It was in the middle of the 2018 summer heatwave.
The constant tapping from my mechanical pencil has somewhat created a pretty impressive Monet-looking drawing on my notepad.
My lovely co-founder, Julia, and I had been at it for days now. I was on the verge of giving up for a lack of a clear solution: how can we create an “about us” page that really characterises who we are?
What’s there to possibly talk about, given that we’ve just started? How can we even make it different and relevant? What if readers just don’t care?
Looking down at my notepad, I pictured what my life would be like if I were to pursue a career in French impressionist painting.
But I couldn’t give up. I couldn’t betray Julia’s patience.
— “Shall we talk about who we are?”
— “That’s so typical. Every agency does that. Plus, who cares?”
— “What about how we met and bonded through content marketing? We could also take a dig at how all “about us” pages are the same.”
And there it was. The trigger for the idea for our about us page.
Dozens of coffees and some pretty ridiculous ideas later, we finally landed on one. (Hop on over to give it a read!)
What is brand storytelling?
Brand storytelling is using a story to create an emotional connection between a brand and its audience.
It’s a simple and effective technique that has been the cornerstone of growth for global brands such as Coca Cola. Today, it’s deeply embedded within the content strategy of all brands from startups like Piktochart to traditional companies like Maersk.
Why am I telling you Dear Content’s meta-story —the story of how we decided to tell our story—? The reason is two-fold: I like it and it encapsulates the key points of brand storytelling:
- Introducing both the problem and the solution
- Illustrating the brand’s purpose and its human side
- Highlighting the personality and values of the brand
- Creating an emotional connection and stirs up empathy
- Showing vulnerability
- Recreating details to help with visualisation
- Using real dialogues to make it more realistic
These are seven basic ingredients for good and creative brand storytelling. And to look at how to effectively implement them, here’s a look at six established companies who were able to spark life in their brand stories through powerful storytelling.
Piktochart: No more Monday Blues
In brand storytelling, it’s not so much what you tell as it is how you tell it.
The story of Piktochart is a classic example of this rule.
By implementing basic elements of storytelling, Piktochart converted a story that could very well have been one of a typical entrepreneur to one that’s universal.
For easy visualisation, underlined in red, green, and violet are elements depicting details, difficulties and values.
- Red: Details
- Purple: Difficulties
- Green: Values
Their job, which they execute really well, is to draw in your subconscious mind and evoke a sense of connection as you read.
One of the most classic copywriting and web writing tips is to reduce the number of words to the bare minimum.
But while it may make for a more fluid read, this tip may not always apply and its effectiveness actually depends on the context and goal.
In their example, Piktochart tells us much more than we need to know to grasp its story.
But it does so with good reason: to place us in the exact moment they were in and to make us feel as though we were really there and part of the gruelling process of having to work out of a warehouse in Penang.
Do we really need to know that “no more Monday Blues” was written on a piece of paper? It could have been written in an email, via WhatsApp, or even scribbled on the wall.
And Penang? While some of us may simply glimpse across the word thinking “ah, I’ve heard of this place”, that’s not what Piktochart wants us to take from it.
To them, it isn’t just a location. It is a place they value and they bring this out by describing it as “an exotic Malaysian island known for its rich variety of food and incredible heritage sites” (which I can vouch for first hand).
These details, innocuous at first glance, are what enrich and give life to stories because they help to create vivid images in readers’ minds.
Classic storytelling is organised into three acts: presentation, climax, and end. The struggle, which dictates the conflict, is what the story’s protagonist must overcome to get to the final act.
In Piktochart’s example, the difficulty its founders faced was built up in small doses: starting without a clear direction, working day and night out of a warehouse, etc.
In brand storytelling, the story is not the end but the means to an end. The purpose of this end is to be able to connect with readers well enough and transmit a message that acts as a trigger for further actions — be it immediate or in the future.
To establish this connection between readers and brand, the message needs to portray the brand’s principles and values in a way that readers can easily identify with.
Piktochart’s story conveys who they are pretty clearly: a curious bunch of people working towards making visual prowess accessible for all.
Disclaimer: You may have noticed that this isn’t the first time we’re mentioning Piktochart in our posts. No, we’re not paid to do so. We just really big fans!
What we can learn from Piktochart’s storytelling:
- Its founders’ acceptance of human nature to feel vulnerable and how they weren’t afraid to portray it. “All they knew was that they wanted to…” This makes them relatable and even approachable and welcoming on some level.
- The backstory does matter. Piktochart’s story can be summarised in one short sentence: ‘we want everyone to be able to create strong visuals.’ But where’s the story in that? Pretty much every other visual marketing tool can say the same thing. By charting their struggles, plan, and thought process, they’re telling a story of the journey that began in 2011 and are inviting readers to partake in their voyage and mission.
Zuora: The subscription economy is here
We’ve talked about details, difficulties, and values. But if we had to choose just one key element of every great story, it would be: change.
Change produces tension and gives purpose to a story. It isn’t as straightforward as solving a problem. It involves embarking on a journey, facing difficulties, refusing to give up, and pressing on headstrong. Through this voyage, challenges are overcome and solved, thus effecting change.
Few brands have been as successful with using change as the basis of their brand storytelling as Zuora.
The subscription management platform talks about how our consumption habits are evolving: from a product economy to a subscription economy.
The “Subscription Economy”, a term coined by its founder, Tien Tzuo, refers to a business evolution where consumers prefer to pay for monthly subscriptions for a service instead of a one-time payment for lifetime usage.
Practically all of Zuora’s marketing efforts and brand strategy revolve around this narrative. It’s even found a place in their corporate presentation — one that Andy Raskin, one of the world’s leading experts in brand strategic positioning, says is the greatest sales deck he’s ever seen.
Like all good stories, the presentation depicts the before and after. It talks about companies who accept and embrace the incoming change and the benefits of the new model, and the consequences of becoming obsolete for those who fail to adapt.
It’s change presented in the form of a battle.
What we can learn from Zuora’s storytelling:
- Its focus on selling change, which is more powerful than selling products. Providing a context to your product by talking about the evolution in your sector can help to better reach and connect with your audience than simply talking about your product.
- Its out-of-the-box thinking to go beyond the typical problem/solution sales framework. It becomes much more attractive and effective once the context is presented: the big change.
- Its coherence and consistency in its content marketing and company culture. Zuora’s message of the pivot towards a subscription economy is reflected in much more than just its homepage and presentation. It’s etched in all its communications, from blog posts and email marketing to social media and digital PR. And what’s more, as Andy Raskin points out, it’s even become a personal mantra of its own employees.
Brewdog adapts a somewhat blunt and forthright tone to relate its brand story — the very same tone it has chosen to represent its brand image.
Its timeline does a great job of taking us down memory lane.
But what really stands out the most is how each sentence and image transmits the brand’s personality and values: authenticity, a ton of originality, a rebellious spirit, and a humorous, ironic, and philosophical attitude towards life and business.
What we can learn from Brewdog’s storytelling:
- Its brutal honesty and opinion (…we decided to fix the sorry state of the UK beer market) and touches of struggle and modesty (…got some scary bank loans and spent all our money on stainless steel. We brewed tiny batches, filled bottles by hand and sold beer at markets and out of the back of a van.) that make the brand relatable.
- The coherence of its story and the brand’s personality, visible across all its communications, from ads to Business for Punks, a book written by its founder, James Watt.
- The little details it adds to its copies to give it a tinge of personality and colour.
Maersk: All the way
Danish container shipping giant Maersk has spent the past few months focusing on its brand storytelling as an integral part of its communication strategy overhaul.
In its story, the traditional company wants to show the world that it can step out of its traditional image and reign supreme in the digital era by adopting change.
Not only has it adapted, but it has also used it to reposition itself and is even leading the call for change.
In its All The Way campaign, this is the message it’s trying to put across: we’ve transformed, we’re changing, and we’ll keep changing. All the way.
Three short yet inspiring words that are full of wit and play with the double meaning of its freight transportation services from one end to another and its dedication to change.
But All The Way is more than just a campaign. It’s Maersk’s new communication strategy implemented through storytelling. Even though the classic storytelling elements of start, progress, and end aren’t obvious, it doesn’t mean they’re not there.
Essentially, the backdrop of its message is this:
We have long reigned as the undisputed leaders of container shipping.
Then change comes along to unsettle our dominance.
Despite our primitive instincts to resist, we adapted.
As others fell victim to resistance and got eliminated, we rose to the challenge and grew stronger.
Now, change is part of our DNA.
Just as we’ve seen in the previous examples, Maersk has taken these three simple words, All The Way, and dispersed it across all its communication channels, from its homepage to its CEO’s LinkedIn article.
What we can learn from Maersk’s storytelling:
- Their application of the story of its digital transformation to something much more universal: the origin of the natural human resistance to change
- The aim of their message that goes beyond just their target audience. It’s the perfect message for its customers, but it also looks to impact business and organisational culture and people in general.
- Its clever contrast of the old and the new (and perhaps even addressing the gender divide and the rising role of women in business) by using an attractive and confident-looking woman to represent ‘change’, and a scruffy old man to portray resistance.
- Its supporting argument for its thesis with an interview with a psychologist explaining the science behind what it calls a ‘reptilian brain’ and how it inhibits progress and development.
IDEO: a gathering of friends
What is it like to work for IDEO?
Like being surrounded by friends who know how to enjoy life and are motivated by the fact that their work has a positive impact on society.
This is the message transmitted by IDEO, whose slideshow presentation summarises it perfectly: A gathering of friends.
Like Piktochart, their story may not be anything out of the ordinary. But it does a great job at aligning in its messages its values of change, optimism, collaboration, innovation, and helping others “find their calling”.
Each slide brings us a step closer to its milestone or its way of working and is told from the perspective of its employees and their challenges and inspirations.
What we can learn from IDEO’s storytelling:
- Its coherence between its mission and the brand’s most important value: its people.
- Their lack of pretences. There’s no fluff and no embellishment. Just what it’s like to work at IDEO.
- Their humour and acceptance that few understand what they do (design thinking):
We admit it. Sometimes it’s hard to explain what we do.
Evernote founder Stepan Pachikov dreamt of having a photographic memory. That way, experiences could last longer than a fleeting moment before it became a memory.
The story of Evernote is one of a visionary fascinated with the fragility of life, mind, and memory.
“99 percent of every person is the memory of what he or she knows (…) What you remember about your life is what makes you you, and me me.”
— Stepan Pachikov
In this video by Evernote, Pachikov speaks about life and death, enjoying and remembering beautiful moments, being who we are, and the sense of our journey through an existence that one that’s unique in the entire universe.
With these such deep and thought-provoking words, the picture he paints of his dream touched our hearts — I mean, how could they possibly not?
Evernote brand storytelling doesn’t present a clear problem/solution. Instead, it reaches out to us with a universal concern through which it establishes an emotional connection.
“An interesting moment in life lasts only a moment. There is some probability that there is no other life in the universe. It might be true, it may be not. but there is at least a chance that we are alone. Evernote eventually will be a full backup of your memory.”
— Stepan Pachikov
What we can learn from Evernote’s storytelling:
- Their story’s emotional connection with its audience. As we watch the video, we’re not thinking about its product. We’re simply letting ourselves get mesmerised by the emotions Evernote awakens.
- The use of a charismatic and important figure in its brand story.
- Their adoption of a universal language for brand storytelling to spark a more human and relatable experience. In fact, if there were ever a competition of linking a brand’s story to a more universal one, Evernote would take the cake.