It’s Just Science: Why Stories Are So Powerful in Marketing

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April 8, 2020
Kirsten Squires Kirsten Squires

“After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
Philip Pullman

Stories are woven into our souls from the moment we are born. When we're little, bedtime stories soothe us to sleep; as we get older, we begin to seek out stories for entertainment via movies, books, and shows. Sure, they’re amusing and offer a great outlet for relaxation, but their value goes much deeper than that. Stories help us understand how the world works. They show us we’re not alone, and they help us figure out solutions to universal problems.

In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall writes that “stories the world over are almost always about people with problems.” This isn’t because we just love seeing people struggle—most of us have enough problems of our own. What makes stories so intriguing is when we witness the outcome and the journey it takes to get there, all the while rooting for characters just like us. Marketing, like stories, also involves people with problems...and how companies can help them find the right solutions.

Why do stories endure, and why are they so effective in marketing? To answer this question, we’ll need to start with science.


The Science of Story

The human mind relates to story more readily than logic alone—in other words, we understand logic more when it’s embedded within a story. This makes sense: hearing cold hard facts by themselves may not sway us to action or be as impactful out of context. For example, did you know that 3,166 people died in 2017 as a result of distracted driving? That number is upsetting, of course. On its own, however, it may not be enough to change someone’s behavior. But what if that statistic was communicated through this powerful ad about a woman who was directly impacted by distracted driving?

The statistic tells us the effects of distracted driving; the video shows us the real impact it can have on someone’s life. While both are essentially saying the same thing (texting and driving leads to fatal consequences), seeing it told through a story is wildly more powerful.


Blinded By Neuroscience

Neuroscience shows us that stories are vital to the way the human brain absorbs and retains information. But why? The answer lies within our neurons, which are activated by storytelling. Stories literally light up our brains, with neurons firing electrical impulses, promoting wiring and helping us better recall information.

Stories also trigger the release of certain chemicals: oxytocin, which helps us bond with others and form connections; cortisol, the stress hormone that results from adrenaline, sharpening our attention; and dopamine, when we get our happy ending. Not only do stories intellectually and emotionally engage us, but they also physically affect us.

Thanks to mirror neurons, the more engaged we become in a story, the more we put ourselves in the characters’ shoes. Instead of merely observing as an outsider, we literally feel as if we are part of the action.

Putting the customer experience front and center is about making your brand more human and relatable while building relationships—and story offers the best avenue through which to do so.


Story Elements Within Marketing

How can the basic elements of a story make your marketing stronger? Let’s walk through each to explore how they can help your audiences connect more deeply to the product or service you’re providing.


Great stories begin and end with characters. When most people think of the elements of storytelling, the first thing that comes to mind is often plot—or what happens in a story. But the truth is that the plot would feel meaningless without the characters who drive it. Characters give us someone to root for and relate to.

In fiction, the main character is generally the hero of the story. We support them in going after what they want, bite our nails when they encounter obstacles, and cheer when they overcome things that stand in the way of their quest.

In marketing, the prospect is the hero. They are the ones who embark on a quest to solve a problem. And the customers are the observers, the ones who see themselves in the hero, motivated and inspired to change their lives.

The Challenge, the Problem, and the Villian

Within the structure of stories, there are certain elements that we expect. We know, instinctively, that the hero will encounter the villain and that the story will end when the enemy is vanquished. The promise of the defeat is what makes stories so engaging—it gives us an enemy to fight against and a conclusion to root for. We sit on the edge of our seats, fingers curled in anticipation as we wonder whether they can overcome the adversity—even though we fully expect them to. If they don’t—and when stories break predefined patterns—we can be left confused and unsatisfied.

This isn’t to say you should be predictable. Quite the opposite: your customers will want to hear your unique story and understand how you’re different. At the end of the day, however, there are basic components your audience will crave, though they may not realize it—such as hero, motivation, and goal—and if these things aren’t present, you won’t hook your customers as effectively.

The Triumph and the Solution

“The solution, once revealed, should seem to be inevitable.” - Raymond Chandler

When stories are set up properly, the solution will feel natural, as if it is the only one that can occur. Everything leading up to it will suddenly make sense. The same can be said of a great marketing campaign. Our job as marketers is to present the problem and challenge in such a way that when the solution evolves, it feels necessary and right. Customers want the hero in the ad to win because they want to win. If we do our jobs right and tell a compelling story, then the next natural step will be for the audience to want to use our products or services, or at least learn more about them.

When we take time to get to know our audiences and understand their needs—and their own stories—we can more effectively guide them toward what we’re offering.


Making Story Work for Your Marketing

Are you utilizing storytelling in your marketing, and—even more importantly—are you doing it effectively? It’s a great approach for both B2B and B2C marketing.

For B2B companies, one of the best ways you can utilize video stories is with a case study video. If you give customers a case study that shows facts and figures for how your business helped one company grow, it definitely provides a rationale for choosing you. But imagine the impact that can come from hearing first-hand about a business’ struggles—and how your company helped overcome them. A case study video can help you do that.

If you’re a B2C company, you have a world of opportunity to use storytelling in your marketing. Since you’re speaking to individuals rather than companies, the story you tell becomes that much more personal. You’ll find story in commercials, which give customers a glimpse into the lives of people who struggle with the same issues they have, allowing prospects to imagine themselves as the hero who triumphs.

Want proof in action? We highlighted five epic B2B brands who rocked it with their storytelling efforts.

If you’d like to integrate more storytelling into your own marketing initiatives, we’re here to help you get started. Fill out the form below for a free 20 minute consultation with our marketing team today!