Marketing Needs a Story to Tell

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You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of Nike. The sportswear giant is ubiquitous in athletics, dressing everyone from professional athletes to fans to fashionistas. The company’s success is undoubtedly owing in part to its iconic branding—it’s “Swoosh” logo and “Just Do It” slogan have allowed the company to “focus its storytelling on overcoming the inertia that comes with a modern, hectic lifestyle,” as Ryan Skinner, senior analyst serving B2C marketing professionals at Forrester Research, puts it. With a brand value of $27.5 billion, the company ranks 18th on Forbes’ 2016 most valuable brands list—the highest for any sportswear company.

Stories are essential to brand success today. Yet to become effective storytellers, companies need to develop an overall narrative. Deb Lavoy, CEO of Narrative Builders, clarified the relationship between story and narrative at the Gilbane Conference 2016 in Boston in November. “A story is an instance of a narrative in a context. If you have a really good narrative, you can tell a thousand stories with it, and that matters because you have to tell lots of stories. You have to tell stories to your market, to your customers, to your employees, possibly to your investors, to your regulators, to any number of people who are somehow stakeholders in the ecosystem, in the community, around what you do.”

But to define its overall narrative, a company must ask itself three key questions, according to Samantha Stone, founder of the Marketing Advisory. The first of these is “Who are we?” This includes the core principles that drove the company founders to take the initial business risk. Stone notes that a company’s audience might not perceive the company in the same way that the company does internally. For this reason, it must validate its perceptions of itself through customer outreach. If a gap is found, it will signal that the business needs to reexamine its assumptions about its identity.

“Who do we serve?” is the second question, according to Stone. She suggests developing customer personas—a step that will be useful for developing engaging stories—by conducting research and analyzing existing data.

The third question is “Where does our vision differentiate?” Although Stone notes the importance of companies being true to themselves and their customers, they also need to be aware of their context. In other words, companies need to be proactive in seeking out ways to distinguish themselves from competitors.

A similar framework, proposed by Robert Bergman, an assistant professor of marketing at Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill., emphasizes the target audience’s expectations. Bergman asserts that “reality is nothing more than another person’s perception of reality” and that developing a brand narrative involves “the creation of a brand’s perception in the minds of the audience.” So the first step for businesses is to determine how they want to be perceived by their target audience—a process he likens to the development of a “personal brand” that a recent college graduate or young professional might undertake.

After they have determined how they want to be perceived, companies should begin developing content—text, images, sounds, and more that correlate with the demographics and preferences of their target audience. These should all be related to present a cohesive brand vision that can be communicated across channels. Moreover, Bergman notes that because “over 90 percent of the decisions we make have an emotional component to them,” companies must consider the feelings they want to evoke in their audience when developing their narrative.


“From family legends to historical texts—and even marketing campaigns—humans remember stories more than we remember facts. If you want your brand to stand out, you have to show your buyers why you exist, not just what you do,” Stone says.

Dipanjan Chatterjee, vice president and principal analyst serving marketing professionals at Forrester, agrees. “Stories are how we make sense of the world around us and, in turn, communicate this to others,” he says. “The glue that binds brands to people is primarily made up of emotions, and stories are the most effective way to build this emotional bond.”

Successful marketing relies on establishing emotional connections with target audiences. However, many marketers—especially B2B marketers—miss this opportunity because they become caught up in describing the capabilities of their products. According to Stone, selling features alone is a “flawed approach,” because consumers have many options to address their needs. Instead, companies should focus on sharing their vision and forging an emotional bond with potential customers.

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