5 Reasons Brand Storytelling Fails — and What You Can Do About It


Storytelling is the greatest form of marketing ever created — but that doesn’t mean it can’t backfire! 

When you’re telling a story in private, it’s not so bad. The worst you can expect is an awkward silence or a few forced chuckles. 

But when you’re using brand storytelling to market your product or service to thousands, even millions of people… 

…then it can cost you revenue, reputation, and previously loyal customers. Yikes!

That’s why you always want to make sure that your brand storytelling is on point before you unleash it on your target audience.

And that’s exactly what this week’s article is all about. Today, we’ll discuss 5 reasons your brand storytelling campaigns might miss the mark — and what exactly you can do to avoid it!

You will learn:

  • How to talk about your brand values so that people will actually believe you
  • The #1 factor that humanizes your brand and makes it likable
  • Things you can do to convey complex ideas in a simple way
  • How to talk to your audience in their language and enhance your message

And more. Let’s get started!

5 reasons brand storytelling fails

1. “Talking the talk” without “walking the walk”

Most brands have values they uphold: like innovation, diversity, social responsibility and so on. And then some brand like to say that those values matter to them… but their actual behavior doesn’t reflect it.

And when those brands try to tell a story based on those values, it comes off incredibly fake and lazy. For example, consider this marketing video by Amazon.

It’s positioned as an upbeat, feel-good story about “amazing technology and amazing people” behind the brand’s super-efficient fulfillment system. The video shows a dream workplace where everything runs like a well-oiled machine and everyone loves what they do.

The only problem is, that video came out during a storm of negative news stories about Amazon warehouses, accusing the company of low pay and poor working conditions. That’s why that cutesy marketing video has 10 times as many dislikes as likes!

What’s the lesson here? Brand storytelling works best when you practice what you preach. Consumers can always tell the difference between sincerely-held values and lip service.

How to avoid it: if you want to demonstrate your brand values, stick to stories that can show them beyond any doubt. Take Zappos, for example. They can back up their commitment to employees and to customers with factual stories about their customer support and their company policies.

By the way: we mean no disrespect to Amazon. Even their warehouse video could have worked if they focused on efficiency and innovation — values they very much care about and can prove it! — instead of emphasizing the perfect work environment that didn’t measure up to reality.

And if you don’t have stories to back up your brand values… well, that’s a great reason to look into how your company operates and improve!

2. Failing to meet the audience’s expectations

Seth Godin famously said that a brand is “prediction of what to expect x emotional power of that expectation.”

Your target market has a certain image of your company in their head. When you put out a story that doesn’t match that image, it can fall flat — even if it’s well-told and exciting.

For example, some time back Lyft published a brand story (which they had since deleted) about one of their drivers giving birth on the job. They wanted to deliver an uplifting message about the entrepreneurial spirit: see, this woman continued to work and drive around even as she was 9 months pregnant!

It backfired spectacularly

Instead of admiring the driver’s hustle and finding the situation heartwarming and funny, people empathized with the pregnant woman who had to work to provide for her future child. They found the story tone-deaf and insensitive to Lyft drivers. It sparked a debate about the treatment of contractors by big tech companies and harmed the company’s reputation.

Here’s why it happened: Lyft positions itself as this “friendly neighborhood” brand. They don’t emphasize the entrepreneurial aspect of being a Lyft driver nearly as much as their competition. Instead, Lyft sets itself up as the more ethical alternative to other rideshare companies. The story contradicted their brand image, and so Lyft’s target audience hated it.

How to avoid it: make sure that your brand story aligns with your customers’ expectations. When in doubt, you can: 

  • Sleep on it and come back to it later to reevaluate the message.
  • Get a fresh set of eyes to look at your story and give you a second opinion.
  • Or simply test the waters by putting your story out to a small sample of your audience, like a segment of your email list.

Now, don’t get us wrong: we’re not saying that you should never take risks for fear of offending someone and only give your audience the most predictable, generic brand stories. That would defeat the whole point of story marketing altogether. That said, it doesn’t hurt to get a reality check now and again — it will not only help you engage people but also avoid backlash!

3. Speaking the wrong language

We’ve all seen brand stories that are so stuffed with meaningless corporatese that they become incomprehensible. Heck, it only takes 2 seconds to google a relevant example!

Sure, using jargon and sophisticated words can look good in a press release — but it won’t impress your target audience. If your customers can’t understand your message, your brand story won’t resonate. And if it doesn’t resonate, people won’t care about your business or, by extension, your products or services. Not enough to buy them, at least!

How to avoid it: ditch corporate-speak and talk to your target audience the way they do. Create a brand voice that’s “casual but classy” — as in, mostly free of industry jargon and similar to how your customers talk in real life.

You can achieve this in many ways, for example:

  • Whenever possible, use quotes from your customers with little to no editing (e.g. in testimonials and case studies).
  • Comb through your customer interactions and look for words and phrases that come up again and again. You can use them in your marketing, even beyond storytelling.
  • Look at brands you admire: do they hide behind corporate lingo and jargon when they talk to their target market? Nope (we hope so, anyway)!

Here’s the only exception to this “rule”: if your target customers use specialized jargon themselves — if they are industry professionals, for example — then you can use it, too. In that case, it becomes a powerful trust signal that says, “I know what you need. I am one of you.” 

If that’s your situation, then you have our permission to bust out the jargon!

4. Forgetting to express your big idea

Even small stories can express big ideas. And they should! Well, if you want people to pay attention, that is.

Sadly, it’s very easy to get wrapped up in what you want to say and how you want to say it, forgetting the most important thing…

why do you want to say it at all?

Any brand story you tell needs to drive home a larger point — just like a fairytale or a fable. Well, maybe not in the same in-your-face way. What is that larger point? It’s whatever your company’s mission happens to be.

For example, Apple’s brand storytelling always has the same underlying message: think differently, challenge the status quo, don’t settle for less. No matter the story they present, if you dig down to its emotional core, you’ll find that message there.

Now, you might ask, “Then why do I keep running into thinkpieces about how Apple lost its rebellious, innovative edge?” Excellent question! The answer is, they’ve fallen prey to mistake #1 — straying from their values and trying to hide behind feel-good stories.

The big idea is still there, front and center… it’s just that their customers have started to doubt it.

How to avoid it: instead of trying to connect every brand story you tell back to your mission or big idea, do the opposite. Define your big idea first, and then see what kinds of stories will naturally express it.

For example, there’s a brand called Thinx that manufactures period-proof underwear. Their big idea is very bold and crystal clear — they want to end the taboo around menstruation in our society. That’s why Thinx tells a lot of personal stories about periods and sexuality as part of this taboo-smashing mission.

5. Not knowing what makes your brand remarkable

After years in business, hundreds of clients, and 1,000+ completed projects, we know for a fact that there’s no such thing as a “boring” brand.

Some companies just don’t know what makes them interesting. And that, right there, is the biggest barrier to effective brand storytelling! If you can’t tell the difference between the boring bits and the exciting stuff, it becomes tough to create engaging narratives.

For example, one time we sat down with clients who run a family-owned vineyard. One of the first things they told us was, “There’s nothing remarkable about us. We’re exactly the same as every other vineyard in the area. We don’t know how to promote ourselves, we’re stumped!”

Harsh words — but were they true? We dug deeper and unearthed some remarkable insights… For 100+ years, our client’s family had been tending the old grape vines they brought back from Europe. Thanks to their dedication and skill, the whole region got access to “old country” grapes and wines that weren’t there before!

Plus, our clients took over the family business when it was on the brink of collapse, and restored it to its former glory. So The Draw Shop had not one, but two compelling narratives to choose from: a legacy story and a success story.

“Nothing remarkable” indeed!

Maybe their wines weren’t as unique compared to the competition, but these stories were theirs, and theirs alone — and something nobody else could copy.

How to avoid it: discovering what makes your brand interesting to somebody else can be hard. You know your story, you’ve lived it, so of course it’s interesting… to you. It’s challenging to step out of your own head to look at your brand with a fresh perspective.

So why not get a professional opinion?

We’re convinced that you have a brand story worth telling. It’s in there somewhere — and we want to help you discover it!

Get a free video marketing strategy session with one of The Draw Shop’s experts and you’ll get actionable ideas for story-driven marketing videos, plus specific advice on how to use them to grow your business.

Interested? Then head over to this page and apply:

Go ahead and book your free strategy session today!