A group of creative writers set out to prove the tangible value of storytelling with an experiment called the Significant Objects Project. They wanted to prove the economic benefits of storytelling. The idea was to create a story around a seemingly insignificant object acquired for a few dollars, i.e. a mug from a yard sale. The story was designed to give the insignificant object an emotional hook that rendered it significant, and prove their hypothesis that the effect of narrative on any given object’s subjective value can be measured objectively.

They put $128.74 worth of “thrift-store junk” for sale on eBay, each item paired with an origin story. The total return was $3,612.51, a 28x increase, and a complete validation of their hypothesis.

Miscellaneous objects at a thrift job

Neuroscientists have studied the effect of storytelling on the brain and demonstrated the positive impact it can have. Anyone who’s ever heard or told a story can attest to the emotional effect of stories. The best brands know what the Significant Objects Project proved—there’s tangible economic benefit to storytelling.

Your story matters.
 
 

What is a story?

Oxford Dictionary defines it as “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment; or, an account of past events in someone’s life or in the development of something.”

Mark Twain argued, “a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.”

“A story is a fundamental way that humans organize and store information,” says Philip Martin. “Stories connect events and create meaning; they also connect people to each other.”

Stories are one of the oldest and most enduring art forms. As social beings, we are constantly telling stories or engaging with them. We learn from them. Albert Einstein’s advice for young people to develop intelligence was, “Read fairy tales. Then read more fairy tales.”

Your brand’s story might not be a fairy tale, but that’s no reason not to tell it. It’s a powerful part of your business, and a kind of magic bullet when it comes to connecting with your customers. Your story is yours, and yours alone—and no one can compete with that.

Stack of old books
 

Stories and brands

Stories that capture our emotions have the power to influence our decisions and behavior. That’s why good brands use storytelling to connect with their customers. As much as we might argue we make logical decisions, we are inherently influenced by our emotions. Good storytelling makes us feel something. Because of that, it’s able to influence our decision making.

Consider this: you want a new gym membership to help you get in shape and improve your overall wellbeing. You’ve seen ads for a gym boasting a lot of numbers—prices, commitment time, personal training sessions, classes per week, etc. You’ve also seen ads for another gym, highlighting its state-of-the-art equipment, people looking fit and happy, and the tagline “Live your best life.”

Are you more likely to remember the statistics of the first gym, or the emotional connection to the second one? Your decision might be ultimately grounded in price, but you’re more likely to connect with the second ad even if it’s outside your original budget. Even if you ultimately act on the first gym, story has the power to get your brand into consideration. And that’s worth a lot.

Neon sign saying "Thrills"

Statistics and facts help validate our decisions, but stories are what give us that “gut feeling.” They also set brands apart from the competition. Those two gyms could have the same amount of classes per week, maybe even the same membership dues, but the second one tells the story beyond the numbers. Joining their gym would help you live your best life, which is a stronger sell than 15 class options a week. Why is it stronger? It plays on your emotions.   

 

Using storytelling to differentiate

Your story is what makes your brand different. Let’s say I’m picking between two seemingly identical backpacks, one from North Face, one from Patagonia. Both have strong brands with great stories, but Patagonia’s positive environmental impact and overall company philosophy resonates more strongly with me. It also helps me justify the price tag. I feel like I’m paying to contribute to their mission, not just buy a backpack.

Patagonia’s marketing strategy is working—not just because a customer chose them over North Face, but because that customer chose them for the points they set out to differentiate themselves against. Their target consumer is one who likes the idea of buying an eco-friendly product from an eco-friendly company (…me).

Patagonia’s high-quality products are their “what,” but their low impact manufacturing and sustainable materials are their “why”—they don’t just make great products, they make products that don’t damage the environment they empower you to enjoy.
 
 

Use your story as your “why”

It’s easy enough to let consumers know your “what” “who” and even “how.” But they need a reason to believe. They need to know the “why.” Why did you get into this business in the first place? Why do you get out of bed every morning and go to work? Why should they buy your product over the competition’s?

Your story is your chance to tell your why.

This video ad for Dove is one of my all-time favorites. It’s extremely well-done, authentic, and emotional, It tells the story of Dove’s why. They don’t just create beauty products; they’re on a mission to create a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety.

Your story is also your chance to control your narrative. You may have also seen Dove commercials comparing their soaps to other leading brands. It’s a competitive world, and if you don’t tell your audience your why, someone else might. Telling your own story is an opportunity not to be missed.

 

What makes a good story

Truth: Above all else, the story has to be real. One main goal of sharing your story with customers is to build trust. Telling a true story will not only help build trust, but also help reinforce a consistent customer experience.

Perspective: As seen in Dove’s advertisement, perspective matters. Hearing from real people, the women Dove seeks to serve, is a powerful thing. Consider what point of view will resonate most with your audiences, and help you get your message across.

Relatability: The best stories are the best because people relate to them. Readers empathize with the situation, with the characters, with the problem. They see themselves in the story. If they connect with the story, they connect with your brand.

Proof: While you want to control your narrative, consider the value of adding social proof. Nielsen’s 2015 study found that consumers are 92% more likely to trust peer recommendations than advertisements, so why not play into that by letting your customers contribute to your narrative? A great example is the stories charity: water shares from the people they’ve impacted, showing potential donors exactly who they could help.

Relevance: Don’t lose sight of your brand’s product or service in the story. The role of your brand in the story is vital to producing actionable results beyond an emotional connection.

“If well-crafted, story ads can have more motivational power than non-story ads. The most successful messaging occurs in stories where the brand’s role is necessary, believable, and integral to the plot.” – Sarah Walker, Millward Brown

hands typing on a typewriter
 

So, why does story matter?

A Johns Hopkins’ researcher predicted Budweiser’s puppy-starring 2014 Super Bowl ad would be a winner based on his two year study of commercials. The research proved that “people are attracted to stories because we’re social creatures and we relate to other people.” Even with a lineup of commercials featuring cute animals, beautiful celebrities, new cars, delicious food, etc., the structure of the content is what predicted its success.

The researcher, Keith Quesenberry, discovered that the most popular ads were the ones that told a complete story.

 

Freytag's Pyramid for storytelling

We’re hard-wired to connect to stories. Our brains release the feel-good chemical, oxytocin, when we see cute puppies befriend a horse, promoting connection and empathy.

Other neurological research tells us that a happy ending to a story triggers the limbic system, our brain’s reward center, to release dopamine which makes us feel more hopeful and optimistic” –Harrison Monarth, HBR

Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, writes about the science of storytelling and how stories shape our thinking.

“Story is the answer for two reasons, both of them backed by compelling science. First, because people are naturally greedy for stories, they have a unique ability to seize and rivet our attention. Second, stories aren’t just fun escapism–they have an almost spooky ability to mold our thinking and behavior…So this is the most fundamental challenge we face in the attention economy: how do we pin down the wandering mind? How do we override the natural tendency for a mind to skip away from whatever we are showing it? By telling stories.”  

The Significant Objects Project proved that the effect of narrative on an object’s subjective value can be measured objectively. The power of story goes beyond emotional or scientific. It has tangible economic value. The best brands know this already, and are constantly telling stories through their advertisements, websites, and social media campaigns.

At Clique, we blend content strategy, user experience, design, and engineering to bring our clients’ stories to life. We take a storyframing approach at the outset, striving to understand the “why” before we put any pixels on the page. Using data and user insights to understand the goals and wishes of target consumers, we craft a narrative designed to form a connection. We align our messaging and design strategy early so we can execute a streamlined vision of the story.

We know the power of story. We’ve seen it in our best work.

“Those who tell the stories rule the world.” -Hopi American Indian proverb

 

So, what’s your story?