How to transcend brand communication with storytelling

By Janelle de Weerd

Stories have the power to change generations. Dating back to the dawn of civilization, storytelling has been used to educate and move societies. From the cave paintings that predate literacy to Aristotle and Greek tragedy, the world as we know it has been shaped by the stories that are handed down from one generation to the next.

Story-based understanding and retention

Especially on an individual level, stories hold great power. Our entire system of sense and meaning-making is built on indexing, storing, and retrieving information in a story-based fashion. How often can you remember the precise facts and figures listed in an advertisement or study after just hearing it one time? I would be willing to bet that it is few and far between.

The human psyche is not built to regurgitate information verbatim. Instead, it uses contextual cues constructed from imagery and sequence to index information in a story-fashion. You can see humans as story builders who don’t document their memories in isolated events. Rather we create a cohesive story that ebbs and flows from one situation to the next.

Ultimately, stories tend to feel so natural because we are psychologically designed to process them with greater ease than any other format. This makes it no wonder that brands have used storytelling to sell their vision, ideas, and products to the world for so many years. From very early on, brands were quick to understand the importance of storytelling in engaging, inspiring, and activating their audiences.


The psychology of storytelling

Before we get into why storytelling is pivotal for brands, I first want to take you through the psychological process behind narratives. This will give you a better understanding of the need for and persuasive nature of them.

Countless studies have researched the psychological process that occurs when individuals hear a story. And a large sum of these studies alludes to a process called transportation.

Originally conceived by Green and Brock (2000), transportation is the cognitive merging of imagery, attention, and emotions that cause a person to absorb into a story-world to such an extent that he or she suspends disbelief.

Three elements make up transportation: mental imagery, cognitive engagement, and emotional engagement. When all of these factors are present, narrative transportation occurs.


Elements of Narrative Transportation

Elements of Narrative Transportation


1. Mental Imagery

Mental imagery is the visuals you create in your mind as you’re listening to a story. For example, imagine someone telling you with great enthusiasm about why they love watermelon so much. They explain how the combination of the crunchy texture, sweetness, and the feeling of juice dripping down their face and hands with every bite is simply unbeatable.

Most of us will have a vivid picture in our minds after hearing this, some even picturing themselves eating their beloved piece of watermelon. Mental imagery consists of these vivid visuals that you build in your head.


2. Cognitive Engagement

The process of building those mental images in your mind consumes many cognitive resources, or brain power. Cognitive resources are limited, so an individual only has a given amount of resources to “spend” on specific activities.

Since you use up these resources while listening and building mental images, you have less left to use on processes like counterarguing or being skeptical of what is said. This is why stories can be so persuasive. Whether it is a brand, a politician, or a friend, if they can tell a visual story, you will be less likely to be wary of the intention.


3. Emotional Engagement

The last element of transportation relies on the emotional appeal of a story. Stories that use various emotions to enact engagement complete the transportation process. These emotions can relate to story-character empathy or sympathy. Or even prompt a positive or negative sentiment in the listener.


Attention, imagery, and feelings merge to cause suspension of disbelief.

Ultimately, when a person experiences transportation through these three elements, he or she is more likely to come out of the experience with storyteller (or brand) aligned attitudes.

Brand Storytelling

The first step to telling resonating stories that facilitate transportation is to establish storytelling within your organization. By focusing on your employees’ happiness and building a place where individuals are encouraged to live the brand values, it will be more likely that these values extend to external storytelling in both marketing and customer service channels.


Telling internal stories within your organization

So, how do you engage your employees in creating and maintaining your internal stories?


1. Facilitate mutual creation

Corporate structures are changing. Startups are no longer the only companies where employees of all levels determine the organizational culture and direction. By involving your entire team in creating your values, and in turn, your brand story, you increase the likelihood that the story matches reality.

Plus, by establishing an environment for open, candid communication and feedback, your employees will be more likely to feel connected, loyal, and inspired in their work.


2. Understand that behavior determines values

Start at the core of your organization by analyzing the behavior of your employees. What drives your team in their professional life? What about their personal life? What drivers do they believe propel your company?

The behavior of those in your organization determines your company values. By finding common ground between different perspectives, a story that everyone believes in can be conceived.


3. Take every chance to share your story

Use the input from your team to create a compelling story that transports its audience. Share your story whenever given the opportunity to do so. The more present it is within company doors, the more top of mind it will remain in the heads of your employees.


Sharing external stories your audience can believe in

When equipped with a compelling brand story, the stage will be set to create campaigns that align with your brand values. And with the rise of content marketing, conveying your story is easier than ever before.

Social media has unlocked the opportunity for brands to release their digital content in a manner that is consistent, engaging, and relationship-building. However, this development also means that virtually every brand is online fighting for that same share of mind.

With so many brand messages communicated online, consumers are starting to become desensitized. This puts pressure on organizations to not only stand out but culturally resonate with their audience.


Brands that excel in content marketing and storytelling


For example, take Chipotle (pre-salmonella outbreak). Their Scarecrow ad shook up the market by inadvertently naming and shaming other fast food restaurants with questionable business and production processes. Not to mention the strong story-line that captivates its audience within the first 15 seconds.

Chipotle managed to share a story with which their target audience could identify. This campaign was featured on various social platforms, offline, and even adapted to their cups and other supplies in stores. The result? Chipotle didn’t only start a national conversation, but they gained a loyal group of consumers that shared their story for them.


The feminine hygiene brand Always found their way into their consumers' lives by shaking up the norm. Their campaign, Like a Girl,  challenged the connotation of what it means to act “like a girl” through an extensive content marketing campaign.

This campaign started with just one video. But since, has expanded to consumer and brand-generated blog threads, video testimonials, social media campaigns, and so on. The success of this campaign was immense. So much so, that one study found a 70% positive interpretation of the phrase for women and 60% for men.



None other than Spotify produced another, more recent campaign. Perhaps more relatable, because in this case, they weren’t aiming to shake up society or make a bold statement. They merely wanted to show that they are more than just a music streaming platform. And that is precisely what they did.

Spotify user-generated campaign

While this form of storytelling differs from the other two examples, the effects were just as strong. Spotify used their data to create a creative campaign centered around the absurd playlist names and listening history of their consumers. Although this campaign initially started on one platform, the positive reaction catalyzed it to be distributed and shared across online and offline channels. 


Time to start crafting your next best-seller

A compelling story fits right in with the rest of your branding strategy. It’s intended to work as a basis for your internal and external communication. Plus, it’s always there to turn back to when in need of new inspiration.

Most importantly, stories need to activate its audience. A central aspect to all of the elements discussed in this blog post shows the value of engaging the audience through value-driven campaigns. Whether it is your employees or customers, individuals want to feel that they matter. So when they are invited to participate, their satisfaction and loyalty increase.  


Key Takeaways

Walking away from this blog post, these are the most important takeaways that you can use in creating your organization's brand story.

  • Transportation into narratives:

    • We automatically process stories because our brains are wired to think and retrieve memories in narrative-formats

    • Experiencing transportation into narratives leads to favorable brand attitudes, making crafting the perfect story for your brand crucial.

  • Internal Stories

    • Stories aren’t only for external communication but should start internally.

    • Internal stories should be based on company and employee values

  • External Stories

    • External stories build on internal stories to communicate values to the public.

    • Brand stories relay brand values through multi-platform content marketing approaches.

  • Stories activate their audiences.

  • Stories set the tone for your communication and, when well-crafted, can build deeper relationships with your target audience.

Get inspiredKim Cramer