4 ways to use storytelling in marketing that have nothing to do with heart wrenching videos

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Written by

Alexa Harrison

So many of the articles about storytelling in marketing focus on brand storytelling. They often describe the common storytelling techniques that creative teams use to stir up emotion via beautiful advertising videos. Have you ever watched video ads released by Nike, or Google, or Airbnb? I love that stuff. I can’t even help but joyfully tear up every single time I watch Google’s “Reunion” ad.

Fortunately, the positive and empathy-inducing effects of storytelling can also be experienced (without the tears) when you bring storytelling into your organization. Marketers can use storytelling techniques to better understand customers, arm sales teams, get bigger budgets, and even edify a company’s culture.

Use storytelling to empathize with your customers

Marketers should have a solid foundation of empathy before they try and sell anything to anyone.

Relating to your customer can make the difference between a well-received campaign or a flop.

One of the most conspicuous places we use storytelling in marketing strategy is in creating customer personas. The persona exercise relies on interviewing customers in order to tell accurate and meaningful life stories. We build characters and focus on their frustrations and challenges. Then, we imagine what our companies can do to help them succeed. We want them to be the heroes of their own story.

Why do we do this? In an interview, Duarte’s Chief Strategy Officer, Patti Sanchez provided some insight:

“The goal for any marketing or sales activity is ultimately to generate a result – to get your audience to respond to your message and take action on it. But they won’t even look at your message, let alone respond to it if it’s not relevant to them. And to be relevant to your audience you have to understand what matters to them, what they’re struggling with, and show them how your offer helps solve their pain. In short, you have to empathize with them.”

According to scientist Dr. Paul Zak, telling emotional and character-driven stories boost the levels of oxytocin in the brain. The result is the feeling of empathy…Science!


Empathy-building can go far beyond persona work in storytelling marketing, though. Author Claire Brooks explains in her book, Marketing with Strategic Empathy. “Storytelling which evokes empathy for customers is proven to be a powerful way of communicating strategy to employees at every level of the organization and inspiring effective strategic action. It should attract as much creativity and investment in time as brand storytelling through marketing communications.”

To that end, she recommends we use storytelling in marketing team persona work and to create some pretty cool customer-simulation experiences:

  • Installations like “customer rooms” that build out customer archetypes with video, posters, life artifacts, and more.
  • Consumer documentary videos that tell real-life stories of customers.
  • Designed and delivered storytelling marketing presentations where marketers share customer stories with the team.

Arm your sales teams with stories they can really use

Marketing and sales teams should work together like a hammer and a nail. It’s easy: marketers gather the data and craft stories that customers might like. Then, sales teams pitch the stories to customers who quickly marvel and buy.

However, this beautiful symbiotic relationship between sales and marketing doesn’t always function so well.

Dunh dunh dunnnnh.

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Allegedly, according to SOME salespeople (not “mine,” of course), the presentations and storytelling materials that marketing teams create are too broad. They don’t appeal to individual customers and are targeted at industries, not people. Accordingly, they are hard to customize enough to convince specific customers. Yikes!

But fret not. There is a right way.

We marketers can help sales teams personalize their pitches by creating overarching stories. We knowingly display the big picture and acknowledge alternative courses within it. Then, sales teams can choose their own adventure. After all, they’re the ones face-to-face with prospects. Finally, we should give them modular sales-enablement presentations that they can customize for each pitch. This is actually one thing we do at Duarte if you want to learn more, download our toolkit.


Use storytelling to pitch ideas and get budget

Oh, budget. I love you. Yet, you never seem to be enough.

If you’re like me, you usually want more support (read: dollars) behind your projects. You can actually use storytelling to more effectively pitch ideas and persuade execs. In fact, Nancy Duarte, who (not coincidentally) is the CEO of this very company, told me in an interview that,

“Execs love stories that demonstrate bottom-line results. Is there a story about a customer who expanded their contract? If so, why did they? Why did your sales guy close a half a million more? Why did the traffic quintuple on your new site? There’s a story there about how humans changed their behavior and it impacted the bottom line. Tell those stories and lace it with the role marketing played to make it happen.”

Thanks, Nancy! Message received.

The key to convincing execs to up your budget is to prove to them past ROI. You should show just how valuable every dollar you have is. In fact, studies reveal that marketing leaders who were able to prove ROI were 1.6 times more likely to receive a higher budget.

So next time you’re about to rattle off KPIs, take a few minutes to look at the big picture. Then, tell the persuasive story instead.

Use storytelling to cultivate company culture

Whether you’re a startup trying to create a mythology about your startup, or an established brand whose resilience is linked with trust, your employees have to understand the company’s values and mission. In HBR in 2014, Sanchez published an article called “Why Marketing Needs to Hire a Corporate Folklorist.” In it, she explained,

“You could think of this role as a ‘corporate historian,’ ‘official archivist,’ or ‘chief storyteller,’ but I prefer ‘folklorist.’ Folklore, in a cultural sense, is the sum total of anecdotes, artifacts, and rituals that unite a group of people — the common language that creates shared meaning.”

If you want your team to feel loyal, you’ve got to give them an option to be part of something bigger than themselves.  Of course, there are certain types of stories that we’re used to coalescing around. According to global brand strategist Fritz Grutzner, two of the most common are the foundation story and the crisis story.

  • The foundation story is pretty self-explanatory. It is told often and reminds people both why the company was started and now exists. For instance, Dropbox’s foundation story is about founder Drew Houston’s bus trip from Boston to New York. On the bus, Houston realized he forgot his USB memory stick. He had no access to his coding projects. 5 hours wasted! Gah! Right then and there, Houston decided to create a company that would make accessing and transporting data as easy and convenient as possible. And he did.
  • The crisis story shows how a company dealt with a time of crisis. These stories are great to tell your team when you’re trying to get through the next tough time. They remind workers of the resilience and strength of a brand. They also instill pride. One famous crisis story is that of juice company Odwalla. In 1996, Odwalla was linked to an E.coli outbreak. The outbreak killed one person and made more than 60 sick. In response, CEO Stephen Williamson publicly apologized, recalled the products, and agreed to pay all victims’ medical bills. While this was a significant setback for the company, it survived. Then, it went on to be bought by Coca-Cola for $186 million just 5 years later.

If you’re interested in these kinds of stories — or about how companies like Apple, Starbucks, and IBM use storytelling (and speeches, ceremonies, and rituals) to rally teams and customers, you’ll definitely want to read Nancy and Patti’s book, Illuminate.

Getting your marketing team to tell and spread these stories is critical to getting your team moving in the same direction. Storytelling in marketing teams doesn’t only create a company culture of pride and instill similar values that employees work towards. It also gives marketing team members a similar language to work with. This makes the work process smoother and easier. It also results in more cohesive products.

Storytelling in marketing; not just for advertising

So did I tell you? There so much more to storytelling in marketing than creating an ad that makes you want to call your grandparents. Or save the world. Or cry. Try to start using storytelling in unexpected places. Use stories to speak to your bosses and team members, and you may just discover that the power of stories and their applications are far beyond what you initially imagined. And now, here’s that Google Reunion video you’ve all been waiting to happily sob to.

Google Search: Reunion

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