Human culture has always been driven by stories. It’s not a coincidence that many of the earliest cultural records were narratives. Stories have always provided human beings with a structure to understand and process information about the world around them. And whilst it may not be the first thing that comes to mind when discussing business strategy, storytelling is a powerful tool that no brand can afford to ignore.
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise enterprises need to change tack, given that the way we approach information has changed irrevocably in the last couple of decades. “The world has become a lot more complex and connected and media has become a lot more fragmented,” says Kevin Keohane, MD of BrandPie, the creative strategists. Because of the internet, individuals are constantly saturated with information and this has meant that more than ever, they are bombarded with dry information and corporate jargon. He explains: “Story makes it a lot easier for people to see what you’re trying to achieve and why you’re trying to achieve it.”
Additionally, information often only plays a small part in decision-making. “When people are making choices we all like to convince ourselves that we make rational choices, that we look at all of the data and based on that data we choose company A over company B,” comments Vincent Franklin, film and TV actor and creative partner of Quietroom, the communication consultancy. “But we know that actually that’s nonsense.” One need only look at the heated public debate around emotive issues such as climate change or immigration to see that deeply held, emotional beliefs are rarely changed by new information. Franklin says: “What we really make are emotional choices about things and then we justify or rationalise them afterwards.”
Inevitably, this has a huge influence when communicating about your brand in the marketplace. “A brand isn’t about the look and feel of what you do,” Franklin says. “It’s about how people feel about you; it’s everything you do.” Perception of a company, both internally and externally, is about far more than just a logo or its quarterly results; instead it’s a matter of identity, who the people are behind the company and what their values are. “And the way we tell people who we are is through the stories we tell.”
This means a story is an excellent way to communicate things about a brand that reach deeper than simple jargon is able to. “Organisations are very clear that a sense of purpose underpins the story that they want to tell,” Keohane comments. Referring to data on 50,000 different brands compiled by Jim Stengel, the former global marketing officer of P&G, the consumer goods company, he explains the 50 identified as ‘purpose-led brands’ had much higher customer loyalty than any of the others. “Story makes things a lot more relevant,” he says. “It makes it easier for people to see what you’re trying to achieve and why you’re trying to achieve it.”
But what is it that makes the stories a brand tells have such a strong impact on us?
“When we hear a story, all the little bits of our brain that would deal with that information if we were really there are activated,” Franklin explains. When people are told about visual or auditory experiences, the neurons that deal with vision or hearing fire. This means there is a huge overlap between being told about a meaningful experience and experiencing it oneself. “In my head, it’s dealing with a much greater set of experiences than data alone is,” he continues. “It’s engaging with me almost as if I were in the room.”
It’s this ability to communicate things on a personal level that make stories such an effective tool. When most companies communicate things about their past, they tend to make use of case studies and often these are very dry and results-focused. “You don’t tend to put in the turning points,” says Franklin. “You don’t tell the point where you thought all was lost.”
The beauty of telling the real stories behind your company is that naturally these stories do just that. Inevitably, in the running of any start-up, the stakes rise and fall. There are periods when things seemed destined to come apart, only to be saved by a team member’s quick thinking or gutsy decision. “What we know about stories is that the bits that stick with us are those turning points,” Franklin explains. “To feel honest and truthful, you have to tell people how you’re feeling at this time, what the stakes were.”
These stories can also have a huge cohesive power. “One of the things that we say to people is that everything you say has to be backed up by everything you do,” Keohane says.
If a company tries to establish its narrative around making peoples lives simpler, this needs to be reflected in the day-to-day effect of its interactions. It’s fortunate that a brand’s story can therefore assist massively with this, as it enables people within the organisation to connect to its purpose on a more intuitive level. Keohane explains: “The way I look at it is that it gives people a star to steer by.”
And if the narrative a company has been telling holds up to scrutiny, it can offer a huge resilience to that company in times public perception would be inclined to turn against it. “If the organisation has actually committed to and proven that they believe in that purpose and actually deliver it, then it acts as an incredible buffer,” Keohane says. “That sort of behaviour builds incredible loyalty so when those organisations do falter, people are a lot more likely to forgive them.”