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Feature Stories, Business

‘Once upon a time, there was a jewellery brand...’

Storytelling exists in all cultures; it is used to convey learning and history, as well as to entertain children and adults alike. DENYSE DRUMMOND-DUNN discusses the use of storytelling in brand marketing.


Create an emotional connection
Brands should inspire feelings of anticipation and excitement

Entice the consumer:
The promise of a journey, mystery or narrative draws customers deeper

Reinforce brand equity
Keep your narrative and brand values consistent

Be the hero
Earn shoppers’ loyalty – and positive word of mouth – by handling complaints with empathy and providing a personal touch

Stories were developed down through the ages as a means of transferring knowledge, long before books, and now the web has enabled their storage.

Storytelling has risen in importance in business over the last decade to become one of the essential skills required of CEOs and CMOs. With the introduction of websites and fan pages, storytelling has become crucial for brands as well.

Brand stories are perhaps one of the easiest ways to resonate with customers, which hopefully then leads to highly sought but ever-diminishing rewards of loyalty and advocacy. I say ‘easiest’ with caution since great storytelling is an art that is often learned but rarely truly mastered.

Andrew Stanton gave one of the most popular talks on the topic in February 2012 when he presented his TED Talk The Clue to a Great Story.

Stanton is a writer and director with animation giant Pixar, the production house behind mega hits Toy Story and WALL-E, both of which sprang from incredible stories.

I was inspired to apply Stanton’s ‘clues’ to brand stories. Let’s now review.

Make us care

 According to Stanton, a story needs to start by drawing sympathy from the audience. In the beginning, the hero is rejected or badly treated by family, friends, employers, circumstances or the world – typical examples here are and the loveable robot WALL-E.

The plight of these characters immediately sets the stage for building feelings of concern in the audience, especially when treatment is identified as unfair or outside the control of the hero, which often makes up the opening scene.

In the case of brands, the emotions they seek are on the opposite side of Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions; these are emotions of trust, admiration and/or anticipation.

People spend money on brands because they believe they will provide pleasure and/or solve a problem. Our job is to not only satisfy this need but to go even further by turning that expectation into surprise and delight ... but more on that later.

Take us with you

In storytelling there is the promise of a journey, a mystery or the chance to solve a problem. This is what entices the reader, listener or viewer to stay and learn more.

A brand wants its customers to stay and become loyal so it too makes promises, whether real or imagined.

When I first started working at Philip Morris International, there was a rumour among consumers that one of its brands, Marlboro, was financing the white-supremacy organisation Ku Klux Klan in the US because Marlboro packaging had three red rooftops or Ks on it.

"In storytelling there is the promise of a journey, a mystery, or the chance to solve a problem... A brand wants its customers to stay and become loyal, so it too makes promises – whether real or imagined"

Management obviously didn’t want this to be the case so one of the Ks was removed.

However, the desire for mystery among one consumer was so strong that he soon found a way to link the brand to hatred of African Americans, Native Americans and Asians. 

This particular consumer based his insane and wildly misguided theory on the discovery of printed reference dots on the inside of the pack that were in black, red and yellow.

He saw it as some kind of skin-colour code and overlooked the fact that printers regularly use colour-reference dots on packaging.

Alas, the theory gained traction and, unable or unwilling to tamper with the printing process, there was little management could do other than deny it, which appeared to further ‘confirm’ the rumour among fanatics!

Conspiracy theories develop from people’s desire for mystery and narrative – to the point where they will develop a story about a brand even where there is none.

Offer tales to tell

The point is that customers love to tell stories about ‘their’ brands. There are many myths about the greatest brands around, often starting from packaging or communications.

Toblerone has the ‘Bear of Berne’ and the Matterhorn high mountain displayed upon packaging to emphasise its Swiss origin and the chocolate itself is shaped like a mountain.

Other brands have embraced values and communications that have been so dominant that they have led to the establishment of customer stereotypes.

Examples include Columbia outdoor- wear’s ‘Tough Mother’ campaign, Harley Davidson’s motorcycle option for middle- aged weekend bikers, and Dove skincare’s campaign for ‘real’ women.

All these stories confirm and further support the connection customers have with these brands.

Be intentional

In stories, heroes often have an inner motivation that drives them towards their goals. They will encounter problems and challenges along the way but their motivation remains strong.

For a brand, this motivation is known as brand equity. It is represented by such factors as a brand’s image, personality, values and what benefits a customer can expect from using it.

Brands look to not only identify these factors but to also ensure they are represented consistently in everything they do.

From product to packaging, communications to sponsorships, brands reinforce their values constantly to ensure customers are sufficiently motivated to purchase.

Let us like you

A story depends on a hero with whom the audience can empathise; someone worthy of respect and even love.

This is exactly the same for brands, which is why problems and crises need to be handled quickly, fairly and respectfully.

In today’s world of global connection, everything a brand says or does anywhere in the world is now shared and commented upon within minutes.

In the past, disappointed customers may have told 10 friends; today they tell 10 million, thanks to the instantaneous and omnipresent nature of social media.

In an article entitled What an angry customer costs by Fred Reichheld, it is said that the cost to companies of haters or detractors is enormous.

“Successful companies take detractors seriously,” Reichheld writes. “They get to the root cause of customers’ anger by listening to complaints, taking them seriously and fixing problems that might be more pervasive.”

Yet it is not merely a question of preventing the spread of negative commentary. Rather, as Reichheld himself says, resolving complaints “is where true loyalty begins” for many customers.

Surprise and Delight us

Stanton says stories should charm and fascinate the audience. Similarly, brands should aim for surprise and delight – the surprise of learning something new about the product, or company that made it, and the delight of getting unexpected gifts or attention from the brand.

This is how limited editions and seasonal offers first started and, over the years, brands have gone much further.

In 2010, SpanAir bestowed surprise gifts to 190 passengers travelling with the airline on Christmas Eve in a campaign called ‘Unexpected Luggage’; KLM airline has given gifts to passengers who tweeted about their pending departure on a KLM flight at the airport.

One year, juice company Tropicana brought a giant inflatable ‘Arctic sun’
to the remote Canadian town of Inuvik, where residents live without sunlight for an entire month each winter.

US online shoe and clothing retailer Zappos, known for its customer service, upgraded all customer shipping to express for free. That was in addition to its standard policy of a one-year returns guarantee and including handwritten notes with deliveries.

Kleenex surprised sick people with cold and flu care packages as part of its Feel Good campaign, targeting people who were tweeting about having the flu.

And finally, Google, which is known for creative and timely illustrations on its homepage, displays a birthday cake on the day of people’s birthdays.

The last example actually happened to me and I have to say I was so excited I actually tweeted about it. Am I the only one who was touched by this gesture?

There you have it. Those are Stanton’s clues to a great story adapted for brands. Now consider – what stories are told about your brand?

Denyse Drummond-Dunn

Contributor • C3Centricity

Denyse Drummond-Dunn works with organisations that want to attract, delight, and retain more customers. Learn more:

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