From story designing to storytelling: how brands should engage with customers
Launched in 2012, YourStory's Book Review section features over 275 titles on creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, and digital transformation. See also our related columns The Turning Point, Techie Tuesdays, and Storybites.
Storytelling, marketing, branding, design thinking, and employee advocacy come together in this handy business communication book by Miri Rodriguez, Brand Storytelling: Put Customers at the Heart of Your Brand Story.
The 17 chapters provide a blend of the author’s professional and personal experiences, and are written in a conversational style. More references and examples would have been a welcome addition to the material.
Miri Rodriguez is a digital marketer and storyteller, and was a creative journalist in the engineering discipline at Microsoft Corporation. Born in Venezuela, she now lives in Washington.
Here are my key takeaways from the 215-page book. See also my reviews of the related books Once Upon an Innovation, Story 10X, Five Stars, Let the Story Do the Work, Stories for Work, Stories at Work, and Data Story.
Entrepreneurs should check out YourStory’s Changemaker Story Canvas, a free visualisation tool for startups and innovators. and Pitch Tips for Startups.
“There are stories. Then there are great stories. A great story is one that reaches beyond the narrative, unsuspectingly grabbing you by the hand and immersing you into a new-found story world, never to bring you back again,” Miri begins.
“Storytelling is the emotional transfer of information (opinions, assertions, facts, data, ideas and arguments) through the introduction of a character, plot, and conclusion,” Miri defines. “The primary purpose of a story is to evoke emotion,” she adds.
Stories are narrative tools for business impact – they can “turn words into worlds” and influence our behaviours and decisions. The brand story goes beyond content, and success comes not just from effective storytelling but story designing, the author writes.
Stories can connect information with emotions and “universal truths” better than many other forms of communication. The power of stories is in keeping attention, transferring values, and teaching guiding principle, the author emphasises.
“The best stories are emotional, inspirational, and authentic in nature,” Miri explains. “Great storytellers are flexible in their approach,” she adds; they are open to new flows and possibilities.
Social media has transformed “business talk” via the deformalisation of content and increase in the number of voices. New social media channels keep adding new storytelling techniques to the palette. Brands should make their story elements shareable and scalable, Miri advises.
Digital media open up new frontiers of storytelling, via video, emojis, GIFs, memes, immersive experiences, mixed reality, and AI. Examples include IKEA’s Place app, which uses AR to visualise new furniture placement in homes.
The author describes some story structures commonly used: The Hero, The Mountain, Nested Loops (for hybrid audiences), Sparklines (for contrasts) and Petals (interlocked stories). Other techniques include starting in the middle of the story, or converging parallel stories.
The storytelling asset checklist should include the main story deck, guidelines (when, where, how), techniques, and resources (training materials). All these should be woven together in the “brand storytelling engine,” the author explains.
On the ethical front, stories should not be manipulative, and be told only with conviction. Ethical storytelling should uphold moral, professional, industrial, and societal values. Companies should keep their promises and be consistent with their brand; gratitude rather than arrogance or ego should be the hallmark of communication.
The value of vulnerability
“If story is magic, vulnerability is the magic wand that unleashes genuine connection with our audiences,” Miri emphasises. Examples include Microsoft sharing the ups and downs of its cloud journey.
Stories of overcoming failure can be the most inspiring. “They appeal to the arduous endeavour it took to reach success: humility, resiliency, persistence, hard lessons learned,” the author explains.
People relate to flaws and defects in others. Authentic stories of struggle and tales from the trenches humanise the brand. But companies should set clear guidelines on the degree of vulnerability to share.
Admitting to errors and shortcomings can reveal the human side of a brand, and customers may be forgiving. However, it can be tough for companies to reveal their flaws, deficiencies, and pitfalls, the author cautions.
Brands and stories
“At its core, storytelling intentionally displays the heart of the company (why it exists),” Miri writes. A “storytelling mission design template” has the following components: topics, purpose, mission, brand attributes, audiences, feelings, credibility factors, tone and manner.
The author cites Microsoft’s repositioning as an example: “To empower every person and organisation on the planet to achieve more.” It intends to put customers as the central part of the brand’s success story.
Branding is about promoting distinctive and differentiating core values. Unfortunately many companies do not align their brand mission to their storytelling, the author laments. Treating stories as separate entities can confuse audiences.
Today, customers want brands to be meaningful as well. “Newer generations see brands as potential extensions of themselves,” Miri explains. They expect connections via emotions like empowerment, happiness, inspiration, confidence, fearlessness and even sadness, loss or embarrassment.
Brand story design begins with the purpose, core principles and values. The story mission should describe the intended goals, eg., evangelisation, driver for web traffic. The main brand narrative should also include mini-stories. Testimonials and case studies make stories more believable.
Ultimately, the theme, character, plot, conclusion, emotion, and universal truth crafted or cemented in the story should leverage the brand’s core values and aspirations to spark audience responsiveness, Miri advises.
The design thinking approach
The author recommends design thinking as an effective approach to building the structure of a brand story, and keep updating it as the context changes. The iterative steps are empathise, define, ideate, prototype, and test.
Considerable research should go into understanding the universal truths that appeal to target customers. Feelings of non-customers should also factored in. Characters in a story can include hero, sidekick and villain.
For example, Microsoft’s Chief Storyteller Steve Clayton has designed a guidebook called Once Upon a Time to help internal stakeholders develop the brand story plot. It is based on a framework of the ‘5 Ps’ – people, place, pictures, personal, and platform. This is mapped onto four quadrants: destination, betterment, heroic status, and movement.
Mastercard’s Priceless marketing tagline has been extended to ‘priceless causes’ (donations to charities) and ‘priceless surprises’ (unexpected experiences for customers).
Brand stories should focus on the feelings and achievements of real customers, and not actors or influencers, Miri advises. Stories should be tested on internal stakeholders, business partners, influencers and customers.
Design elements to add in the storytelling include colour, typography, slogans, voice, tone, images and actual photographs of customers. Other creative techniques to improve and refine story elements include Alex Faickney Osborn’s SCAMPER method (substitute, combine, adapt, modify, put to another use, eliminate, reverse).
Sometimes, “inconclusive” stories can let the audience draw their own conclusions. “The best stories are made of conclusions that are semi-ambiguous in nature,” the author rightly explains. They allow the audience to imagine what could have happened, and discuss this with others.
Stories should be inclusive and engage a wide range of audiences, while also being individually relevant. It is important to keep crafting the message in line with what audiences want to hear, which calls for asking them about their needs and aspirations. Robust listening tools and social media monitoring are also useful in this regard.
To understand market and customer trends, the author cites frameworks like Rohit Bhargava’s Haystack method for curating non-obvious trends and finding emerging stories. This involves steps like observing, gathering, aggregating, naming and proving.
Some customer trends that Miri cites include expectations for brands to support social and environmental causes, perceptions of brands as reflections of customers themselves (“friends material”), transparency of brand values, and purchases driven by experiences and beliefs.
“Younger audiences desire to build deeper relationships with the brand,” she observes, pointing to Disney as an example. The movie Coco provoked a desire in her son to do “something, anything.”
“Making the customer the hero of the story is easier said than done,” Miri cautions. Brands must resist their inner urge to make their products and services the hero of the story. Customers may also take the narrative in a different direction.
“Make empathy and inclusion key pillars of your business,” she advises. This can even include “pulling in the customer chair” during internal meetings and conversations.
Internal capacity building
Brands should cultivate internal platforms for story sharing, and employees should use storytelling for personal and professional growth, Miri advises. She provides a range of tables to illustrate manager and employee storyteller practices, with variations in their emotional and functional engagement with the brand story.
“Don’t forget your best storytellers: employees! A well-thought-out employee advocacy programme can help in tandem with leadership,” Miri explains.
Techniques like gamification can promote “emergent storytelling” as employees creatively hack story elements and come up with new storylines or universal truths. Digital media can be used to open up new “storyworlds.”
Content and live streams from internal events can even give customers an “inside look” at the brand. Microsoft conducts monthly public webinars featuring its engineers. National Geographic shares “behind the scenes” content of its journalists on assignment.
The choice and role of storyteller (“story persona”) is also key for a brand, as seen in Apple’s Steve Jobs.
“The story persona is in essence the face of the brand story,” Miri explains. Companies should cultivate a “storytelling army” of employee advocates and brand story ambassadors, the author recommends.
Adobe has moved beyond transactional employee content publishing to creating a social ambassador programme. It nurtures and mobilises a community of internal and external brand champions, with elaborate metrics for activity, reach, engagement, and lead generation.
According to Jose-Andres Camacho, Adobe’s Social Media Enablement Strategist, the company has eight storytelling streams on topics like creativity, digital experience, and leadership. Employees and customers add their own spin to story arcs, and get rewarded for high-value behaviours.
One chapter expands the discourse with tips from interviews with eight other storytellers. For example, elements of edutainment can improve storytelling. Multi-channel approaches and systematic A/B testing can refine cultural nuances and push the envelope of stories.
Exposure to journalism can help acquire storytelling skills. Good interview techniques, such as the use of props and evoking the five senses, help better understand customers.
Storytellers should improve their creativity through exploration and play in other fields. They should also observe what appeals to them in the stories that are all around.
Ritz Carlton has harnessed storytelling as a business growth strategy. Apparel brand Carhartt Work in Progress has an organic style of storytelling that ropes in upcoming figures in music and sports.
The road ahead
In the long run, companies should continually refine, refresh, and replace their stories. “Stay curious about your audience,” Miri advises; she suggests techniques like “asking why seven times” to dig for details.
Impact metrics of brand storytelling should be continually assessed as well, Miri adds. Like marketing metrics, these include evoked emotions, reactions, lasting actions, brand recognition, reach, and mentions. Internal metrics can also include more employee buy-in and respect for the company, and activation of the brand story in their own messaging.
Storytelling is empowered by the use of technology. But despite the rise of automation and AI, machines will “never own the empathy, vulnerability, and ethics required to tell an authentic and emotional allegory,” Miri signs off.