Last year, a buzzword ripped through the content marketing space that most marketers were surprisingly thrilled about and eager to implement. Shockingly, it didn’t start with “virtual” or end with “intelligence”. Instead, it was what attracted most marketers to the industry in the first place -- "storytelling".
Content marketing’s steady adoption of storytelling is an exciting new opportunity for content creators. The human brain is wired to respond to well-crafted narrative -- neuroscience proves that storytelling is the best way to capture people’s attention, bake information into their memories, and forge close, personal bonds. Your audience is programmed to crave and seek out great stories -- that’ll never change.
However, since we’ve spent the majority of our careers optimizing content for algorithms, it can be challenging to flex a creative muscle that’s slowly withered away from inactivity and, in turn, move people emotionally and sear your brand into their memories.
So, to help you strengthen that creative muscle and write compelling stories again, we’ve created a guide about the fundamentals of brand story structure and provided examples of three small-to-medium sized businesses who have leveraged their brand story to resonate with huge audiences, despite their comparatively small size.
What is a brand story?
A brand story recounts the series of events that sparked your company’s inception and expresses how that narrative still drives your mission today. Just like your favorite books and movies’ characters, if you can craft a compelling brand story, your audience will remember who you are, develop empathy for you, and, ultimately, care about you.
When HubSpot first started, we noticed traditional, interruptive marketing didn’t appeal to consumers anymore. Due to the digital age, people were in complete control of the information they consumed -- and they were sick and tired of receiving direct mail, email blasts, and cold calls. People wanted to be helped, so we started creating educational content that aided people in solving their marketing problems.
Today, we’ve built a passionate community of inbound marketers, expanded our inbound marketing approach to the sales and customer service industries, and strengthened the inbound movement more than ever before.
This our brand story -- a simple, digestible narrative that explains why HubSpot began, and how this reason still serves as our purpose today.
How to Write a Brand Story
1. Highlight your story’s conflict.
Check out the following story. Does it resonate with you?
A girl wearing a red-hooded cloak is strolling through the woods to give her sick grandma some much-needed food and TLC. She passes by a wolf on the way. They exchange a slightly awkward soft smile-nod combination that random colleagues usually greet each other with as they pass in the hallway. She makes it to her grandma’s house without a scratch. They eat lunch and play a game of Clue together. Grandma wins by deducing that Colonel Mustard killed Mr. Boddy in the Billiard Room with the candlestick -- what a shocker! The End.
So ... what’d you think? Did this story keep you on the edge of your seat? Or does it feel … off? For some reason, it doesn’t work, right? That’s because there’s no conflict. Despite the intense game of Clue at the end, there’s nothing at stake. There’s no tension. The wolf didn’t try to eat the girl. He didn’t even go to Grandma’s house. He barely acknowledged Little Red Riding Hood.
At their core, stories are about overcoming adversity. So if there’s no conflict presented, there’s no drama or emotional journey that people can relate to. And if your story has no drama or emotional journey, it won’t hold anyone’s attention -- let alone resonate with and inspire them.
Unfortunately, in the business world, brands are horrified to reveal any adversity or conflict they’ve faced. They believe that spinning a rosy, blemish-free story about how their company only experiences hockey stick growth will convince people that they’re the industry’s best-in-class solution. Any adversity or conflict during their company’s history will expose their imperfections, deterring potential customers from buying their product.
But, in reality, this is a huge misconception. Nothing’s perfect. Everything, including companies (especially companies), has flaws. Plus, people don’t relate to perfection. They relate to the emotional journey of experiencing adversity, struggling through it, and, ultimately, overcoming it. Because, in a nutshell, that’s the story of life.
Conflict is key to telling compelling stories. So be transparent about the adversity your company has faced, and own it. The more honest you are about your shortcomings, the more people will respect you and relate to your brand.
2. Don’t forget about your story’s status quo and resolution.Conflict isn’t the only thing you should focus on when crafting your brand story. A compelling story has two other fundamental elements -- the status quo and resolution.
The status quo is the way things are or the initial nature of your situation. The conflict disrupts this situation and puts something at stake, forcing the protagonist (your brand) to actively find a solution to this problem. The resolution describes how the protagonist solves the problem, giving your audience an emotional payoff.
In sum, your brand’s story structure should look like this -- status quo, conflict, and resolution. It’s as simple as that.
If you need an example to crystalize brand story structure in your mind, let’s go over the actual Little Red Riding Hood story, as well as some brands who are nailing their brand stories right now.
Little Red Riding Hood
Status Quo: Little Red Riding Hood walks through the woods, on her way to deliver food to her sick grandma.
Conflict: A Big Bad Wolf approaches her, and asks where she’s going. She naively tells him where her grandmother’s house is, so he suggests she picks some flowers as a present for her. While she’s distracted, he breaks into Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother's house, eats her, and puts on her clothes to impersonate her.
When Little Red Riding Hood gets to her grandmother’s house, she notices some subtle changes in her grandmother appearance but ultimately ignores them and hops into bed with her. The wolf swallows her whole. He falls asleep from a massive food coma.
Resolution: A hunter hears Little Red Riding Hood’s screams, bursts through grandma’s door, and cuts open the wolf’s stomach, setting Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother free. They then fill the wolf’s body with heavy stones, and when he wakes up and tries to run away, he topples over and dies.
Now -- wouldn’t you say that was a little more compelling and entertaining than finding out Colonel Mustard can wield a candlestick as a murder weapon? I would, too.
The thing is, some small brands are leveraging this same exact story structure to generate massive amounts of brand awareness and affinity. Read on to find out exactly how they do it.
Brand Story Examples
- Unthinkable Media
- Grado Labs
Unthinkable Media is a creative agency that produces original, narrative-driven podcasts for B2B brands. Their mission is to create refreshing, entertaining shows for clients that can actually retain people’s attention, not just acquire it.
Here’s a rundown of their brand story, which is also fleshed out in one of the founder’s blog posts:
Status Quo: As makers and marketers, we want our audience’s attention, and so for years, we focused our efforts on acquiring it.
Conflict: But today, thanks to multiple screens, ubiquitous and instantly accessible content, and endless choice in nearly every competitive niche, the buyer now has total control. They only choose experiences they genuinely enjoy. It is no longer enough for us to simply acquire our audience's attention.
Resolution: We need to hold it. That is our new mandate as makers and marketers. We need to shift our focus from impressions and traffic to subscribers and community. Everything we are trying to achieve becomes possible and gets easier when our audience spends minutes or even hours with us, not seconds. Don't just acquire attention. Hold it.
2. Grado Labs
Grado Labs is a third-generation, family-owned headphone and cartridge company. They don’t believe in advertising, have operated in the same building for over a century, and even make their headphones by hand. So why do they choose to operate like this when huge brands like Beats by Dre, Sony, and Bose have celebrity endorsers and mass-produce their headphones? Check out our interpretation of their brand story to find out.
Status Quo: Music is an essential part of the human experience. Without it, life just isn’t as colorful and exciting. And we believe quality headphones amplify the pleasant, emotional experience of listening to music.
Conflict: In a market where every headphone brand has an enormous advertising budget, state-of-the-art facilities, and high-tech machines that can churn out as much product as they want, all of which we don’t have, why do we choose to not conform?
Resolution: Sound comes first. We’re craft-driven creators, meaning we prioritize producing the best product over generating the most hype. And by creating a better pair of headphones at the expense of publicity and growth, we can serve our customers better and foster a fervent passion for our product.
Drift is a conversational marketing platform that helps businesses connect with prospects through genuine, empathetic conversations and interactions. In 2016, they shocked the content marketing world by scrapping arguably the most reliable lead generator from their website -- forms.
Even though they were initially anxious about getting rid of a lead generation machine, they knew ungating every piece of content on their website would allow them to align with their mission, put their customers first, and offer as much value as possible, which would produce better long-term results. Here’s our interpretation of their brand story.
Status Quo: The crux of content marketing is treating people like humans. So, we’ve done what most other companies have done: created content that aims to help and educate our customers. And in exchange for adding value to their lives, customers are likely to return the favor with their attention, trust, and action.
Conflict: But as much as we preach about putting the customer first, we don’t practice it. Instead of offering the most value we possibly can, we make people give us their contact information in exchange for the very thing we promise is free. Then, with their contact information, we email and call them until they either unsubscribe or eventually buy. No one actually enjoys filling out forms, becoming a lead, and getting nurtured. Our ulterior motive is crystal clear. So are we actually being customer-centric?
Resolution: Let’s get rid of all our forms. If we really want to practice what we preach -- putting our customers first and providing a more human and empathetic marketing experience -- we should offer all of our content for free, with no strings attached.
Tell your brand’s real story, not it’s highlight reel.
Whether you’re publishing your brand story on your website or using it to inform your overall mission, make sure it’s fact, not fiction. Spitting out a highlight reel, like almost every other brand does, won’t actually resonate with people. Instead, it's crucial you tell the honest truth about the adversity your company has faced, and how you’re working to overcome it. Because what people relate to and get inspired by isn’t endless success -- it’s the rocky journey of pursuing a goal, getting knocked down, and, ultimately, finding a path toward success.