Laura Petrolino

Four Elements of Successful Brand Storytelling

By: Laura Petrolino | June 13, 2016 | 

Four Elements of Successful Brand StorytellingBy Laura Petrolino

One of the biggest mistakes organizations make in their brand storytelling is too much focus on the “brand” and not enough on the “storytelling.”

Historically, storytelling is one of our oldest and most powerful forms of communication.

It defines us as humans and creates connection between people and communities who might not otherwise relate or connect with each other.

It’s an amazing thing when you think about it—stories bring us together as people.

We can be connected by nothing other than a story, yet that one thread is strong enough to develop and sustain large communities.

If you think about great leaders or public figures in history, part of the reason they were so influential is because they were remarkable storytellers.

This power can be used for both good and evil.

Take Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Thomas Jefferson vs. Hitler—all four men were dynamic and powerful storytellers.

Stories are powerful and brand storytelling can change the way a consumer relates with you and your product or service—when it’s used correctly.

The Summit Project: A Case Study in Storytelling

During Memorial Day weekend I had the opportunity to participate in an amazing tribute to our fallen heroes.

The Summit Project, created by my amazing friend David Cote, is a Maine-based non-profit, which acts as a living memorial to pay tribute to the fallen service members from Maine who have died in the line of duty since September 11, 2001.

In addition to many other events throughout the year, such as an Honor Display which tours around Maine, The Summit Project hosts several group summit hikes throughout the year.

The hikes pull a varied group of people together with one united purpose: To honor those who served and, through their service, gave the greatest sacrifice.

Each hiker is assigned a stone for a fallen hero—and with that stone comes their story.

It’s a story developed through words and video from their family and friends—and a story that continues to live and grow through the hikers that carry and share it.

For example, part of my hero’s story was told by his father through this video:

At the top of the summit there is a ceremony where each hiker speaks about their hero and shares their story.

As you can imagine, the story is different, based on the storyteller and the aspects that most resonate with him or her.

This creates evolving, live, and engaged stories that help these heroes legacies live on.

It’s an amazing experience and one that binds the hikers, the heroes’ families, and all the other people involved in the event together in a strong and powerful way.

Bonds formed through stories.

You spend hours, climbing through often challenging terrain, with your rock in your pack.

It weighs you down through it’s weight and lifts you up through it’s meaning.

The story and journey to tell it take these heroes and make them more than just names of those lost—it turns them back into real people, people who struggled, endured, overcame, and sacrificed themselves for the values they believed in.

All we can really hope for in life is to change people’s lives for the better while we are here, and have a legacy that continues to do so when we are gone.

The Summit Project makes sure that happens for each of these Maine heroes.

Four Elements of Brand Storytelling

There are so many lessons we can learn about powerful and successful brand storytelling through the work of the Summit Project. Here are four which will change the way you tell your organization’s story:

  1. Inclusive: Great stories are inclusive, not exclusive. This is true even when they talk about an experience or situation we are unfamiliar with, or doesn’t even exist in our reality. All great stories have threads which pull people in and make them part of them. For the Summit Project, the hikers all become part of the story by carrying and sharing it. 
  2. Flawed: Many historians believe storytelling partially developed as an excuse for failure. It was a way to make failure meaningful by sharing it with others as lessons. No really great story is polished and perfect—they are all flawed, and it is through those flaws we connect with them as humans (because…hey, we are all flawed too). The best stories are real and challenging. They are emotional and raw. They are human. They are us.
  3. Self-sustaining: The reason why storytelling is “a thing,” is because stories have been passed down from one generation and tribe to another. Great stories engage and resonate so deeply they are self-sustaining because people continue to share and grow them. By sharing a story and keeping it alive, each storyteller becomes a deeper part of it—that makes it stronger and even more relevant—and the cycle continues. Often organizations to tightly control their brand storytelling efforts, blocking people out and essentially eliminating this important step.
  4. Evolving: And through that self-sustaining nature, stories evolve. Through the Summit Project each story evolves past the original entry or video into something so much more through the different storytellers. Evolving stories connect with more and never lose their power. They keep their truth and essence (and for brand storytelling—message), but continue to grow to increase their reach. For brands, this evolution also allows brand storytelling to provide important intelligence and insight which can help guide your overall business strategy.

Most believe storytelling is one of the elements of humanity that defines us as humans from other creatures.

No matter what other communication platform, new shiny network, or popular marketing technique that arises, storytelling will always serve as the foundation of how we communicate successfully.

Investing time, energy, creativity, and resources into a powerful brand storytelling strategy will lead your communication strategy—no matter what tactics you use to deploy it.

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.

  • Laura this is a moving post. I wanted to comment on the inclusion aspect of storytelling. I believe that one aspect to achieve inclusion is to touch on an aspect of the human experience that is identifiable to all who take part or hear the story. For instance, in your example of the Summit Project, the stories touch upon universal experiences that all humans can identify with, i.e. loss, sacrifice, endurance, heroism, etc. I have never lost a loved one to a heroism, but the universals of the story touch me regardless. And they would touch anyone from any culture because they define our most basic, shared aspects of the human condition.

    • Laura Petrolino

      Yes, very true. And human experiences are universal…so while not everyone has experienced this type of loss, for example—everyone has experienced loss. And that thread is able to connect a variety people—of different backgrounds, believes, experiences—together empathically

  • Powerful post! What an amazing project to take part in, Laura.

    Storytelling has always been a huge part of my family dynamic, thanks to my grandmother and father. I believe that helped me develop into the writer I am. And I agree with Pete…it’s the universals that resonate across situations, cultures, and differences.

    • Laura Petrolino

      That universal component is really remarkable. I think that’s a big part of what makes stories so uniquely “human” in nature—not to mention powerful

  • Corina Manea

    What a wonderful project, Laura. I can only imagine what you felt and thought caring your stone up on the mountain.

    It’s true, we humans connect with each other, with brands, with the past and the future through stories. We like and want to be part of a story, to be part of something bigger.

    That’s the part most brands do not understand. People want to be involved in the story, they want to be listened.

    Storytelling (the right one) is worth everything you invest in it.

    • Laura Petrolino

      Yes, so true. As you know, we often say to clients, “the story is “we” not “I,” because that inclusive quality is so important.

  • “It weighs you down through it’s weight and lifts you up through it’s meaning.” <—– I LOVE THIS! Thank you for sharing your experience as well as ways we can all be better storytellers. It's an art form!

    • Laura Petrolino

      It IS an art form. And I admire (and envy) truly great storytellers more than anything. Luckily I know many of them, and many are here in this community. So I constantly try to learn from the magic they bring

  • Gini Dietrich

    You know why I love this blog post? ALL OF THE IMAGERY! What a fantastic story combined with some great photos and a very moving video. Wow! I really want to do this next year. Make that happen for me, will you? No OKC or Peoria ahead of time, though.

    • Laura Petrolino

      You must do this next year! There were so many times on that trip I thought “Gini would freaking love this.” There is also a fall trip to Acadia, which should be beautiful and terribly symbolic (seasonally). So you can choose!

  • “No matter what other communication platform, new shiny network, or popular marketing technique that arises, storytelling will always serve as the foundation of how we communicate successfully.”

    All the high fives to you.

    When I’m asked about algorithm changes, limited reach, etc. – I always respond with “What story are you trying to tell?” and “Who are you trying to reach with it?”

    If we get boggled down with the methods and if we stop trying to relate to our audience with real and valuable content that strikes a nerve – we’ve completely missed the mark.

    Thank you for your honest approach! I shared this in several places today.

    • Laura Petrolino

      YES!! So much yes. And it’s so easy to get “bogged down in the methods,” especially in the race to be “innovative,” and “cutting edge,” and “creative.” “Communications” is not the product we deliver, connection to our audience in a meaningful way is. That’s a big distinction that many in our field struggle to make.

  • Of all days for me not to be johnny on the spot to comment! I love this project, and the way you shared it. I was talking with a friend who is responsible for advancement for a college this weekend, and we were talking specifically about storytelling. Many of the four aspects you mentioned came up, especially the “threads that pull people in.”

    • Laura Petrolino

      You should also think about joining me on one of these trips! You’d love being part of this.

  • Storytelling is very interesting. Each brand is different and so many do it wrong. Meaning they lose focus of what story works. I am pretty sure no one really cares about Coca Cola and how it was invented because too many would say…once you took the cocaine out it stopped being so invigorating (if they put it back in I am so drinking Coke again!) But think of all the times people have had Coke and felt refreshed…those stories ‘After 2 hours in the heat mowing my lawn that Coke tasted amazing!. But there certainly are brand stories about people or how they came to be (started in a garage) or mysteries (Frosted Flakes secret recipe for example) that do resonate.

    My issue today is that with story telling like content marketing becoming a cottage industry, brands feel they have to tell stories. And then they focus not on their customers but themselves (something you mentioned in the beginning). .

    The problem though with customer-centric stories is most stories you can replace your brand with your competitor’s brand in the story. Many drinks are refreshing after mowing. There are other secret recipes. Other tools besides SnapOn will never break.

    So how to draw people to you vs others is the trick…and tricky! Great post Laura going to send this to our next Governor Phil Scott I am sure he would love to set up the same Vet program here. His dad lost both legs in Normandy and does so much for Vets here. (and he can use some story telling help!)

    • Laura Petrolino

      Yes, completely agree. “Brand storytelling” often becomes bastardized in the race to “tell a story” by well meaning communicators that simply want to check it off their strategy list. Finding that “click,” that makes a story meaningful, true to brand, and defines it from others is the difficult part. I believe it exists for every brand, you just have to take the time and do the research to excavated it

      And awesome about Phil Scott. Reading his story, sounds like a great guy (and good match for VT) can we borrow him over here?