Storytelling in marketing — magic pill or pure bluff?

Purple book about storytelling in marketing.

I may be biased here… but, isn’t the term “storytelling” absolutely everywhere? It’s like this magic word marketers throw around to spice up their pitches time and time again. Don’t get me wrong, as a marketer and copywriter myself, I love using storytelling. However, as a passionate fiction literature buff — and at the risk of sounding like a snob — hearing all decent marketing and copywriting being called “storytelling” itches. Just a little bit.

So, let’s please clear this up from the get-go:

  1. Storytelling as an art form isn’t everywhere.
  2. Though marketing is part art, it doesn’t need storytelling to work.
  3. Storytelling, even when done right, isn’t your magic pill for selling.

Now that we know what storytelling isn’t going to do for you, let’s explore:

  1. Why storytelling is a powerful marketing tool.
  2. Three effective ways to use storytelling.
  3. And when to use for real impact.

What is storytelling… really?

As everyone will tell you, “Storytelling is the art of telling stories.” And as any marketer would put it, “It’s the power of telling stories to sell.” If you are anything like me, you’ll be like, “WOW… Amazing! But how do we actually do that?

To go back to the basics, a story is any narration that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. But knowing that isn’t enough for us to write a story. Otherwise, we’d all would’ve become Shakespeare in elementary school. Instead, we need to go beyond — and recognize the science and psychology behind stories.

Because when we engage with stories, many things happen under the surface. Note that this applies with fiction — a novel or a TV show — as well as real-life stories — say, celebrity gossip, a friend’s nightmare date, or the news.

The neuroscience behind storytelling

First, our limbic brain lights up. This happens because, even without noticing, we are trying to put ourselves into the story. Kind of when you go, “Oh, my… If that happened to me, I’d XYZ…” We imagine, shaping the story to match our internal narrative and self-perception. When we relate to a story, we make it our own.

And because brain activity doesn’t happen in a vacuum, then our limbic system releases hormones. Typically, if it’s a feel-good story, we release dopamine. That’s why happy endings tend to make us feel happy and optimistic about the future. On the contrary, if the story is dark and dramatic, we tend to release cortisol, the stress hormone. That’s what keeps us at the edge of our sits, and why we tend to binge-watch soapy TV shows and true crime. It’s all about the rush.

Of course, these aren’t the only two hormones stories prompt in us, but they give us a clear picture of what happens behind the scenes.

Another super curious neurological effect storytelling has is caused by our mirror neurons. These fire up both when we have some motor activity (perform a physical action) or watch it happen (some else does the action). At some point, you might have caught yourself repeating n character’s actions when watching a movie or reading a novel. That’s your mirror neurons at work.

The psychological effect of storytelling

On a psychological level, stories help listeners easily retain information, put it into context, and bond with the narrator. The explanation behind this is that stories, apart from entertaining, were a survival method.

Cave people would paint stories about their hunts, in the hopes other humans would follow their footsteps and survive. Ancient civilizations would build entire belief systems to help their kind navigate life and society. Today, social media warns us, “I tried the ABC so you don’t have to.”

In short, stories are there to guide us on how to satiate our needs and achieve our goals. The power of storytelling lies in people’s ability to project themselves into someone else’s experience, either real or fictional.

The use of storytelling in marketing

#1 The motivational pitch

There are a few ways we use storytelling in marketing. The first and most obvious one is to just use narration, either as an example or to illustrate the benefits of a product or service. Think of your typical TED-talk style sales pitch, “I was where you are today; then I did so-and-so, and this is who I am now… you can do the same!”

Idea (light bulb) icon

This approach works wonders in certain niches, but you have to be very charismatic or authentic to pull it off. And please don’t ever promise something you can’t deliver; that isn’t cool.

#2 The entertaining short

If you are creative and have the skill, time, and budget, you can go for the Super-Bawl style. Creating an entertaining story — short, sketch, or ad — in which your product or service is either a character, the setting, or a key narrative device.

Idea (light bulb) icon

Many of these commercials use a stripped-down version of the Save the Cat! story structure by Blake Snyder. Check out the book on Amazon to learn more about it.

#3 The hero’s journey

This is by far my favorite way to approach storytelling because I adore a good character arch. To use this technique, you can…

  1. Make your customer avatar the main character of the story.
  2. Invite them to join you on a transformation journey and discover their own path along the way.
Idea (light bulb) icon

Despite the hero’s journey is old as time, Joseph Campbell developed this narrative framework in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). Read it, it’s available on Amazon!

Trigger warning: it’s not about you!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to get the high ground here. I’m as self-centered as any other normal, healthy human being. But… after working with tons of brands, diverse audiences, and having my share of intense discussions with colleagues, I can safely say this:

No one gives a damn about you, your brand, and your goals… on less, there’s something in there for them.

Cynic? Yes. Real? A hundred percent!

Remember when I mentioned the effects of storytelling on the brain? And the psychology of how we interact with stories? Re-read if you need to, but I’ll summarize it:

When we interact with a story, our brains are like, “Ohhh, like me! Yes, me too… Ah, I’d never do that. Yassss… that’s what I want.”

So, if your story’s goal is to sell, connect with an audience, or make people remember you, you have to make it about them. You are not “the punchline” and you’re definitely not “the star.” You are the relatable Samwise Gamgee to their Frodo Baggins. You are the imperfect Miranda Presley to their Andrea Sachs. Or even the Merlin to their Arthur.

There are no set rules for storytelling

There isn’t a right way to tell as story, no matter how many critics you hear. All great stories are unique, authentic, and meaningful; they’re also great because they broke the rules.

So, as long as you keep your empathic mode on, you have all it takes to craft a brand story that’ll resonate with your audience. Have fun!

Stay in the loop

Get all the latest news, tips, and resources first, right in your inbox.

Stay on the loop

Star icon

Free marketing strategy template

Gain instant access to the marketing strategy template to keep you on top of your game.

It’s straightforward, effective, and 100% customizable.

Get yours and start achieving your goals ASAP.

Free marketing strategy template

Easy and customizable marketing strategy template preview on a tablet