Think about a story you love—a documentary, a podcast episode, a novel. What about that story made it stay with you? Chances are it moved you to feel something.
A brand story contains many of the same elements that draw you into your favorite book or film. And it’s a story that serves a similar purpose. It has characters (you, your customers), a conflict (personal or customer pain point), rising action (your journey to solve that problem), and a climax (the launch!). Most importantly, it leaves the reader or viewer with a feeling.
If you think of brand storytelling in terms of just storytelling, you free yourself from the constraints of what you think your brand’s story should be and allow yourself to write the one you want.
Ahead, learn the secrets to using storytelling in branding to earn trust, engage customers, and soar above competition. There are no rules here—just plenty of guidelines and best practices used by successful entrepreneurs and brand storytellers.
What is brand storytelling?
Brand storytelling uses narrative to shape and communicate the essence of your brand to your customers. It is a mix of facts (the who, what, when) and feelings (the why) that tell people what you’re about and why they should care. A good story also infuses a brand’s values.
A brand story is the north star for a growing business, a beacon that guides what a company does in addition to what it says. It can act as the foundation of brand guidelines that, even as you scale, keep your mission, message, and voice consistent.
Your brand story, like any powerful story, should be captivating, human, and honest. It should make people feel something. That feeling then becomes the catalyst for a desired action—join, donate, follow, sign up, buy. It can be told in the form of a written essay, a video, or a photo series and presented across a number of channels and applications.
Let’s take two seemingly similar examples: Nike and New Balance. While their products may not differ very much functionally, they behave differently and have very different perspectives, according to Karlee Bedford, brand director at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. “Consumers in the market for sneakers have a different feeling about what each brand offers them emotionally,” she says.
Why should you use storytelling in branding?
Think about the holiday season. A favorite Christmas film or a family story passed down through generations is often the magical reindeer dust on the entire experience. It’s not the eggnog and rum inducing those warm and fuzzy feelings—it’s the power of storytelling. Neuroscientists agree.
Stories can impact brain chemistry to generate positive feelings. In the case of brand storytelling, that means building trust and affinity with customers.
Connect emotionally with customers
One Berkeley study found that the brain produces a neurochemical called oxytocin—sometimes referred to as “the love hormone”—when people watch or hear a moving story. Oxytocin creates feelings of empathy and compassion, and higher levels of the hormone are shown to produce generosity and trust.
For a brand, that’s good news. “Storytelling is an opportunity to emotionally connect with consumers,” says Karlee. “It offers the consumer more than just a product or service—it offers them an experience.” It’s easier to build trust and an initial connection if you can move your audiences to feel something, laying the foundation for turning them into a customer.
Founder Lauren Chan’s experiences were integral to her company’s story because it’s rooted in her most vulnerable moments. She launched her plus fashion brand Henning mere months before the onset of COVID-19 and the escalation of the Black Lives Matter movement. “We need to be deeply human,” she says. “It makes sense to focus on community and conversation.”
Storytelling “can affirm our own beliefs and perceptions, but more often, it challenges them,” writes historian Cody C. Delistraty. For Ashley Jennett, founder of mom and tot t-shirt brand The Bee & The Fox, brand storytelling is a cornerstone. “The heart of the brand is always going to be in the content. It’s in what we stand for. It’s the organizations we donate to,” she says.
Build authenticity and trust
“Relationships between humans take time to build, and the same is true for brands and their customers,” says Karlee. “It requires spending time together, sharing experiences, having conversations, and building trust over time.”
Lauren believes the people your brand serves should have a seat at the table, making decisions. “Part of the reason plus-sized brands have largely failed in the past is they’re not founded or run by plus-sized people,” she says. “And it’s evident.” Lauren is her own customer, so she is able to share a common experience with them. The authenticity shines in Henning’s story and visuals.
Presenting an authentic self also plays a central role for Charlotte Cho’s skin care brands Soko Glam and Then I Met You. For her, gaining trust meant being candid about her own lack of credentials. “Most people buy skin care lines because they come from a dermatologist,” she says. “Hey, I didn’t even wash my face a couple of years ago.” Charlotte used blogging as a way to share lessons from her personal skin care journey—and that vulnerability resonated with a growing Korean beauty fandom.
Even as Charlotte has gained hard-won experience—authoring a book on skin care and earning her esthetician license—she maintains an enthralling level of transparency with her audience through the ups and downs. “I speak about this openly, even on social—about how stressed I was for the launch of Then I Met You,” she says
One of the frequent pitfalls in building a brand, says Karlee, is “inventing brand benefits, rather than mining and uncovering their genuine purpose and values.” Insincerity is hard to hide. Bold messages and firm stances won’t read as authentic, no matter how many buzzwords you use. “You can’t sell authenticity and you really can’t teach it.”
Let your customers shine
You, the founder, bring your brand into being, but you are not the star. You are the narrator, the supporting character, the story device that lets the main character shine. Your customer? They take the lead.
Your story becomes the structure upon which your customers write their own. If they see themselves in your struggles and triumphs, you’ve cast them a role in the center of your brand’s story.
The decision to put your name and face at the center of your brand story is a personal one. For many reasons, you may choose to be more removed. While Ashley’s About page on The Bee & The Fox’s website tells a beautiful and personal story, her own face and name are obscured. Instead, the faces captured in the brand’s photography are representative of the brand’s diverse customers.
In Lauren’s case, she says that Henning did need a face: “Our business is one that is intensely emotionally driven. Plus-sized fashion—for people who have been marginalized by this industry—is even more emotional. It required a human being, it required warmth, it required understanding and community.”
Answer your customers’ “why”
A great story always has a “why.” It is the main character’s raison d’etre, the driving force behind the journey to the what or the where. In a brand story, that “why” could be a pain point—a gap in the market that you aim to fill—or fulfillment of a passion. The answer to “Why did I create this?” could become the jumping off point for your story.
When Lauren was working as an editor, she met with some of the biggest names in fashion—while wearing clothes that didn’t express her style or make her feel confident. “I was limited to cheap, crappy clothes,” she says. “I was having wardrobe malfunctions at work and skipping meetings because my clothes were embarrassing.”
Lauren’s frustrations, she understood, were personal, but also shared by many women who wear plus sizes. Her “why” was ensuring that other women didn’t have to experience the same. “When plus-sized women only have one type of fashion and they aren’t able to express themselves, they’re not able to feel authentic,” she says. “And that becomes mentally detrimental.”
Brand storytelling elements and formats
The principles of telling a captivating story remain consistent across mediums. It’s the quality of what’s expressed, not the format, that determines whether a story resonates.
Understanding the underlying elements of a well-told story is useful as a checklist of sorts.
? What are the elements of a good story? Generally, a narrative consists of:
- Exposition: characters, setting, and details that help the reader visualize the story.
- Conflict: a crisis or tension point that may change the course of the character’s path.
- Rising action: the lead-up to the climax.
- Climax: the defeat, rebirth, or aha moment; the inception of something new.
- Falling action: also called dénoument or resolution.
✏️ As an example, here are these elements used to create the basis for Henning’s story:
- Characters: Lauren, plus-size professional women (her customers).
- Setting: New York, offices and spaces where professional women operate.
- Conflict: Lauren couldn’t find size-appropriate clothing that represented her inner self outwardly.
- Rising action: she began to have wardrobe malfunctions and miss meetings, and the lack of appropriate clothing options affected her psychologically.
- Climax and resolution: she became fed up with the options in plus fashion and decided to launch her own brand. Henning grew an audience based on its authenticity and commitment to designing clothes for plus women, by plus women.
The hero’s journey
The hero’s journey is a popular story format that mirrors the path of many entrepreneur types and may be your ideal framework. It’s a Wonderful Life’s George Bailey took a circular journey and found himself back where he started, changed by his experiences. Show the destination, show where it all began, and then bridge the gap.
Another exercise to try is mapping your story out on Disney’s story spine—a framework upon which many of the company’s films are built:
Once upon a time…
And every day…
Until one day…
And because of that…
And because of that…
And because of that…
And since that day…
The moral of the story is…
The best inspiration will likely come from the stories that have moved you in the past. What are some of your favorite movies, books, podcasts, or other brand stories? What do they have in common? And what storytelling devices do they use effectively to inspire a feeling?
The customer as the hero of your brand story
Focus on your story’s central character: your customer. As you craft your story, hold them in your mind and be guided by their needs and pain points. “If you can’t communicate who you are as a brand and the type of person who would identify with your core values, then you won’t be able to sell it to them,” says marketing professional Joey Ng.
As you grow, incorporating your customer’s story into your brand will become more natural, so long as you create a dialogue with your audience. As they begin to share their experiences, you can gather these stories and use them to build upon your own. Lauren had this in mind for Henning before she even had a product to sell. She knew customer voices would help shape the brand’s foundations, and she now includes some of her best customers in photoshoots.
Charlotte opted to act as the curator of the stories her customers were already telling. She discovered that her fans were creating their own art—unprompted—around her products and brand. “They sometimes take better photos than we do!” she says. In 2020, Then I Met You launched an art show and competition to highlight some of this work on the brand’s site. “Incorporating our customers’ interpretation of our brand has been such a big cornerstone of Then I Met You and has allowed us to thrive,” Charlotte says.
Great storytelling is determined by form, not format. The right medium is the one that best supports your brand narrative: Could you tell your story through video, audio, photography, or design?
Lauren says that visual storytelling is important to Henning. Her customers are successful women “who want to represent themselves in a chic and sharp way.” To attract that audience, Henning is very deliberate about its voice and visuals. “I really wanted to create a brand where these women could immediately see they belonged here.”
The brand speaks to a group that has historically been ignored by the fashion world—customers need to see themselves represented in Henning’s story. “Fashion images have long dictated what women at large in this culture think about themselves,” says Lauren. “When we only see one type of woman in fashion—thin, white, Eastern European, young, and tall—everyone else suffers negative psychological effects.”
Another form of visual storytelling is video—from long-form documentary style films to quick social videos shared across marketing channels. Combining movement with music, narration, and other visual elements can bring a story to life. Use video to convey your company’s values (what your brand stands for) or paint a picture of an aspirational lifestyle sought by your target audience.
An example of video storytelling in marketing is this short by hot sauce brand Fly By Jing, which provides history and cultural connection to solidify the brand’s identity in customers’ minds.
When and where to use story
The most obvious place to tell your brand’s story is on an About Us page. It’s a dedicated space on your website designed specifically for this purpose. You can use a combination of written narrative, video, and visuals, all on a completely blank canvas.
Effective marketing, though, is about meeting your customers wherever they are, even before you get them to buy. Storytelling is a powerful tool to build brand affinity and trust at some of these earliest touchpoints, such as social media posts or ads. And don’t forget to remind current customers why they support you—tell your story on packaging and add a personal touch to your customer service communications.
Brand storytelling examples
There are several places to tell your story across the customer journey. Here are a few with real-life examples to inspire:
Storytelling as you scale
As the founder, you draft the first version of your story, closely controlling the consistency of your message. But as your brand scales, you may start to delegate some of the storytelling to partners, freelancers, agencies, or staff. How do you ensure that you keep your voice and story true to your original vision?
This became an issue for Ashley as she began to work with a marketing team. She started to see communications popping up in her feed from her own brand that felt like they were coming from someone else. She realized that it was an area of the business that she couldn’t fully let go. “I have to have that control,” she says. “Having our voice on anything and everything that we put out there is absolutely essential to me.” Ashley now has a closer relationship with her marketing team’s work.
Ashley hired a former neighbor to handle her customer service, because it was important to her that this critical touchpoint was handled by someone she knew well.
Lauren’s approach was to anticipate scaling. She worked on the brand for months before launch; work resulted in assets like a brand style guide, which helps align anyone she brings onto the team. “It was just very deeply important to me to have something strong to reference,” she says. “That north star is very clear to us.”
For Charlotte, scaling and expanding the number of voices that represent her brand has been a positive experience. The brand is still relatively small, she says. “It’s not like we’re Sephora or Ulta.” Charlotte is still intimately involved with the brand’s messaging, but other faces and voices have started to emerge in videos and blog posts. “My curation videos used to be just me,” she says. “But now I have people from the team come and host with me.”
How to tell your brand’s story
First, this is your story. Delegating the entire task of writing your brand story could be a mistake. “We can’t outsource our voice,” says activist and entrepreneur Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart. “It’s our heart, it’s our soul, it’s our story.” Sure, the professionals can help polish your story, but you should be heavily involved in this process.
“It’s not about getting them to buy,” says storytelling pro Louis Richardson. “It’s about getting them to believe.” With that in mind, it’s time to get writing. Create stories using these expert-sourced narrative techniques.
1. Start with the basics
“Define your conviction and purpose,” says Karlee. “What do you believe in? And why does your brand exist? From there you can define your audience’s core desire and the emotional offering that fulfills it.” Only then, she says, can you start to dive into the finer details, like voice, tone, and design.
2. Ask questions
If you’re not a natural storyteller, start with brainstorming exercises to get the creative juices flowing. Answer the following questions (point form is fine at this stage):
- Why does your brand/company exist? Why did you start this business?
- What’s your personal history? Include what’s relevant to your entrepreneurial journey or the inception of your brand.
- Who are your main characters? You? Your target customer? Mentors? Partners?
- What’s the setting, if relevant? Is place essential to your brand? Why? (This is important for brands that focus on a local community or were inspired by travel, for example.)
- Where’s the tension? What action followed? What problem are you trying to solve?
- What’s your mission? What do you aim to accomplish through this brand?
- Who’s your audience or ideal customer? Be specific. What do they currently believe? What do you want them to believe after engaging with your brand and story?
- How would you like others to describe your brand to a friend?
- What do you stand for? What are your personal values? How will those be reflected in your brand?
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3. Listen to your community
Lauren believes your story should be authentic and relevant. And though your brand story should be personal, it shouldn’t necessarily be created in a vacuum. “It shouldn’t just be driven by you,” she says. “Get out there and talk to your community to understand the collective experience of the people that you hope to speak to.”
4. Write a story, not a list of facts
“Your About page is an interview,” writes marketer Melyssa Griffin. How would you describe your brand in conversation to an employer or friend? Use a basic story structure outlined in this article to connect the answers to your questions above in a way that is conversational, engaging, and well-paced. And remember to read it aloud—is this how you would speak? “Infuse the things that you stand for,” says Ashley. If you’re passionate about your story, it will be reflected in your writing.
Charlotte weaves very personal storytelling into Then I Met You’s product development and campaigns. Her honeydew lip mask’s ingredients were inspired by her grandmother, who would serve the fruit to her when she was a child. And when she, like many entrepreneurs, stepped up to help support those affected most by COVID-19, she focused on grocery workers, inspired by her dad, who works at a grocery store. “Storytelling helped our community understand what we care about and how we’re actually living our ethos of giving back,” she says.
5. And the moral of the story is…?
Many good stories end with a moral or lesson. For brand stories, let’s refer to this as a call to action. Your story should always have a takeaway that is actionable for the reader.
Remember that the story’s goal isn’t always to compel someone to buy—at least not yet. But what other action do you want the reader to take? Should they follow you? Complete a survey? Read more into the causes you support? How will you keep the audience engaged and nurture them further? Maybe the takeaway is simply a feeling you want them to have.
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did,” Maya Angelou once said, “but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
6. Seek feedback
Working with an editor is a great first step to ensure that your voice is presented in a polished and professional way. If you don’t have the budget to hire a pro, any second set of eyes can help. Better yet, share your draft with several friends who will give you honest feedback, along with people who resemble your ideal customer.
Once your brand story is out in the world, that doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. Seek feedback from your customers constantly. There are several ways to gather this feedback:
- Pay attention to comments, feedback, and reviews shared across your various channels.
- Run surveys or polls delivered on social, on your website, or via email marketing.
- Ask questions of your audience directly in social content (less formal than a poll or survey).
- Offer free consults via video or chat—you can learn as much from the experience as your customer.
The power of brand stories
Stories sell. The science supports this and the biggest brands in the world prove it. If your marketing strategy doesn’t include brand storytelling, it’s time to pick up a pen. Combine your origin story with your customer’s own to create a compelling narrative to build emotional connections and drive sales.
Feature illustration by Cecilia Castelli
Brand storytelling FAQ
Why is storytelling important in branding?
Storytelling is important for brands because it elicits an emotional response in customers, compelling them to support a brand’s purpose by making a purchase. Successful brand storytelling captures an audience’s attention, reaches them on an emotional level, and draws them into a brand’s history and values. Telling stories can build trust, highlight a value proposition, and engage a loyal audience.
What are the 4 Ps of storytelling?
The four Ps of storytelling are: people, place, plot, and purpose. While these apply to all manner of storytelling, they can form a basic outline to write your brand’s story. Consider these elements as you convey your story.
What is the AIDA model?
AIDA (attention, interest, desire, and action) is a model that outlines the customer stages leading up to making a purchase. Great brand stories will attract the attention of prospective customers, capture their interest through making a connection, and inspire them to want—and eventually buy—your product or service.
How do you write a brand story step by step?
- Cover the origins of your brand name and why you started
- Answer questions like: Why does my company exist? What’s my mission?
- Listen to your community and craft your story around what’s important for your customers.
- Write a story, not a list of facts.
- End with a lesson or goal. What action do you want customers to take when they’ve engaged with your story?
- Get feedback on your brand storytelling assets.