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The Power of Storytelling for Brand Marketing and Communications

Posted by Elena del Valle on January 23, 2017

By Jay Gronlund,
President, The Pathfinder Group

Jay Gronlund

Jay Gronlund, president, The Pathfinder Group

Photo: The Pathfinder Group

Technology has transformed our world into a data obsessive circus where information is unbelievably accessible, connectivity is constant, and unpredictable events always surprise and engulf us. Call this extreme clutter and volatility. With so much information and multi-tasking surrounding us, it has become a challenge to restore simplicity, clarity and focus in our communications. These excessive conditions provide the main impetus for the re-emergence of storytelling for inspiring, engaging and connecting to others.

Storytelling is ageless and remains the most powerful form of persuasion. Socrates recognized the value of storytelling, so did Aesop, Jesus, Muhammad, Confucius and even Mark Twain. Today the power of storytelling has been scientifically proven:

• Neuroscientists have shown that the brain was built to wander on average over 1,000 times per day (e.g. including daydreams). They also found that storytelling stops this wandering and engages the listener (they call this “neuro-coupling”).

• Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D, an expert on brain development, says that “neural systems fatigue quickly, actually within 4-8 minutes, and become less responsive,” but can be stimulated and sustained by storytelling.

• Artificial Intelligence specialists have been studying how our brain actually works, especially how we file and store all this information that the brain absorbs every day. They discovered that the brain does not process information in “files” (e.g. like a computer program). As an example it sorts information from a power point presentation in a way that the first and last items on a list are usually remembered (also any item that has an emotional impact), and the rest is discarded as “trash” and never retrieved. Instead, the brain more effectively files and retrieves information when there is a context, as in the form of a story.

• Reinforcing this discovery, author and marketing professor Jennifer Aaker from Stanford notes that people remember stories as much as twenty-two times more than they do facts alone.

So what can storytelling do to improve communications, process our changing world and especially help shape a corporate brand and culture? Vibrant leaders now recognize that storytelling can create an emotional connection, which is at the heart of good branding. It engages listeners emotionally, creates empathy and inspires action. Importantly, neuroscience has also concluded that humans are more likely to make decisions based on emotions, not rational thinking.

Our world is changing dramatically and so leaders are more challenged than ever to adapt to such a groundswell of populist trends, technological advances, declining trust in the establishment, globalization, growing uncertainty (particularly with the incoming Trump administration), and fundamentally what a corporation should stand for today. All these changes can affect a corporate brand and culture, so it is incumbent for a CEO to explain and especially inspire support for any updates on its corporate values and strategy. Simply using words and sharing data with customers and employees can be too cerebral and esoteric, but using storytelling to communicate “who we are”, “what we have learned” and “why we are changing” will be far more captivating and motivating. Storytelling describes a journey and is ideal for meaningful change.

For Millennials, storytelling represents an ideal form of communication. This “first digital generation” thrives on social media, which is different from traditional media mainly in that it involves a one-on-one conversation that begs for engagement, versus the one-to-many in mass marketing. Many older managers don’t understand or even resent the independent, restless, unpredictable tendencies of Millennials. However, Millennials represent a huge opportunity for creativity and innovative ideas, so they should not be ignored. They do want to learn and respect experience, albeit sometimes in trying ways, but the key to maximizing their potential is to engage them. And this is what storytelling does.

More companies today are using storytelling to recruit and train new employees – Apple, IBM, 3M, Nike, Coca Cola, Disney, Microsoft, NASA, and other forward-thinking organizations. In addition, as social media becomes more mainstream for advertising, they are using storytelling to engage prospective customers in blogs, videos, newsletters, content branding and other digital communication vehicles.

Millennials simply don’t trust traditional advertising – 95 percent rely on feedback from friends for purchase decisions instead and find stories much more credible and trustful for learning about products. Storytelling is also ideal for young entrepreneurs who focus more on cost efficient digital media and realize that stories about their personal experience can create a strong emotional connection.

To update a corporate culture and strengthen a brand, one must learn more about the types of stories that will work, depending of course on the audience and their aspirations, the different situations (e.g. for a new leader, change in direction, new challenges, etc.) and the various nuances for making a story credible, compelling and emotionally engaging. But it all starts with a recognition of the power of storytelling in communications.

Jay Gronlund is founder of The Pathfinder Group, a business development firm specializing in emotional branding, ideation facilitation and international expansion. His background has included executive positions in marketing and new product development at reputable companies in the US and abroad. He is also vice president, managing director of Latin Pulse – USA, a marketing and research firm headquartered in Mexico City. Jay teaches branding at NYU, and has a B.A. from Colby College and MBA from Tuck at Dartmouth.

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