How to use stories to build your brand and win loyal customers

Michael Millar

Co-founder, SmplCo

18 Nov 2022

Would you ask someone to marry you on the first date? Probably not.

The same goes for customers (although this applies equally well to investors, suppliers, and any number of other stakeholders).

If you want to win them over and build a lasting relationship, you first need to build awareness, understanding, and trust in your brand.

And while no one will accept your marriage proposal straight away (sorry about that), a strong brand delivers an audience that will engage with you, do business with you, and even become your ambassadors.

Then they’ll be in for the long haul.

People engage with brands (as opposed to simply products) for lots of reasons. These include:

  • finding or reaching a desired state/status (often empowerment)
  • the feeling they get from doing so
  • the community they are joining
  • a mission or beliefs they share
  • …or a combination of the above

To make this connection with them you’ve got to tell great stories. Or, as advertising legend David Ogilvie put it:

‘tell the truth but make it fascinating’

Or as another person put it, ‘Start with the soul, not the sale’. (You won’t be surprised to hear that there’s no shortage of pithy one-liners in marketing circles).

Stories have never been more powerful

To be clear: building a successful business means engaging with customers in many different ways; storytelling isn’t a panacea.

To get folks through the digital (or, indeed, physical) door you’ll still have to consider things like promotions, price messaging, the right channels to reach the audience, how you talk about product benefits and features, the way you package everything up, and so on.

None of that is going away.

But that’s marketing. That’s the ‘how’…. As in: ‘How are we getting people into our (web)shops filled with the desire to snap up our product or service?’

We’re talking about establishing your brand: the ‘why’… As in: ‘Why are people going to want to associate themselves, work with, and buy from a company like ours?’

Your brand is what gets you recognition, leverage in an industry, and positive recognition among customers.

“Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room”

Jeff Bezos, Executive Chairman, Amazon

If you take time to work on your brand (rather than simply pushing the benefits and features of your products), you will create deep and meaningful relationships – ones where customers understand you, trust you, and learn to love you.

That is what will keep them coming back for more. And building those kinds of relationships requires stories.

It is your brand’s stories that will help your consumers understand the role and relevance of your brand in the world, and its appeal to them.

No one wants to be ‘sold to’ any more. Instead, your stories can connect them to you, whatever personal benefit they hope to get from engaging with you as a customer.

And in a world of relentless information, data, and competition, the power and importance of stories has never been greater.

The author telling stories, back in the day

3 reasons why good storytelling works

1. We are hardwired to engage with stories

We’ve been telling stories for thousands of years because they serve deep-rooted psychological needs.

People have the innate desire to learn about certain developments that might be relevant to them.

As humans we’re on a constant quest for knowledge and stories help us satisfy the urge to learn and be entertained, and do so in a highly effective way.

Stories help us to connect and feel part of a group; they help us to make sense of things and trigger deep emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, and joy. They give us something to believe in. Don’t we all need that right now?

“Storytelling is like a vitamin. When it gets into your readers, it permeates their whole being, and fights every objection that might otherwise stop them from becoming loyal customers.”

Neil Patel

2. Our brains just love it

Let’s briefly dip our toes into neurophysiology…

Simply put, good stories make our brains light up. Studies show neural activity increases five-fold when we hear a good story.

When those neurons fire it triggers memory and that lets us retain more information. This is why people retain 70% of information through stories, but only 10% from data and statistics.

To put it simply: if you’re a storyteller you’ll be more memorable to customers.

That’s not everything either…

Scientific tests show well-told stories trigger the chemical dopamine in our brain, which (again) helps aid memory creation (and, hence, brand recall).

They also trigger oxytocin, known as ‘the love drug’, stimulating deeply rooted, powerful emotions. If you do that then you’re making customers care about you and helping them be better predisposed to you – on a neurological level.

“Are you sitting comfortably? No? Oh, I’ll begin the story anyway.”

And (no matter how rational we all think we are in the 21st century) these emotions then influence our decision-making… and much more often than we might think.

We make decisions based on emotions all the time – often without realising it – and justify them with logic afterwards. It’s no coincidence that when marketers present us with data, it is often wrapped up in a story (e.g. a case study).

These clever folk know that emotion means they get remembered. They know it’s emotion that gets their stories – and hence their brand – shared… and it’s emotion that opens wallets and purses.

3. Trust is a luxury item

As we move further into the 21st Century, people are becoming more and more savvy and more cynical. They won’t tolerate the hard sell and, as I’ve already mentioned, they will get pretty put out if you try to marry them on the first date.

But that’s not all. We are overloaded with information and we distrust it more than ever. That’s why there’s such a drive for businesses to present themselves as honest, authentic and transparent.

Many firms are now waking up to the fact that consumers want even more than that: we want commonality. We want our brands to understand and relate to us.

So it’s hardly surprising that marketers have moved towards appealing to emotions, rather than bombarding their audiences with self-promotional tactics.

This is as true in the traditionally more staid world of B2B, as it is in B2C.

Research by Google found:

  • 50% of B2B buyers were more likely to buy if they can connect emotionally with your brand
  • 71% of B2B buyers purchase when they see personal value in your business
  • 69% of the B2B buyers surveyed are even willing to pay a higher price to do business with a brand they believe in

Where are your stories?

It’s really easy to think ‘I don’t have any stories to tell’.

Everybody has stories to tell.

Yours could come from all sorts of places, like:

  • Your origin story (and what that tells the reader/viewer/listener about your vision, mission and values)
  • Your inspirations (what or who or where inspired you to make major decisions, for example)
  • Your employees’ stories (from inside and outside of work, as long as they relate in some way to the firm and its mission)
  • Your work in the community or with other third parties, and why you’re doing it
  • Customer case studies (how did your firm or its products make a difference to their lives?)

And don’t shy away from telling the rough alongside the smooth. Audiences crave authenticity and transparency.

We love hearing about people who struggle and overcome the odds – it gives us someone to root for – that’s why trouble or tension is a part of all the best stories.

So tell stories, but do it right

Some crucial rules to make sure you get your storytelling right:

  • Tell stories that entertain, educate, inform, or inspire. Make sure you put these goals before saying ‘Look at me, I’m great!’ (I recommend the 80/20 rule, where you aim to spend 80% of the time helping people out with your expertise, insight, or whatever, and 20% overtly demonstrating your benefit to them)
  • Tell stories that are topical, relevant, unusual, filled with conflict, and which have a human experiences at their core (the more of these ingredients you can weave in, the better)
  • Tell your stories in a consistent, authentic way that builds commonality (i.e. a sense of belonging / community)
  • Define how are you going to talk to your audience(s) (i.e. What tone of voice are you going to use? How technical or in-depth will you go? FYI: always prioritise clarity over flare)
  • Keep the audience interested and engaged by adding lots of hooks as you go. (Hooks include strong statements, questions, interesting facts and stats, metaphors, quotes, personal anecdotes, etc.)

To ensure you stay focused, ask:

  • where can you add the most value to your target audience? (Where their interests and yours intersect is that sweet spot)
  • what does your audience actually want to see / hear / read about (in the context of what you do)?
  • where can you provide authority? (Be careful of straying into places you don’t belong)
  • what are the key messages you want to get across about your brand, its vision, and it values? (These don’t need to be explicit, your stories can be a reflection of them)
  • where does the audience hang out, both digitally and in the real world? (That’ll shape the media you use to communicate with them)

And if you need a ready-made structure to help shape your stories, you could do worse than adopt Pixar’s approach.

The famous animator uses a very simple structure to begin writing all their films (with my thoughts on what they mean in brackets):

  1. Once upon a time… [someone or something existed or came into being]
  2. Every day… [something happened that was the norm / drove them on / etc.]
  3. One day… [someone or something changed / took a big decision / etc]
  4. Because of that… [there were certain consequences]
  5. Because of that… [someone or something had to take action]
  6. Until finally… [the situation is resolved, lessons are learned, and a new paradigm adopted]

If you can follow these rules then you will tell stories that will give people an engaging insight into your brand, what it does, and what it stands for… and what that means for them.

Trust me, it won’t take long for your customers to thank and reward you for it.

If you like to find out more about how you can better tell the story of your brand, product, or service, get in touch with Smpl’s experts by emailing our MD Andreas or leaving us a message here.

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