You don’t need high-stakes crusades through post-apocalyptic landscapes, gut-wrenching romances — or even dragons. We’ll show you how to tell a brand story grounded in reality that still packs a punch.

It’s no secret that marketers like to use buzzwords. Omnichannel. Hyperlocal. Thought leadership. Yes, we’re guilty, too — and that’s okay, because each has its place in the vast landscape of brand strategy.

Storytelling is a popular one, and can refer to anything from generic marketing campaigns to “storyscaping” — the creation of immersive worlds that render the consumer the hero on a daring (and branded) quest for improvement. Well, we’re on a quest of our own: to elevate storytelling from an ambiguous industry buzzword to a meaningful and effective strategy designed to both entertain and educate an audience. Here’s how to do it.

1. Find Your Voice

Marketers aren’t the only fans of buzzwords and idioms. Writing instructors are notorious for this one: Find your voice. What is that supposed to mean? Find it? Where did it go?

For brands, this catchphrase can be translated as follows: it’s crucial to develop a clear, assured brand voice designed to resonate with your audience, which may include a whole slew of its own characters: business partners, sales prospects, and end users among them.

Fortunately, you don’t need to hone a unique voice to communicate with each segment of your target audience. Simply ensure that your verbal style:

  1. Remains consistent and direct.
  2. Effectively conveys the message of your brand.
  3. Masters the tone of your business.

When this approach works, it really works. Check out this Vimeo email campaign, in which the video hosting platform strikes a charming balance of lighthearted humor and professionalism that is sure to appeal to its target audience by harking back to its overall mission of entertainment.

Vimeo_Screenshot | L&T

Or, for an outstanding example of a brand voice that favors the poetic and inspirational, watch this 2017 Nike Pride Month campaign honoring transgender dancer Leiomy Maldonado.

2. Lead With an Irresistible Hook

In the digital era, the average human attention span is, in fact, shorter than that of a goldfish — which means that grabbing your audience’s attention is more critical than ever before.

Consider famous literary “hooks,” or opening lines, through history. The most memorable can stick with us to such an extent that they become integrated into our colloquial dialogue (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” anyone?). Your marketing campaign’s hook should aspire to the same heights.

Craft a killer hook by introducing a universal principle or truth, or delivering a punchy, simple statement à la Fahrenheit 451’s “It was a pleasure to burn.” You can even use your hook to set the mood for your brand’s larger narrative arc — in the vein of Eat24’s blog post introductions, which always seem to effortlessly pin down the brand’s witty nonchalance:

Eat24_Screenshot | L&T

A tip from the industry cheat sheet: capitalize on holidays and seasonal events to develop a catchy hook that strikes the perfect chord with your audience. This Father’s Day campaign from Pampers, showcasing the very best from 10-time Grammy winner John Legend, features an opening line we won’t soon forget.

3. Cast Your Customer as the Protagonist

Though the idea of “storyscaping” may seem a bit over-the-top, the strategy certainly has its merits — a major one of which is positioning the consumer as the protagonist in your brand’s story.

Following Joseph Campbell’s famed model of the hero’s journey, your marketing efforts can offer your protagonist an exciting opportunity (to experience the benefits of your product or service!), some vital help from a sage (useful information delivered from brand experts like you!), as well as the agency to make beneficial choices for themselves (like committing to your brand!).

4. Establish Conflict and Risk

Like that of any compelling protagonist, your customer’s journey shouldn’t be all sunshine and rainbows — that would be a bore. A gripping narrative arc always includes a healthy amount of tension that keeps your audience asking themselves, “Will things work out in my favor?”

To achieve this effect, your storytelling should set up the risks and rewards at stake in the audience’s journey. Posit the potential pitfalls of surpassing your brand’s goods or services — exclusion, failure, or inequity, for example — while advocating the rewards for a customer who chooses to commit to your brand. The promise of emotional gains like elation, love, and ecstacy tend to resonate most and impel consumers to action.

The arresting 2017 New York Times campaign, “The Truth is Hard to Find,” provides a powerful example of how a brand can effectively introduce risk and reward to consumers. While on the surface, this video’s raw images and soundbytes provide a glimpse of the risks and rewards of a career in photojournalism, the campaign hints at a larger purpose: it suggests the risks of failing to pursue “the truth,” which the Times hopes to defend amid accusations of false news and media bias. By defending its pursuit of the truth, the Times appeals to customers seeking a reliable news source within an increasingly divided media landscape.

5. Integrate Compelling Visuals

Though we can all pretend we understand the nuances of James Joyce with alarming conviction at a cocktail party, there’s nothing like the simplicity and entertainment of a good old-fashioned picture book. Enter: multimedia digital stories.

Brands should take note. Of the insane deluge of content published online every day, images and videos may be the single most impactful medium. In fact, WebDAM research reveals that posts including images generate 650% higher engagement than text-only posts, and that consumers are 85% more likely to purchase a product after viewing a product video.

Create aesthetically engaging visuals to tell your brand’s story, and tailor your content to each platform for optimal impact. For example, research shows that video delivers high ROI on Facebook, whereas Twitter and LinkedIn users prefer infographics. Wherever you choose to promote your story, ensure that form follows function — consumers will be sure to follow your brand’s story, wherever it takes them.

Author Kendra Clark

A current graduate student in creative writing at the University of Cambridge, Kendra writes for a broad array of L&T's clients in industries ranging from healthcare to manufacturing. She has consulted for tech startups in California and Washington, D.C. on editorial and brand strategy development. With a degree in philosophy and literature from Santa Clara University, she is a lover of poetry, vegan Thai food, documentary films, and arguing about Nietzsche.

More posts by Kendra Clark