Authenticity in Brand Storytelling: Lessons from 2019

As humans, we’re wired for storytelling. We’re wired to tell stories, whether those are fables, myths, legends, parables, or good old-fashioned sitcoms, and we’re wired to respond to them. It’s how we teach values, how we communicate wisdom from one generation to the next, and how we connect with one another. They combine the logical and the emotional, teaching us facts and concepts along with how those facts and concepts impact us on a personal level and change our lives.

Stories aren’t just for (or about) people, though. The enduring power of stories throughout history provide brands with a powerful tool for building a beyond-loyal customer base.  It’s so powerful, in fact, that Forbes has called storytelling the new strategic imperative of business. In short, brand storytelling weaves together what a product or service is like as well as how it will empower and impact customers, once again weaving together facts and emotions.

Sometimes it can be difficult to see why communicating with potential customers through their emotions is a must – after all, isn’t it important that we tell them why our products are advantageous over others that are similar? While APR and yearly fees can, of course, compel customers to buy your brand over another, it’s emotions that drive purchases more than logic. When it comes to staying top of mind, you want to really connect with your audience and stay memorable.

Building a story is part of building a brand and getting to know that brand is not unlike getting to know another human being. In a proliferating market, we want to know about a company’s beliefs, backstory, values, opinions, and day-to-day anecdotes. The more of this you can include in your brand storytelling, the more likely it is that a brand will connect with you. The more of a positive emotional response you can evoke in your audience, the more they’ll want to choose your brand over another offering similar products and services.

Creating the Story Arc

So how does a brand craft a story and communicate that story through its marketing, exactly?

With such a large volume of advertising mediums – like Instagram stories, Facebook posts, TV spots, and Snapchat, just to name a few – there are a multitude of ways to lay out your storyboard. Your audience wants to see themselves in the stories you tell, so it follows that they are at the heart of your brand’s storyboard.

It’s compelling, when we deeply believe in our products, to put the brand as the protagonist in the story, but it ultimately misses the mark – customers want to relate to the protagonist, just as we do with any story we hear. This is an opportunity to focus on what you can make happen in the lives of your customers through your offerings.

All good stories answer who, what, when, where, why, and how, which means that brand storytelling starts the same way as any great creative brief: by selecting the right audience. Defining a niche audience is at the heart of selecting the right protagonist. The rest of the equation – the what, when, where, why, and how – can speak to the values and ideas that you and your core audience share.

All good stories have a foundation in backstory and climax at the most emotionally intense part of the story arc, ultimately ending in a resolution (or, in a brand’s case, a call to action). At this point, you’ve hopefully made a connection with your target audience, shown your authenticity as a brand, and shown people how your products can empower their lives and speak to their pain points.

Financial services, in particular, are rife with opportunity to empower their clients and speak to their emotions; after all, finances remain the number one stressor for most Americans.

Learning from the Pros

The best of brand storytelling communicates a commitment to something beyond profits.

Customers may know that companies are looking out for their bottom line, but they want to feel like your brand cares about making an impact, too. This means that customers should be able to gauge your values through your brand storytelling and believe those values are lived. This is where authenticity becomes so important – your audience knows when you’re not being real with them, just as most people can sense when someone is all talk minutes after meeting them.

One great example of brand storytelling with the customer as the protagonist is Airbnb. They’ve had to master this, because Airbnb doesn’t really have a product to sell. They’re connecting customers (those looking to stay in unique locations) to other customers (those hoping to rent out unique locations). The entire brand hinges on its audience, and they capitalize on their position as middleman by highlighting customer experiences.

There are “Stories from the Airbnb Community” on their blog, they keep a YouTube channel stocked with engaging tales of real customers’ Airbnb stays, and they even have a print magazine to feature superb experiences and locations. Collectively, this makes Airbnb more than a way to rent a place to stay for the weekend – it makes it a facilitator of affordable, unique travel, and living life to the fullest.

Another great example of a company truly living by its values is REI. For years, the outdoor brand has run an #OptOutside campaign on Black Friday, encouraging customers to boycott the rampant consumerism of the shopping weekend to spend the day outdoors instead. They go even farther, though; REI shuts down all of its stores, shipping facilities, and headquarters to allow all REI employees to do the same on Black Friday, eliminating what might be a massive payday for the brand.

In 2019, REI took an spin on its #OptOutside campaign with “Opt to Act,” encouraging its audience to do one small thing to benefit the environment, even when change seems daunting. There is brand storytelling woven throughout each advertisement, but it brings customers even more into the fold of the narrative by having them share their own experiences opting outside on Black Friday all over social media. By layering these stories, REI positions itself as an outdoor brand that truly loves the outdoors.

Avoiding Brand Fails

You’ve probably already seen a great example of brand storytelling gone awry: Peloton’s viral “The Gift That Gives Back” advertisement didn’t go exactly as planned. The commercial features a husband buying his wife a Peloton exercise for Christmas, and her subsequent documentation of her fitness journey that she played for her husband the following Christmas season. Many people who saw the spot called the commercial “sexist and dystopian,” insinuating that the wife’s comment that using the bike “changed her” referred to the size of her figure.

Regardless of the brand’s motives when scripting the spot, Peloton saw losses of nearly $1 billion total in response to the ad. The problem? Peloton was a little out of touch with what its audience wants to hear – not just about fitness, but about marriage and gender roles to boot. It may have put its customer at the heart of its story, but it missed the mark on who that customer is and what they care about. (Of note: The actress who played the “Peloton wife” went on to star in Ryan Reynolds’ Aviation Gin TV spot that spoofed the Peloton commercial, earning that brand laughs and profits that matched.)

Ultimately, these stories, good and bad, are parables about brand storytelling and how to truly connect with an audience. As social media skews more and more toward Instagram stories, TikTok videos, and unfiltered ad spots, there will be more and more opportunity for brands to draft compelling, engaging stories that are targeted to precisely the right audience. Getting these stories right is crucial to long term brand success, allowing products to make consumers into the protagonists they see themselves as. What could be a more powerful or more time-tested marketing strategy?