The Psychology Behind Brand Storytelling and Its Effect on Consumers

This oral tradition has been adapted into digital marketing techniques

three people side around a table drinking coffee and sharing stories
Storytelling appears to be most effective when it comes to making purchasing decisions. Getty Images
Headshot of Jennifer Lux

Before there were emojis, infographics, flowcharts and photo collages, people shared ideas through the oral tradition of storytelling. Humans are hardwired to remember stories as every person on this planet comes from a lineage of storytellers. Over a millennium ago, storytelling was the primary means of making ideas memorable, impactful and actionable.

Because of its primal roots, storytelling is a powerful, timeless means to convey important information, and its use in marketing and advertising is on the rise. But stories alone won’t motivate your audience to take action. Consider these psychological principles of storytelling and the brands that are showcasing their power in action.

Create empathy

The use of brand storytelling to create empathy and connection is possible because of the existence of mirror neurons. Simply put, mirror neurons make feelings contagious. So when your audience engages with a story about overcoming obstacles, like Nike’s “Become Legendary” campaign, they feel empowered to do the same. Mirror neurons help us feel what others feel, and therefore make stories relatable and motivate action. When you use storytelling in your marketing, you can help your audience identify with your characters by leveraging powerful narration and universal messages.

When you use storytelling in your marketing, you can help your audience identify with your characters by leveraging powerful narration and universal messages.

This approach has been instrumental in Nike’s success since the launch of their first visual storytelling effort in 1988 with their “Just Do It” spot. When you create relevance, you create empathy and your audience remembers your message and your brand due to the neuropsychology of mirror neurons.

Inspire motivation

The why of behavior, or the driving force that inspires action, is the definition of motivation. Creating motivation is a psychological puzzle that all successful marketers spend time solving. Using storytelling in your marketing will inevitably be amusing, but if your ad doesn’t inspire action, purchases and brand loyalty, your ad is simply entertainment.

The psychology of inspiring action is easily tested with programmatic content that ensures relevance or variation testing that provides insights into the specific messages that inspire action. This past holiday season, Apple launched an ad that leveraged both the psychological principles of empathy and inspired action. Apple’s “Share Your Gifts” visual storytelling ad was relevant for the preponderance of its viewers. Nearly everyone can relate to the regretful feeling of underutilizing their skills or not following their passions at work or otherwise. This stunning animated story inspired its viewers to share their gifts and reminded them that the outcome of that risk would most likely be transformational.

At a time when people are deliberately reflecting on the year’s past, thinking through new year’s resolutions and brainstorming ways to create more happiness, this impeccably timed ad likely inspired motivation and action in so many ways. Perhaps not to immediately purchase Apple products, but viewers of this animation were reminded to share their gifts with the world more openly. Brands that cultivate deeper meaning in their audiences’ lives in experiential formats build brand loyalty on a deeper level.

Use social proof

This psychological principle may be the most influential of all when it comes to purchasing decisions. Nearly every single brand that sells consumer products today offers reviews, which are essentially votes on a product’s quality, ease of use, features, durability and craftsmanship. Reviews are a classic social proof tool, which can take the form of anything from a simple star rating to a full-fledged video interview. Using social proof alongside storytelling is a one-two punch for your marketing efforts.

Take Chow Now, an online ordering platform for restaurants. On their testimonial page, they showcase their top restaurant partners, not only with written reviews, but with stories including the inspiration behind the owners’ and chefs’ visions for the establishment and how Chow Now service helps solve their customers’ top pain points. These customer stories are not only great examples of social proof, but this page also includes elements that inspire motivation and create empathy.

Storytelling isn’t just important for marketers and advertisers, but its prevalence in broader business is equally strong. Jeff Bezos recently banned the use of PowerPoint in executive meetings at Amazon in favor of the use of narrative. In a world of endless technology platforms to structure and share ideas, thought leaders like Bezos recognize that some traditions are more powerful than any future-focused technology. Narrative is more influential, inspiring and memorable than data or bullet points, and therefore it’s leveraged regularly within the Amazon leadership team.

Storytelling has evolved since it’s earlier oral tradition into today’s digital formats, but its power is still measurable. Consider these psychological principles as you incorporate storytelling into your marketing and advertising efforts.


@jenniferlux11 Jennifer Lux is vp of client experience with LyntonWeb.
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