Storytelling is the medium through which cultures grow and thrive. From a modern branding perspective, successful storytelling acts as an emotional glue, creating a loyal audience and engaging new customers.
Some of the most iconic brands in history are great ‘story brands’. From legacy brands like Disney and Apple to challenger brands like Warby Parker and Airbnb, a rich blend of history and marketing can create an experience that convinces people to try new things. The duality of story and experience is pure gold for marketers.
How do brand strategists capture the power of storytelling for the modern age of consumerism and instant gratification? Let’s take a closer look.
THEY KEEP STORY CLOSE TO THE CORE OF THE BRAND; LET IT EVOLVE TO REMAIN RELEVANT TO CUSTOMERS
In 1997, the first “Priceless” ad aired from Mastercard. The tagline, “There are some things money can’t buy, for everything else there’s Mastercard” was run consistently for 20 years, in over 50 languages across 125 countries. As audiences evolve, however, and alongside the entrance of fintech companies like Venmo, Apple Pay, and PayPal, the legacy company had to make an adjustment to their story.
Maintaining a globally consistent brand message is a challenge. But according to Timothy Murphy, current General Counsel and former Chief Product Officer, “Priceless” is a concept that is intrinsically embedded in the company’s history and is applicable to a modern society influenced by the prevalence of social media connectedness. He noted in a recent video for Mastercard News, “The way we’re using ‘Priceless’ is to connect to people’s real passions about giving back. If you share a passion for something, seeing Mastercard connect ‘Priceless’ with that and with you is something you never forget.”
He continued, “When you experience an ad that’s really well done, you see its power in so many different places.” Today, the company embeds ‘Priceless’ into a variety of ad placements. One of the most recent was a February ad spot featuring popular singer Camilla Cabello, with the tagline “Start Something Priceless.” The shift in focus appears to have paid off, with The Motley Fool reporting Mastercard’s retail sales hitting 5.1 percent last year ($850 billion), the strongest growth in six years.
It’s clear that over the last few decades, as internet usage soared and as modes of media consumption changed, brand storytelling has become that much more of an integral core of marketing strategy. Since mobile searches overtook desktop in 2015, according to Google, the need for concise, compelling stories that strike an emotional chord with an increasingly disconnected-yet-plugged-in audience is paramount to longevity. Brands like Mastercard are able to excel because they develop stories that grow with them and help cultivate a newer audience.
THEY EMPHASIZE THE BACKSTORY; IT MATTERS MORE THAN YOU THINK
As the backbone of a marketing strategy, brands are going to want to search carefully for savvy storytellers to join their team. Storytelling blends equal parts of art and science for an emotive marketing strategy with an eye for audience metrics and analytics. It’s an increasingly specialized role with a central focus on understanding and playing to the customer experience.
Brands shouldn’t ignore the power of their audience, however. Developing a compelling backstory can inspire brand loyalty amongst the most passionate of consumers. Even ordinary consumers can play a role in helping support a company’s marketing efforts. Take Lush, for example.
Despite the cosmetic brand’s global “no advertising spend” policy, the company has managed to nurture a cult following in the UK and US. Organic reach is notoriously difficult to attain and cultivate, but Lush thrives off natural mentions of their brand on social media from loyal customers, and by turning in-store employees into brand advocates. Their vegan, cruelty-free mission statement resonates with younger consumers who value cause marketing over traditional forms of advertising.
With nearly five million combined followers on their US and UK Instagram sites, they’ve made it abundantly clear that they have their finger firmly on the pulse of their target audience.
THEY ADJUST THEIR STORYTELLING STYLE TO GET PICKED, THEN TO GET READ
Neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak conducted a string of experiments measuring oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that relates to prosocial bonding behaviors. His results point to three important phases that outline our relationship with stories:attention, connection, and action. Since attention is a scarce resource, effective marketing needs to first engage its audience, or it will ultimately fail to deliver its message.
Zak found that participants who watched a short video produced more oxytocin as a result of suspense. As characters onscreen worked through conflicts, participants who had remained engaged experienced elevated levels of the neurotransmitter in their bodies. This directly tied into their decision-making behavior; oxytocin levels were positively correlated to a participant’s willingness to donate money to “help”the on-screen character they had empathized with. Thus, the efficacy of an ad is determined by its ability to grab a consumer’s attention, get them to empathize, and convince them to act. In this respect, storytelling can make a conceptual idea appear real to its audience, and translate that into profit.
In the future, storytelling will only become more important. Experts argue that attention spans aren’t necessarily declining as previously believed, and instead are evolving. Nearly 90 percent of surveyed business professionals stated the story behind what’s being presented to their audience is critical to maintaining engagement. That said, the mobile-first movement has changed media consumption. Effective storytelling needs to incorporate engaging visuals (both video and graphic content marketing), great stories, and cause marketing.
Storytelling has emerged as a powerful marketing tool as brand strategists explore ways to reconnect with an audience whose priorities and interests are shifting. Brands that can pivot without losing the ability to tell their story in an authentic, emotive way are the ones who will capture market share going forward.