn’t done with press releases. It’s done with story. If they like you and trust you, eventually, they’ll want to do business with you. And that’s the point … ultimately.

5. Avoid over-storying: Have you ever read a book that just didn’t get going? Don’t bury the lead. Get to the point quickly. Think, “Once upon a time, there lived a beautiful princess in a huge castle with her three evil sisters and twisted stepmother.” You have most of what you need to know where this is going, without a description of where the castle is geographically, the color of her hair, or the names of her three sisters.

And so it shall be

Creating relatable, memorable, sharable content is about more than just knowing your industry and having something to say. It’s about crafting a story to get the word out in a way your audience can experience vicariously, so they will remember you the next time they need the thing you’re selling.

As marketers, we’re challenged with building editorial teams (of one or many) who not only have subject matter expertise and understand the marketing objectives of the brand but also understand the brand narrative and are good storytellers. If you can encourage and support your writers to be all that, they can become your knights in shining armor. And if that happens, may you ride into the glorious content marketing sunset together.

The end.