Story Branding 101: Tried-and-True Narrative Techniques to Use in Your Brand Stories
We’ve all seen them.
Brand stories that are so generic and boring that they almost make you dislocate your jaw yawning.
Looking at those, it’s understandable to think, “Wait, so you’re saying that storytelling will grow my brand? Sure doesn’t look like it!”
We get why you’d be skeptical. But story branding, when done right, can be like digital catnip to your potential customers. And while we can’t really give your company an interesting story to work with (you’ll have to do that yourself, champ)…
…we can arm you with a few effective storytelling techniques to keep your audience hooked while you’re spinning the yarn!
In today’s article, we’ll show you 5 tricks for making your brand story more engaging to your target market. You can use these to spice up even the most boring story — especially if you combine a couple of these techniques at once.
Interested? Read on!
1. Grab your audience’s attention with narrative “hooks”
There are two ways to open your brand story. You can start from the beginning, nice and straightforward… and watch hopelessly as your audience’s attention drifts away.
Or you can give them a reason to stick around by telling them something interesting right off the bat!
That’s what narrative hooks are — attention-grabbing ways to begin your story. And they come in many, many different shapes. Here are 3 of our favorite hooks:
- Cite an unexpected, shocking statistic that’s relevant to your brand. For example, if you’re a criminal defense lawyer, your brand story might start with something like, “Did you know innocent people will confess to a crime they didn’t commit 43% of the time?” You’ll get people’s attention and give important context to your life’s work.
- “Paint the dream” by asking your audience to imagine some ideal future scenario. For example, if you sell high-quality mattresses, then for your hook you might describe the perfect good night’s sleep. Show your audience what’s possible — and then, tell your brand story.
- Empathize with your audience’s goals. Show them that you understand what they want. Describe their frustrations, echo their hopes and dreams… then transition into the story of how you are on a mission to help them accomplish everything they’ve ever wanted.
Tip: don’t use hooks just to get attention. That’s short-term thinking — and we know you like to be strategic! So instead, use these engaging openers to create a logical connection between your business and the solution to your customer’s problems. That way, in addition to telling your story, you’ll be addressing the unspoken “why should I choose you?” question in their mind!
Example: Nerd Fitness blog does a fantastic job using empathy (hook #3) to resonate with new visitors and keep them reading — starting with the page title: “Welcome Home.” Also, notice that they don’t go into the proper “story” of the brand until almost halfway through!
2. Use ye olde screenwriting rule of “in medias res”
We sincerely apologize for dropping Latin on you. It won’t happen again.
But now that we have, let’s elaborate.
“In medias res” just means “in the middle of things” — and it’s how a lot of hyper-successful movies are written. The writers don’t bother with backstory and setup; they give you the most interesting bit of the action first and spin the plot from there.
You can do the exact same thing with your brand story. Let’s say that your company is famous for making mobile phones… but way back when you started, you used to make toilet paper, tires, and all sorts of other stuff.
Now, do you test your audience’s patience by describing how you’ve spent decades making toilet paper — or do you start with the pivotal switch to consumer electronics?
(Incidentally, we didn’t just make up this example. It’s the story of Nokia, formerly the world’s biggest cell phone manufacturer!)
So here’s an idea: figure out the most dramatic, pivotal, defining moment in the history of your business — and lead with that. Prove that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, there is something useful to be learned from Hollywood!
Example: It’s not very common to see this technique in regular brand storytelling (which is a shame), but non-fiction author use it all the time when they write about famous entrepreneurs and companies. For instance, “The Everything Store” by Brad Stone begins with:
“Alexa, who’s the wealthiest person on the planet? In 2017, Amazon’s voice-activated digital assistant delivered a new answer to that question: Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO and one of the world’s most recognizable business figures.”
3. Keep ‘em hooked using a “curiosity gap”
The “curiosity gap,” also called the “open loop,” is one of the most common storytelling tricks. And for good reason — it works like a charm! Here’s how…
The basic premise of a curiosity gap is very straightforward:
- You share a piece of information with the audience.
- You withhold part of that information from the audience.
- Driven by curiosity, they take action to find out more.
We all have this drive to discover what’s being hidden from us. Author Iain Leslie calls it “epistemic curiosity” — the desire to gain more knowledge and understanding about a given topic.
You can use this to your advantage, making your brand stories more engaging. When talking about a past event, or a challenge your brand had to overcome, or an important discovery you made, don’t give the straightforward answer right away.
Instead, tease your audience for a few seconds — or a few minutes. It’s up to you. That way, you’ll keep them reading, listening, or watching your story with closer attention than usual!
Tip: Learning how long you can keep your audience in suspense before you “close the loop” is almost its own skill. As a general rule of thumb, if you open with a curiosity gap in the headline or the introduction, you want to pay it off as soon as possible. But if you introduce it later in the story, you can hold off on the big reveal for much longer!
Example: This video by Burt’s Bees uses the bluntest “curiosity gap” possible (that doubles as a narrative hook). It just straight-up asks, “Who is Burt?” And the ridiculous thing is, it works! Of course, it also deploys engaging visuals and a colorful character to make you keep watching. But the way it all comes together, from script to voiceover to video to overall message, is awesome!
4. Surprise and delight your audience with a plot twist
We all know what a plot twist is — so we’re not going to waste your time explaining it! Here’s how you can use the same technique to get better at story branding…
People who hear about your brand will develop certain expectations in their mind. It’s totally normal — our brains can’t help but make connections and jump to conclusions. It’s part of this whole “being human” schtick!
Well, if you can predict what those expectations are and turn them upside-down, you will:
- Make your brand story more memorable, and
- Create more engagement and trust with your audience!
The vast majority of brand stories out there are completely predictable and follow the same boring beats: someone grows up, comes up with a brilliant idea and proceeds to change the world.
Yawn! We’ve heard this what feels like a billion times.
If you can come up with a twist of this formula, you’ll instantly separate your business from everybody else. So: think about any and all ways you break the mold, defy expectations, or zig when others zag — and use them in your brand storytelling.
Tip: A plot twist can be related to the past (like a pivotal decision you made long ago), in the present (how you decided to tackle a recent challenge), or in the future (a new and unexpected direction for your company, your team, or yourself). Any of these can make for a compelling story!
Example: Here’s a terrific brand story where the plot twist is practically baked into its DNA… Food Revolution Network is an organization dedicated to healthy, ethical, and sustainable food — and it was founded by an heir to the Baskin-Robbins ice cream empire. Can you imagine the drama, the personal growth, the struggle behind their story? Just reading this makes us want to find out what happened!
5. Boost your credibility with well-placed quotes
Sometimes the best way to tell your brand story is… to shut up and let somebody else do it for you!
There’s a very good reason for it: when companies sing their own praises, consumers usually distrust what they say — and can you blame them?
But when it’s other people who talk about how amazing your brand is, those stories become much easier to trust. After all, they come from someone real, and someone who’s removed from the brand enough that their motivations aren’t suspect. Well, not as suspect!
That’s why, if you can get other people to tell your brand story, you should seize that opportunity. They could be past customers, business partners, sponsored celebrities, journalists, your current and former employees, or even just fans of your brand — you name it.
Just because they aren’t you, their perspectives will seem more trustworthy to many of your potential customers. So the best thing you can do is take their stories and amplify them to reach more people and build your credibility!
Tip: Keep in mind that you can’t really get other people to repeat your marketing messages point by point for you… Well, you can, but you shouldn’t! It defeats the purpose of this technique. So instead, encourage people to share their authentic personal experiences with your brand, and make the best of those.
Example: Airbnb are masters of telling stories through their customers. Just watch this one video to see what we mean. The language is simple and straightforward, the focus is always on the authentic, emotional moments shared between the host and his guests… it’s sooo well-done. And this video isn’t even their most popular one!
Discuss story branding and stories that convert with our CEO!
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Then join our Founder and CEO Summer, Felix-Mulder, on her weekly live broadcasts on Instagram!
Summer will be dropping her knowledge bombs every Thursday at 1 pm PST, starting this week. So make sure you follow her @thedrawshop and tune in!