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Storytelling is a Crucial Brand Strategy in the Millennial Age

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“Tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”

Storytelling is key for reaching and connecting with customers. Great stories build relationships and win customers. A story must resonate emotionally, especially if a brand wants to reach the generation known as “millennials.” Traditional advertising, the old way of selling a product by talking about how great the product is, does not work well anymore. For millennials, it is important to them to feel a connection with a brand, if they are to become loyal followers of that brand. Further, it is especially important that the brand be transparent and authentic—just as you would expect your friends to be. But how does a brand reach an audience and make an authentic, emotional connection? The most effective way to do that is through storytelling.

What is storytelling?

Storytelling is a form of communication that is uniquely human and has been around for probably as long as humans have had the power of speech. Storytelling is the age-old way to transmit information and cultural values. Storytelling transmits cultural narratives from one person to another, one group to another, or one generation to another. In this way, storytelling is one of the most powerful and most important means of forming connections and bonds that we have at our disposal.

Is story form important?

There are many ways to write a story, but one form resonates powerfully with most of us. It was discovered at different times, by different people. Joseph Campbell, famous scholar of comparative mythology, discovered an underlying “universal” story form that cultures the world over use to express their cultural stories and myths (1). Campbell called it “The Hero’s Journey.”

At the beginning of the Hero’s Journey, the protagonist loses or is missing something that is key to his or her happiness. The protagonist then sets out on a quest to find or recover the missing thing and encounters an ever greater set of obstacles along the way. At the climax, the protagonist has a life-changing experience and either recovers what was lost or finds some magical item with which he or she returns to make life better for those they left at home.

The Hero’s Journey follows the classical Aristotelian story form which dictates simply that every story has a beginning, middle, and an end (2). Form was further defined by Gustav Freytag, who developed “Freytag’s Pyramid,” in the nineteenth century (3). He observed that dramatic narrative begins with an inciting incident in part one that sets the protagonist off on an adventure, continues with rising action in part two when the protagonist is running around trying to solve the problem from part one, and finally the climax, falling action, and resolution in part three, when the protagonist completes his or her quest and then continues on in what is their “new normal.” This is the story form with which we are most familiar and which just feels “right” to most of us.

How do we tell an effective story?

First, it has to follow the traditional story form. If it does not, it risks losing our attention or not even grabbing our attention in the first place. Second, it needs to keep our attention. The Hero’s Journey does this by subjecting the protagonist to an increasing amount of tension or conflict as the story progresses. Third, it needs to evoke an emotional response.

How storytelling gets to us.

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley have discovered the mechanisms by which an effective story produces an emotional response (4). Paul Zak and his team of neuroscientists performed a series of experiments during which they asked subjects to watch a movie about a child with cancer and recorded their brain activity and hormone levels. They discovered that the rising tension portion of the story made the subjects’ bodies produce stress hormones which in turn increased the subjects’ attention and focus.

In addition, they noted that once a story had the subjects hooked and maintained their attention for a specific amount of time, they began to empathize with the characters in the story. It has long been known that oxytocin, a natural hormone produced by the body, induces feelings of compassion and empathy and helps us become more aware of social cues. Oxytocin, the researchers found, was responsible for the subjects’ transportation into the protagonist’s view. Further, Zak’s team discovered that once they were able to trigger empathy in their subjects, the subjects were far more likely to make charitable donations after the experiment was over.

Why is storytelling so important to a brand trying to connect with millennials?

Millennials, the generation who began to come of age around the turn of the twenty-first century, born roughly between 1981 and 1997 (although some demographers claim the years 1977-2000 are more accurate start and end dates (5)), have now exceeded the number of living Baby Boomers, making up more than one-quarter of the population of the United States (5, 6). With a population currently aged 19 to 35 years, this is a very economically influential generation and a target demographic of interest to businesses. Millennials are the first generation to have grown up with technology always at their fingertips and being connected via multiple channels, all the time. Millennials are digital natives who spend more time than any other generation online, and online is where businesses must be to connect with them (7).

What do millennials want?

Whether online or offline, to millennials it’s all about relationships. Rainer and Rainer call the millennials, “the relational generation” (8). They seek healthy relationships at home, at work, and beyond, prizing social connections highly. When asked what was the most important thing in their lives, 61 percent said family, and 25 percent said friends. Fromm and Garton found that millennials have a greater number of connections on social media networks than did users from other generations, with 46 percent of millennials saying that they have over 200 friends on Facebook alone, versus 19 percent of users from other generations (9).

Cultivating a deep, meaningful connection with millennials is key to winning their loyalty in the long game, and storytelling is the way to do that. It’s especially important for a social good / cause-driven brand to succeed in making an emotional connection with their millennial buyers because, according to Millennial Marketing, “almost 50% of millennials would be more willing to make a purchase from a company if their purchase supports a cause” (5). According to Michael Brenner, head of strategy for NewsCred, the majority of millennials—a whopping 62 percent—feel that web content heightens their feeling of connection and loyalty to the brands they follow (10). In fact, 55 percent of millennials say that they are influenced by the content they find on websites and blogs (8). So we see that web content—in other words, storytelling—is the most important medium of connection between a brand and its millennial customers.

Why transparency, authenticity and honesty are important parts of your brand’s storytelling strategy.

It is important to remember that for stories to be successful in creating emotional connections, they must be honest and authentic. In the same way that an individual would be authentic with a friend, a brand must strive for transparency and authenticity in order to win the loyalty of millennial customers (9).

In short, brands must use storytelling to connect with their customers on a human level.

Connecting emotionally through storytelling.

Connecting through storytelling requires telling a story that evokes an emotional response, enabling a deeper connection. That requires powerful story content. The most powerful stories are the ones in which the audience can put themselves in the place of the protagonist. In fact, a powerful brand strategy is to develop personas which represent members of the company’s specific target audience and make the persona the protagonist of the story. According to Felder, a persona is a hypothetical user or reader based upon real details gathered from the target audience (2). In making the protagonist just like your target audience, customers are more likely to be able to relate to and identify with the protagonist. In other words, make the customer the hero of the story, not your company (11). Telling a story that makes the customer the star and the company simply a supporting character is one of the most powerful strategies in content today (12).

Harness the power of visuals.

There are many ways to connect emotionally through storytelling and one of the most effective ways is through visual storytelling. Images can evoke other senses besides just the visual, as well as evoking emotional memories (13). Images can help humanize a business, images can surprise and delight your customers, and images can spark a sense of wonder. A recent social media campaign by the travel industry on New Zealand’s South Island has been successful in increasing travel to participating destinations simply by hiring social media influencers to share travel photos of their destinations (14). The campaign saw a 14 percent increase in visits to their island from overseas as a result. The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, turns out to be true in this case and in many cases like it.

In conclusion.

Great stories build relationships and make people care. They bring us together and make us feel more connected to each other. They are memorable. According to the Indian proverb, “Tell me a fact, and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever” (2). Stories evoke emotion and action. And most of all, stories help people and communities form a bond by building a relationship of trust and care through transparency and authenticity. In the digital age, the best way for brands to reach the largest demographic of consumers—the generation known as millennials—is to use storytelling to make connections, build trust, and drive loyalty that will engender a long brand to customer relationship.

1. Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 21st edition, 1973. Print.
2. Felder, Lynda. Writing for the Web. Berkeley: New Riders, 2012. Print.
3. Hartley, George. Analyzing a story’s plot: Freytag’s Pyramid. Ohio University. n.d. Web. 2 Oct. 2016.
4. Zak, Paul J. “How Stories Change the Brain.” Greater Good. University of California, Berkeley, 17 Dec. 2013. Web. 1 Oct. 2016.
5. Fromm, Jeff et al. “Who Are Millennials?” MillennialMarketing.com. Millennial Marketing. n.d. Web. 1 Oct. 2016.
6. Fry, Richard. “Millennials overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation.” Pew Research Center, 25 Apr. 2016. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.
7. “TNS Study Reveals Millennials Spend Nearly One Day Every Week On Their Phones.” Kantar TNS. 19 Nov 2015. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.
8. Rainer, Thom, and Rainer, Jess. The Millennials. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2011. Print.
9. Fromm, Jeff, and Garton, Christie. Marketing to Millenials: Reach the Largest and Most Influential Generation of Consumers Ever. New York: AMACOM, 2013. Print.
10. Brenner, Michael. “Millennials Don’t Want Ads. They Want Stories.” Entrepreneur, 22 Oct. 2015. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.
11. James, Geoffrey. “Marketing 101: Make the Customer the Hero.” Inc., 27 Jan. 2014. Web. 2 Oct. 2016.
12. Patel, Neil, and Puri, Ritika. “The Beginner’s Guide to Online Marketing: Chapter Three.” Quicksprout. n.d. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.
13. Rettner, Rachael. “Brain’s Link Between Sounds, Smells and Memory Revealed.” Live Science, 5 Aug. 2010. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.
14. McMahon, Shannon. “How Instagram Is Changing Travel.” Smarter Travel, 23 Jun. 2016. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.


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