Laura Petrolino

Three Approaches to Effective Brand Storytelling

By: Laura Petrolino | February 24, 2015 | 

Three approaches to effective brand storytelling

By Laura Petrolino

OK class! Today we are going to discuss an interesting psychological phenomenon called Pareidolia.

Why do we as professional communicators care about Pareidolia? Because understanding how it works is crucial to effective brand storytelling.

Stories Create Our World

Pareidolia is the perception of meaning or significance in an object (normally an image or sound) where none actually exists. 

Common examples include seeing faces of people or animals in clouds, Jesus sightings in cornflakes (in fact Jesus is seen in a lot of food items,) rocks that look like your dead grandmother, hidden messages on records, and similar occurrences.

Pareidolia is all about storytelling. At it’s foundation is the natural human tendency to tell stories in order to make the un-relatable, relatable.

And this tendency is what fuels effective brand storytelling and content marketing. 

Our world is made up of stories—the stories we tell ourselves and those we hear from others. And those stories control how we view the world.

As communicators trying to create effective messages, we must understand how these stories affect our target consumer.

Also, how we can create and contribute stories to help our messaging resonate and integrate into their preexisting world view.

Brand Storytelling is Framing

One of the most important parts of effective communication is understanding the concept of frames. Frames are the lenses through which your target audience(s) sees the world. They are made up of a combination of experiences, environment, culture and beliefs, and current situations.

Frames are affected by:

  • Geography
  • Demographics
  • Social situation
  • Culture
  • Experiences
  • Environment
  • Friends and Family
  • Fears and Failures

Therefore, they change throughout a person’s lifetime. That said, it tends to take significant or repetitive events and/or messaging to change a frame significantly.

In general it doesn’t happen quickly, hence why widespread social change often happens at a snail speed.

No one person sees the world in the same way, but there will always be similarities among many different groups of consumers. Before you can create effective messaging or a solid communications strategy, you must first understand what frame your target audience is looking through.

Frames as Marketing Intelligence

Pareidolia helps us see even more dramatically how necessary this practice is. Do you think atheists often see Jesus in Cheetos?

Most likely not—unless they are looking for a reason to change their beliefs and need to impose a external stimulus to justify doing so.

Here again, relate this back to message development and brand outreach. How often is that exactly the position your ideal audience is in when they receive your brand storytelling and other marketing messages?

Are they looking for a reason to change, adapt, break out of their rut?

Think about the power of an effective food commercial, for example. Does a commercial for a candy bar cause everyone who views it to need to buy and eat that candy bar?

Of course not, but if done correctly, it might push the person who already wants a candy bar to move forward and purchase one.

What Type of Message are You Sending?

In general, in order to be effective your messaging must fall into one of three categories:

  1. Reinforcer. This message reinforces your audience’s world view. It works within the frames they use and therefore is trusted and more easily accepted. This messaging strategy works well for brands that are highly niche-focused and know the needs and wants of their consumer exceptionally well. They are directed, targeted, and resonate clearly. 
  2. Supporter. These messages help support change. This works well for brands that are bringing in a concept or innovation that is needed, maybe even asked for. But change is still change, and human nature will almost always push against it, even when it is asked for. These messages help support the behavior change, empower frame revision, and establish new habits. They must be persuasive, educational, and comforting.
  3. Challenger. These are the most difficult messages to push forward. They challenge your target’s view of the world, their preconceptions, and behaviors. They are most appropriate for organizations who can use the challenge as part of their point of differentiation, and who have a target market which challenging, contra-behavior is appealing to. They must be inspiring, persuasive, and edgy. However, they also must use exceptionally targeted language which resonates within the consumer’s frame (even though the message itself may contradict.)

By defining which type of message you are sending with your brand storytelling, you set up the relationship with which your message will approach and communicate with your consumer.

Combine this with your market research and understanding of the frames through which your consumer views the world and you have the foundation for effective brand storytelling.

And from there you must always remember, it’s not your story….it’s theirs.

photo credit: Shine On Shine On Harvest Moon via photopin (license)

About Laura Petrolino

Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.

  • This is a thorough discussion, Laura. I am forced to try to put myself in the “head” of my readers when I blog about many of the causes I espouse, especially the one that is a sponsorship program. What about these people’s stories can be a part of my reader’s story? It feels contrived sometimes to talk broadly about poverty and their grace in the face of it. Honestly until I met these people face to face I was only partially able to even attempt to tell their stories. Thanks for a piece that gives me some other ways to look at this process.

  • I, for one, have never heard of Pareidolia. I must now research!! Very interesting post, as per, Laura!

  • Wow this is some academic stuff right here! I am immediately reminded of Fisher’s narrative paradigm, which I studied in that Rhetorical Criticism class that I think every communicator should take …
    And my mind also instantly went to the importance of *tone* of messaging as a secondary but pivotal actor in the process of adapting messaging to an audience’s current frame. A core message communicated with a positive versus negative or cheeky versus serious tone could experience different levels of success with an audience.
    I have to go — I see a unicorn in my oatmeal.

  • biggreenpen I think this is one of the most difficult, but most interesting parts of what we do. Trying to understand how other people see the world is incredibly challenging, but I think it makes you a better person, as well as a better communications professional

  • belllindsay Totally fascinating right? I love learning about our quirky minds. I knew you’d like this (my fellow science geek)

  • DwayneAlicie YES! So much yes on the tone discussion. And don’t even get me started on words and the power of adjusting one or two to completely transform the way something is perceived. It’s absolutely fascinating.

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  • I love learning something new. Very interesting post, Laura. I’m with biggreenpen. The three categories are spurring me to think even more deeply about the type of message I’m sending. 

    Do you have examples that came to mind for each category?

  • I, for two, [belllindsay being number one] had never heard of Pareidolia. Very interesting read indeed. DwayneAlicie forced me to have to read Fisher’s narrative paradigm as well. 
    You people are causing me to read way more here than is ever my daily intent!  Great article LP!

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  • lkpetrolino

    jennimacdonald Thanks lady! 🙂

  • lkpetrolino

    ThePaulSutton Thanks Paul! Pareidolia is totally fascinating, right?

  • lkpetrolino

    mfacchinetti Grazi Massimo!

  • Digital_DRK belllindsay DwayneAlicie LOL! Spin Sucks is a like an AP course Darryl (or should I call you Digital?) #sorrynotsorry

    I love learning about the way our minds work (i.e. things like Pareidolia,) Completely fascinating and helps me feel a bit better about my own neurosis 😉

  • Word Ninja biggreenpen Thanks Lady! And I’d love to hear your thoughts after you do employ the categories in your thinking for a bit. What did you find? Help? Hinder? Etc. 

    Examples, good question and actually might be good for another blog post. A few jump to mind immediately, but let me do a touch more research to be able to give a full picture.

  • LauraPetrolino belllindsay DwayneAlicie  I will admit that this is quite a fantastic voyage navigating the  neurons of your cerebral network as we explore your neurosis  or the  Petrolin(osis) as I prefer to call it.  Thanks Admin!  #verysorrynotreally

  • lkpetrolino

    DavidDJMcMillan Thanks David!

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  • Catching up on my backlog of spin sucks posts … this is some good stuff @lkpetrolino ! (Next ill work on reestablishing my ability to make thoughtful adult comments. One thing at a time!)

  • Eleanor Pierce HAHAHA! One step at a time! It’s just nice to see your face here!

  • Here is a really interesting application of these categories to the credit union industry: Inside Marketing: What Type of Message Are You Sending?

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