Use Storytelling to Transform Your Marketing Messages

The best marketers are great storytellers.

March 20, 2024

The best marketers are great storytellers. They don’t bore their audience with long lists of features and benefits. Instead, they craft compelling narratives that spark curiosity and elicit an emotional reaction.

A great example is Apple’s classic 1984 ad for the Macintosh. It’s not really about a new desktop computer—in fact, the product doesn’t even appear in the 60-second TV ad. Instead, the goal was to tell a particular kind of story. Here’s what Steve Jobs said when he introduced the ad at an Apple keynote:

“It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and controlled future. They are increasingly and desperately turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry the entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?”

Officially, this advertisement existed to drum up sales for a new Macintosh. But the accompanying story made it so much more than that. Suddenly, we had drama and conflict. Suddenly, we had an epic tale of good versus evil that offered more emotional impact than a one-minute description of a product ever could.    

So, how do you follow in the footsteps of Apple and tell a story that resonates with your audience? That depends on your organization and what exactly it does. However, there are common steps that every marketing team can take to incorporate effective storytelling into their campaigns. Here are five steps that I think are crucial:

1. Consider Your Audience

This is the first and most important thing you should do. As the old adage goes, when you’re marketing to everyone, you’re marketing to no one. If you don’t know your audience, and you don’t know exactly what they’re interested in hearing, you can’t tell an effective story.

Journalists are an interesting example—and one that I have personal experience with. A few years ago, I worked as deputy editor for a business magazine. In this position, I received daily pitches from marketing and communications teams looking to get their organizations profiled in the publication.

The majority of these pitches missed the mark. Why? Because they failed to understand what kinds of stories journalists are interested in. They were focused on things like revenue growth and international expansion, which investors undoubtedly want to hear about, but don’t interest journalists.

As journalist and author Dan Lyons says, “We’re not looking for good companies, we’re looking for good stories—and there’s a big difference. A good company does not necessarily equal a good story. And a bad company can be a great story.”

If you’re talking to a journalist, you have to provide them with a good story angle. You need to offer conflict and drama, which means talking frankly about your company’s challenges and low points. Companies that aren’t willing to do that will struggle to get meaningful interest from publications.

The same principle applies to every audience segment: find out where their interest lies and align your story with it.

2. Identify Your Brand Stories

In her book, Stories That Stick, Kendra Hall argues that all companies have four built-in stories that they can use to communicate with external stakeholders. These stories are:

  • The Purpose Story: What inspires the employees of your company to do what they do? What is the mission and vision of the organization?
  • The Value Story: What value does your solution offer to prospects? How can you help them transform their day-to-day lives?
  • The Customer Story: How have you helped specific customers? What challenges did you help them overcome?

Crafting a compelling narrative based on one (or more) of these stories can take time and effort. You need to identify the compelling elements in each story and then align them with the interests of your audience. But it is worth putting in the work; these four areas can act as the foundation for wonderful stories filled with drama and excitement.

3. Start With Why

Another way to approach storytelling is with Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle framework.  

Sinek explains that most companies focus only on what they do. When communicating with stakeholders, they emphasize the products they sell and the services they provide, nothing more.

Some companies go a step further by explaining how they do what they do. In other words, they explain the operations and processes behind what they do. This is better than focusing only on the what, but it’s still not enough.

The best companies, explains Sinek, focus on why. They’re not simply looking to sell their products and services to whoever might be interested. Instead, they’re looking to make a connection with a core audience by emphasizing the purpose behind what they do.  

“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe,” says Sinek.      

You can see Sinek’s original TED talk on the Golden Circle below. He’s also made all of his presentation materials available here, if you want to workshop your own company’s why.

Finding your why and communicating it with your audience are both crucial steps in marketing. That’s exactly what Apple did with its 1984 ad—and what it has done ever since in its marketing. Apple is also not alone in doing this. Most truly effective marketing campaigns are focused on why. Here’s another great example from Microsoft.

So, if you want to improve your storytelling, find your why and start telling people about it.

4. Live Your Values

It’s impossible to talk about purpose (or why) without also talking about company values and beliefs. No company can be an effective storyteller and authentically communicate its purpose if it isn’t willing to also stand up for what it believes in.

Steve Jobs once said the following about marketing: “Marketing is about values. It’s a complicated and noisy world, and we’re not going to get a chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is. So we have to be really clear about what we want them to know about us.”

The above is even more relevant now than when Jobs said it three decades ago.  As McKinsey & Company states: “Stakeholder expectations for corporate behavior are higher than ever. Firms are expected to act lawfully but also with a sense of social responsibility. Consumers expect companies to take a stand on social issues, such as those fuelling the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. Employees are increasingly vocal about company policies and actions.”

If, as Simon Sinek says, “the goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe”, companies must be vocal about their values and beliefs. This can be scary, especially for traditional organizations that prefer to steer clear of controversy. But it can also be a source of fantastic storytelling.

Great companies use the causes they believe in to tell stories that resonate with their audience. Moreover, they do it in a way that isn’t cynical or self-interested—and they manage to do some real good along the way.

Here’s one example from Nike:

Patagonia also does a fantastic job of highlighting causes and issues that don’t always make the headlines:

Great storytelling requires bravery. Telling stories like the ones above will inevitably result in backlash—some people will be angered and annoyed. But that is exactly why they are great stories: they take a stand. In a world where too many marketing messages are sanitized and generalized to appeal to as many people as possible, these videos have an authenticity and frankness that set them apart.

5. Make Your Customer the Hero

For most marketers, customers and prospects are undoubtedly their most important audiences. So, let’s conclude by looking at one effective way of communicating with these two groups.

It’s tempting to position your own company as the hero in your marketing campaigns and corporate communications, but where does that leave your audience? At best, they become supporting characters in your story.

A better approach is to tell your customer or prospect’s story. Make them heroes of your tale. They should be the ones on a hero’s journey filled with danger and adventure. And your brand? It should play the role of mentor—the one that bestows the gifts and wisdom needed to complete the quest. In other words, you should be the Gandalf to your customers’ Frodo. Or the Obi-Wan Kenobi to their Luke Skywalker.  

The video below, based on the book Winning the Story Wars, offers a great explanation of this storytelling approach.

Author Miri Rodriguez makes a similar point in her excellent book, Brand Storytelling: Put Customers at the Heart of Your Brand Story. She calls it the “Robin to Batman” effect. We all want to be Batman, of course, but casting your audience as Robin isn’t the best way to involve them in your story. They’ll be far more engrossed if they get to play Batman and you assume the role of sidekick.

Looking again at those Nike and Patagonia ads above, it’s clear that this is precisely the approach they take. In fact, look at just about any Nike or Patagonia ad. The brands themselves are virtually invisible. It’s all about the audience—their stories, their challenges, their victories.

We all love stories. They capture our imagination. They stir our emotions. They create an irresistible urge to see how the tale ends. But if the story amounts to little more than a brand slapping itself on the back, we tune out. So don’t make all of your marketing about you. Place your prospects and customers at the centre of your storytelling and show them how you can help them reach their “happily ever after.”