Film franchises like Star Wars or The Matrix have made an indelible mark on popular culture. The 70s blockbuster Jaws terrified a whole generation of beachgoers. From George Bailey to Captain Jack Sparrow, the characters of iconic films stay with us like old friends.
Ancient cave walls reveal that humans have always been captivated by the power of a great story. For millennia, it was the primary way in which knowledge and moral lessons were handed down from generation to generation. Classic epics like The Illiad and Dante’s Inferno have survived the upheavals of history and continue to shape western culture even today. And when you analyze what makes for the most inspiring tales—whether they be fictional in nature or on behalf of a brand or product—a clear pattern comes into relief.
The key elements of a great story were famously outlined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which provided a framework for Hollywood screenwriters and film schools that has been used for decades. Campbell pointed out that we have a tendency to see ourselves represented in the hero’s journey. Their story is a metaphor of our own, and the best ones involve underdog who faces a challenge, experiences setbacks, struggles with self-doubt, and ultimately comes out victorious.
To understand why we do this, and why stories can so powerfully inspire human emotion and behavior, modern science has a few answers.
We aren’t just trying to make sense of letters and sounds, we are immersing ourselves in an imagined world.
Consider one study that showed what happens to the brain on stories. When a person hears a lecture or reads a manual—just dry information—two areas of the brain are activated: they’re called Broca’s area and Wernike’s area, and they control language processing. But something profoundly different happens when we listen to a story: our entire brain engaged.
In a second study, two people were put under an fMRI machine as one told a story to the other. Incredibly, the brain waves of the listener began to mirror the brain waves of the storyteller. The phenomenon is called neural coupling.
What do these studies tell us? They show that when we are engaged in a story, we don’t just hear words and understand them, our brain attempts to re-create the environment and situation, and imagine what it would be like to experience it ourselves. We aren’t just trying to make sense of letters and sounds, we are immersing ourselves in an imagined world that becomes more like an actual memory.
It’s no wonder, then, why “storyselling” is such a critical tool for brands who aim to create meaningful connection with audiences. If you want your message to be “sticky,” don’t try to sell a product, sell a story. Iconic brands have mastered storyselling using a few simple elements:
1. Make the customer the hero
Too often, companies make themselves the hero. They talk about how smart they are and what they’ve accomplished. Or they make the product the hero—look at everything this can do! While those might be part of the story, the real hero is the customer. You may be their Yoda, but they are your Luke, and you need to show how you can help them succeed in their journey.
2. Identify the real villain.
A product that can do lots of impressive things is still useless if it doesn’t address a real felt need. You have to solve a problem, and the bigger and more meaningful that problem is, the more valuable. Clarity on this piece of the puzzle isn’t just critical in marketing; it’s fundamental to product development.
3. Build your story around things people care deeply about.
If you want your message to be “sticky,” don’t try to sell a product, sell a story.
Human beings are driven by hope and fear. They want to be liked and valued by others. And they have dreams. The key here is to look deeper than the surface and get into the mind of the audience. If you sell insurance, you’re not selling a policy, you’re selling peace of mind.
When Apple says to “Think Different,” their hero is the brilliant rebel fighting against the bland status quo. When DeBeers invented what became the modern engagement ring industry with “A Diamond is Forever,” their hero was the romantic young man who wants to prove his love and loyalty (and ensure his investment will last). Nike’s “Just Do It” tells a story of aspiration and determination—whether you’re the star athlete or just want to be one, don’t let anything stop you from chasing your dreams.
Every brand has a story to tell. Finding that narrative and telling it powerfully is the key to meaningful and memorable connection with customers.