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How to use the power of story to build your brand.



You’ve probably heard this said a dozen times: our brain is hard-wired for stories.


In the last 10 years, there’s been an explosion of articles on this topic especially in the business world, and here's why.


People are exposed to more information today than at any other time in human history, and as business owners, if we want anyone to pay attention to our message, we have to figure out how to connect with our customers in a meaningful way.


For a little while, everyone tried shouting (shouting with better design, shouting with clever and bold copy, shouting with big logos and even bigger budgets), but we all quickly learned that wasn’t sustainable. When everyone is shouting, no one is being heard.


Now, the approach has shifted to quietly, subtly leaning in and whispering something very important — something that our brains have been hard-wired to pay attention to from the dawn of humanity: A GOOD STORY.


Science proves why stories work.


Story scientist Kendall Haven spent years researching people’s brain activity when they were being exposed to information and he found that the only way our brain is able to processes new information is by making sense of it through story.


Our brain does one of two things when it receives new information: It either makes sense of it by turning it into a story, or, if it can’t make sense of it, it ignores it.

Here’s an example: You’re in your office’s break room and you sit down to eat your lunch at a large table with a dozen co-workers. At the same time as you sit down, one of your colleagues on the other end gets up and leaves. Your brain will do one of two things with this information.


It might simply ignore it, viewing it as just a coincidence.


Or, it will try to make sense of it by making up a story around it, perhaps something like this: “Jenny doesn’t want to be around me because she's still be mad about the comment I made in this morning’s meeting.”


That story may be far from the truth. Maybe Jenny simply had to go to the bathroom. But our brain went ahead and created it’s own story anyway.


The reason our brain is so responsive to story has to do with our evolution. For millenia before human beings invented the written word, we passed information between each other and between generations verbally. Any if we wanted that information to resonate and be remembered (because it might cost you your life if I told you about that poisonous snake but you forgot), we had to make our listener emotionally invested in it - and the best way to conjure up emotions is by telling a really good story the brain can empathize with.


Not only do we respond to story because it triggers our emotional response, but a story helps to structure raw information, and structured information is 40% easier to remember.

So what does this mean for your marketing?


It means that if we, as marketers, aren’t telling our audience a story about our product, but instead just tossing out raw information like price points, product images or empty requests to “buy now”, one of two things will happen: Our consumers will make up their own story about our brand (and it may not be a good one) or they’ll simply ignore us because they don’t understand how it relates to their lives.


If we’re not helping our audience make sense of our product by feeding it to them in a format their brains are wired to understand — the format of a story — we’re practically asking to be ignored.


How can a brand tell a story?


First, let’s take a look at the components of any good story. There are 4 major parts, and almost every story from Homer's Odyssey to Jesus's parables to Harry Potter to The Matrix and Moana - most stories follow this framework. I'm drastically simplifying it here, but there's actually a great bit of specific detail that goes into the making of a good story, according to Joseph Campbell who codified this framework in his book, The Hero's Journey.


At minimum, every good story has to have these 4 components:


1. The Hero

A likable hero (a.k.a. the central character)

2. The Challenge

Who faces a meaningful challenge

3. The Guide

A wise guide who helps the hero overcome this challenge

4. The Transformation

The hero must be transformed in the end, having understood or accomplished something great.


My friend Don Miller unpacks this beautifully in his book Building a StoryBrand and details how brands can apply this framework to their marketing. But I'll break it down for you right here:



1. The Hero

Your brand's hero is your target audience. Your ideal client. Your customer avatar. They are the ones who will be going on the journey, facing the challenge and being transformed.

2. The Challenge

Your job is to figure out their most meaningful challenge that only you can solve. (It may be a challenge they don't even know they have yet... like needing a 1980's dad sneakers to go with their NYFW outfit.)

3. The Guide

You must establish your brand as the capable guide that will help them solve this challenge.

4. The Transformation

And you must show them, through vivid storytelling, how their life will be transformed after they've overcome their challenge with your guidance (that's code for: bought your product :).

Here’s an example using AirBNB:


1. The Hero

AirBNB’s “hero” is the curious adventurer who loves to travel.

2. The Challenge

This hero’s challenge is that staying in generic, overpriced hotels makes them feel tourist-y and boring.

3. The Guide

AirBNB opens up a world of unique, personalized homes the hero can stay in around the world. Boom. They’ve become the guide.

4. The Transformation

AirBNB helps the hero transform from feeling like a tourist, to feeling like a local. To feeling like they belong anywhere they happen to travel.


Airbnb has guided the hero through the challenge of feeling like a tourist by giving them the feeling of belonging to the local culture. That's the story they chose, and they stuck with it for years until it became what they were known for.


AirBNB chose to tell this story of belonging over one of innovation, convenience, or efficiency or any other angle they could have taken. And they’ve been telling this story from the beginning. Just like Ritz Carlton chose to tell the story of luxury and Nike chose the story of victory.


This is the fun part of the branding game: you can choose what you want your brand’s story to be, as long as it makes sense to your hero. But when you find what it is, make sure you commit to it.


"Tell the same story from a thousand different angles and then your brand will start to mean something to the world." - Tom Bilyeu

Because only a good story, (not the sale sign or the buy now button or the list of cool product features) is capable of deeply resonating with that ancient brain of ours.


XO -Vik


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