Companies that cultivate emotional connections with customers can increase annual sales by up to 5% and avoid exorbitant client acquisition costs. One way to kindle these connections and inspire customer loyalty is through storytelling. Stories help brands capture attention, market their uniqueness, and stir audiences to action.
But there’s a catch.
After years of using storytelling techniques with my clients, I’ve learned that for a story to be effective, it must target the right audience, clarify brand values, communicate a consistent message, and convey authenticity.
Here, we look at how brands like Burt’s Bees, Heineken, and Huggies weave these elements together to tell stories that resonate with their customers—and how you can do the same.
Brand Storytelling That Works
Natural skin care brand Burt’s Bees does an excellent job using storytelling to build loyalty by educating customers on the company’s core philosophy: Like the world we live in, we should treat our skin with care.
On social media, Burt’s tells its brand story to highlight the company’s history and environmentally friendly policies. Video taglines such as “We harness the wisdom, power, and beauty of nature to bring out yours” demonstrate the brand’s respect for the natural world and commitment to quality ingredients. Likewise, the company’s About Us page emphasizes its core values, including responsible sourcing, recycling, and respect for the environment.
Burt’s Bees is a prime example of a brand that uses consistent storytelling to clarify its values and connect with its core audience. Here’s how you can tell similar stories.
1. Connect With the Right Audience
To tell a compelling story, you need to define your audience. A reliable way do this is by creating an archetype, a generalized character that embodies the primary traits of your target customer. For example, “The Rebel” is an archetype that craves freedom and defies conventions. Solidifying an archetype will give you “someone” to conceptualize and iterate your story around.
For a more detailed representation of your target customer, create a persona. Archetypes and personas are similar in that they summarize users’ problems, goals, outlooks, and behaviors. But personas provide more nuance by defining personal attributes such as name, age, gender, profession, and interests. You can source this data through market research, statistical analysis, user interviews, and user surveys.
Old Spice is an excellent example of a company that tells stories for a specific audience. A prominent “dad” brand in the 1970s and ’80s, Old Spice’s popularity among younger generations began to diminish in the early 2000s, so the company refocused its marketing strategy on a new target customer: women.
In 2010, Old Spice’s research team found that women made 60% of all body wash purchases. The company responded by launching an unconventional ad campaign aimed at women. “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” depicted a debonaire spokesman coaxing women to envision the attentive and successful man their partner could be—if only he used Old Spice.
This radical shift in target audience helped Old Spice increase brand awareness and revenue. The commercial reached over 20 million views on YouTube in three days, and the company’s year-over-year sales jumped 125% to an all-time high for the brand.
But it doesn’t always take an expensive new commercial to change up a storyline. Sometimes a trending hashtag can do the trick. In my home country, mobile network operator MTN Nigeria launched the #wemove campaign based on the social media phrase “We move,” which is a popular way for young Nigerians to signify moving forward in the face of adversity. For example, in 2020, Nigerian reggae artist Patoranking referenced “We move” when he retweeted an announcement that he had partnered with the African Leadership University to establish a financial aid scholarship for entrepreneurs.
MTN Nigeria’s #wemove campaign represents a commitment to social and economic change in the country, where unemployment stands at 33%. Its commercials chronicle young Nigerians who have faced financial and professional development challenges. Each story shows that MTN Nigeria’s stable and affordable internet connection gives these individuals more opportunities to succeed than they would have in an unconnected world.
2. Align Your Brand Narrative to Your Brand’s Values
More than ever, customers care about brand values such as a commitment to diversity or respect for the environment. Brand narratives are a helpful way for companies to clarify their core values to customers. They also provide a messaging framework that ensures a consistent voice across marketing efforts.
To craft an appealing narrative, you have to know the foundational beliefs that your brand stands for. If it has multiple core values, your narrative can comprise different stories, each focusing on a specific conviction. Once you’ve defined an overarching narrative, you can share brand stories wherever your customers are—for instance, on social media, review sites, or your company’s website.
One company that does this well is Airbnb. Airbnb incorporates real reviews and stories from hosts and guests in its brand narrative—a strategy that aligns with its reputation as a customer-centric company. These personal accounts address customers’ concerns about hosting or staying with strangers and give Airbnb’s storytelling a distinct and consistent voice across brand channels.
Another example of a brand narrative stemming from core values comes from Airtel Nigeria, a telecommunications company striving to make mobile services available to all Nigerians, irrespective of age, gender, tribe, or socioeconomic status. The company’s ads highlight amusing social situations with broad cultural appeal. For example, in the “In-Laws” series, Airtel’s 4G connection helps a busy mom remember to run errands and (briefly) impress her overbearing mother-in-law.
3. Communicate a Clear and Consistent Brand Message
The secret to successfully communicating your brand story is to keep things simple and consistent. Highlight what the brand is about, what makes it unique, and what you want the audience to remember.
Heineken does an impressive job telling consistent brand stories for its target market: men between the ages of 20 and 35. The company’s ads almost always depict friends having a good time while sharing drinks in social settings, such as pubs and sporting events. For instance, Heineken’s message in this commercial is straightforward: After being apart for so long during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, let’s come together to watch UEFA Euro 2020. Another commercial, though different in pacing and aesthetics, conveys similar themes: A young man takes his date to a lively bar, tries to impress her with a series of party tricks, and the scene ends with the smiling couple toasting their Heinekens.
If you need help clarifying what your company’s message is or should be, there are multiple messaging frameworks, guides, and methods designed to help you identify and focus on what makes your brand special.
4. Be Authentic and Gain Audience Trust
Humans are hardwired to respond to stories because character-driven narratives cause our brains to release oxytocin, a chemical that increases comprehension, empathy, and trust. Authentic stories captivate audiences and create meaningful memories linked to the emotions surrounding important events.
For instance, Huggies’ “No Baby Unhugged” campaign serves a dual purpose: It promotes the physical and emotional benefits of skin-to-skin contact between mothers and newborns, and emotionally connects with expecting moms who will soon be purchasing diapers for their babies. As part of the campaign, Huggies released a video featuring mothers hugging their newborns shortly after birth, along with the caption, “Hugs strengthen your baby’s immune system. They promote weight gain and improve brain development.” The story shows that Huggies understands what its audience cares about—which helped the brand triple its sign-ups for a free product trial in the campaign’s first year.
Ikea also uses storytelling to build trust with its audience. One of the brand’s core values is caring for people and the planet, which is evident in its collaborations, such as the KÅSEBERGA collection. Ikea created this collection with the World Surf League (WSL) to meet the surfing community’s home furnishing and lifestyle needs. As part of the launch, Ikea produced an 11-minute film that uses storytelling to introduce surf-inspired furniture and provide a deeper understanding of the need to establish a more sustainable lifestyle.
Stories That Connect Your Brand to Your Audience
Storytelling can help brands set themselves apart and build lasting bonds with customers. But brand stories must be tailored for the right audience, clearly highlight brand values, and convey consistent and authentic messaging. Combining these key elements allows you to tell brand stories that spark genuine connections and move your customers to take action.