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In the perpetual search for the next big thing, the branding buzzword of the day has arrived: story.

You can't read a magazine, listen to a podcast, or open a bestselling business book without encountering the author's lofty claim of being a storyteller.

Fortune 500 companies hire "chief storytelling officers." Retailers and store designers describe their establishments as "story experiences." Global conferences cover the revolution in storytelling. There are claims that each new technology, gadget, and invention has revolutionized forever the way we tell stories. Everyone is a storyteller, and every company, television commercial, video game, theme park attraction, and outlet mall now claims to tell a story.

There's just one thing wrong with this. It's crap.

Why is everyone trying to make a quick buck off stories?

Because real stories are powerful. They possess the unparalleled ability to connect people and forever change those people for the better. Great stories exist outside time. They live beyond the realm of the commercial. They live in people's hearts.

That love of storytelling is why, for example, millions of people from different generations lined up on opening day for the latest Star Wars movie. As a story, "The Force Awakens" just works: The Force—the binding energy of the universe—seized the world's imagination. Forty years later, the world is still captivated by that emotional journey.

Just as a great movie can change people, so, too, can successful brand storytelling. When done well, brand stories transcend pure messaging or user experience. They engage the audience's emotions and senses, and reflect their hopes, dreams, and desires—taking them on a journey of discovery and self-reflection.

Great storytelling is also hard as hell, which is why there are so few great storytellers. It's also why so many self-proclaimed master storytellers (incapable of creating authentic, transformative connections) render the word meaningless by slapping the label of story onto almost anything.

Some of the biggest offenders are the technology and retail industries.

Technology itself does not tell a story... The cave wall, parchment, printing press, television, robots, virtual reality headsets, and mobile devices are not storytellers. Story is the emotional narrative arc that illuminates eternal truths. Technology can bring a good story to life, but no matter how dazzling it is, technology is transitory. How individuals or the world are transformed as a result of the technology can be a story but not the technology itself.

Retailers also routinely commit crimes against story. Store design and merchandising are not storytelling. True, they can enhance the value of a great storytelling brand like Apple or Nike. However, more often, poorly thought-out displays or design experiences alienate customers and create confusion rather than construct a cohesive narrative that takes guests on an emotional journey.

So if technology, retail and marketers frequently get story wrong, which brands have gotten it right? How should marketers use storytelling to win customers' hearts and deepen their loyalty? Check out these examples...

Good stories touch the heart

The whisky company Johnnie Walker effectively uses the power of story. Its "Joy Will Take You Further" campaign (which builds on its past "Keep Walking" campaign) takes the story of whisky and its brand, and transforms it into the story of their consumers' lives.

That narrative clarity extends to the Johnnie Walker House, which immerses guests in the story while it recreates the distillery experience, all in an environment that confirms for guests that their story is the key component of the Johnnie Walker experience.

Another example comes from baseball. Few things are more treasured in the United States than baseball is. In 2015, the Milwaukee Brewers opened an intimate fan experience at Miller Park to share the emotional story of the city's dream of having a team and how it came to be because of the fans' love and the commitment of Commissioner Bud Selig.

In "The Selig Experience," an evocative film immerses fans in the history of baseball in Milwaukee. It was Selig's passion and unwavering drive to keep baseball in the city that led to the construction of Miller Park and the return of the Brewers to the city that loved the team so much. A poignant and uplifting multimedia presentation and a museum experience leave visitors genuinely touched with a deeper connection to baseball and the team, engaging guests and letting them know they are every bit as much the heroes as Bud and the Brewers.

Four traits of great storytelling

Great stories originate from emotions, not information, which is a point many marketers tend to overlook.

Here are four key principles marketers should consider to become better storytellers.

  1. Align on a shared purpose. Just as Luke Skywalker transforms from a sheltered farm boy to become one of the greatest Jedi leaders in the Rebellion's fight against the Empire, an evocative brand story needs to follow a similar path and inspire some kind of change in the audience. Change can come in many forms, such as improved brand perception, greater purchase intent, stronger preference and loyalty, or increased word-of-mouth.

    To determine if your brand story hits the mark, define the key performance indicators and desired changes up front and build touch points into the storytelling expressions to measure whether they are being met effectively.
  2. Start in the heart. Brand stories—and their physical manifestation—can miss the mark if they are built from the outside in. If the exterior "pretty shell" is designed first, and the guest experience (if it is given much consideration at all) is an afterthought, it can create confusion and disappointment for the visitor. Emotionally engaging brand experiences, whether physical or virtual, are built from the inside out. They start in the heart of the visitor and tap into the shared values that authentically connect the brand and the guest.
  3. Focus on one unifying theme. We can only keep so much in our heads at one time. Brand storytelling often falls into the trap of pushing too many messages. Instead, marketers should focus on one central theme. That theme can be expressed in a variety of ways, but without a central, core idea, your story will always fall flat.
  4. Engage all the senses. Audiences are most present and receptive when all five senses are engaged. Unlike other forms of marketing, physical branded experiences can enhance the emotional narrative through choreographed music, product sampling, strategically placed aromas, and participatory exhibits. Combined with visual elements, they can create a more immersive guest experience. But the coolest experiences and activations in the world are meaningless unless they're used in support of a compelling story, not in place of one.

So, avoid the crap pronouncements of today's "story"-touting snake oil pitchmen. They don't care about your story. Instead, create authentic emotional connections with your customers.

And the next time somebody raves about an experience that changed their lives—ask them to describe it. Count the emotional adjectives. I bet there won't be a one mention of technology.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of Brad Shelton

Brad Shelton is a creative director at BRC Imagination Arts, an experience design agency that turns brands into destinations.

LinkedIn: Brad Shelton