Once upon a time: how to tell stories which build brands and sell


The art of storytelling is a secret that’s been selling since the dawn of commerce, and it’s a thread which runs right through Leader’s 55 years as a marketing consultancy.

During our journey from Leader Art & Press Services in 1960s Birmingham to today’s Leader Marketing Partnership, we have delivered marketing services using many different technologies: from corporate print, newspaper & magazine advertising, and direct postal mail in the early years; through the explosion in print media and public relations in the 1980s & 90s; and on to the digital age with websites, e-marketing, social media, pay-per-click advertising and so much more.

But through it all, and indeed as far back in marketing history as the ancient street sellers daubing prices and slogans on the walls behind their stalls,  it has been the story that has done the selling, not the technology.

So why do we use stories to sell, rather than simply telling people the facts?

And how exactly do you go about creating a marketing story with the power to build brands and grow sales?


Timeless: good stories have been the secret of selling for millennia 

It’s all in the mind

Depending on how you choose to measure such things, the human brain is probably still be the most powerful computational device the world has ever seen.

Certainly in terms of pattern recognition, language abilities, and creative thinking, computer science and artificial intelligence still have a long way to go before they catch up. Brains are also about 100,000 times more energy efficient than computers.

In other critical respects the computers are perhaps a bit more impressive. They can certainly leave us standing in their speed at processing simple instructions, and since the arrival of the game-playing machine-learning artificial intelligence AlphaZero it seems unlikely that anyone is ever again going to beat the best computers at chess, Go or similar games of strategy.

The remembering mind

We would also seem to be fighting a losing battle in the critical matter of information storage and recall.

On the one hand it has been suggested that a single human brain could potentially store up to 1 petabyte of information, or 1,000 terrabytes. Now that’s pretty amazing for something of the size and low energy usage of a human brain, but it is dwarfed by the 40 zettabytes (40 trillion gigabytes) of data estimated to be on the entire internet in 2020 (90% of which has apparently been generated in just the last two years by the way!)

And computers definitely have the edge when it comes to getting that data back again.

Hard drives work by storing raw data in bits, the smallest unit of information. This makes the data incredibly easy to sort, search and recall.

But the human brain doesn’t seem to work like this at all. As humans we seem to store our information not as easily sorted raw data, but as processed data (which might explain why we might be carrying around a petabyte of date, but we can’t remember where we put our car keys just five minutes ago).

In essence, in order to store everything we see, hear, read, smell, taste, feel and think in something as compact as our brain, we’ve developed a uniquely human trick for data compression: the story.

The Power of Stories

The human brain creates stories of its own as a way of storing the huge amount of information we need for everyday life. 

The lazy mind

Not only does our brain store information as difficult to search processed data, but it turns out that it’s bone idle as well!

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman describes the behaviour of the brain using the model of System 1 and System 2 thinking. These systems don’t physically exist in the brain, but they are a useful model to help us understand how parts of it work.

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.

Unfortunately, our brains would much rather use System 1 thinking wherever possible, turning to unconscious and deeply-held beliefs, biases and intuitions in place of rational calculation and logic.

Not for nothing does Kahneman call the human brain The Lazy Controller. And the upshot is that even when we think we are making cold, calculated decisions based on the facts and the facts alone, we are almost certainly being directed by our emotions and our beliefs – and the stories which helped create them.

How the story works

So by understanding first how the human brain assembles and stores information, and then how it uses that information to make everyday decisions, we start to understand why stories are so powerful:

  1. The story is essentially the process by which the brain takes facts and turns them into memories for later recall.
  2. The brain then finds it much easier to seek decision-making guidance from the stories themselves, rather than the raw facts which underpin them.

By presenting our sales and marketing messages in the form of stories, we are therefore helping our audience process and absorb our information in a form and a framework they find most comfortable. This will in turn help them recall it more easily and accurately at the point of decision making.

How to tell stories which sell

Of course, communicators have been using the power of stories to their advantage for millennia.

Religions have always built their moral teachings into stories. Social commentators from Swift to Orwell, Austen to Angelou have done the same. Charity appeals for complex problems are increasingly focused down on to just a single human face, a single person’s story. And just think how many successful politicians and political parties have succeeded with single-theme, easily-grasped narratives (from ‘No taxation without representation’ to ‘America First’, to take the United States alone).

Inevitably, sales and marketing professionals have followed suit, exploiting the power of the story since the first trader sang out the freshness of her produce or illustrated them in chalk on the wall behind her.

So, if stories are so important, how do we make sure that ours are the stories that sell?

Drawing together all that we have explored so far, we can identify that our stories should above all be concise, consistent, and causal.

1. Concise

Remember that one of the purposes of a story is to condense a large amount of information into a compressed, easy-to-remember format. So keep the story clear, short and to the point.

That doesn’t mean that the vehicle for the story has to be short, of course. Long narrative ad campaigns are a case in point – from the Bisto family to the Gold Blend coffee couple to the annual John Lewis adverts and today’s multitude of viral online campaigns, these are certainly not short advertisements.

But beneath each of them lies a short, simple story which can be told – and remembered – in just a few words, helping the brand in each instance to communicate the essence of its messaging.

And this isn’t just a B2C message either. In B2B marketing, the website and brochure might be long, and the technical sheets may be packed full of cold hard facts. But the underlying story, often in the form of the core value proposition, has to be clear and concise.

Inevitably, common B2B marketing techniques like the case study also have a critical role to play in presenting this story.


One girl and her dragon – a short and simple brand story can be found at the heart of even the grandest advert.

2. Consistent 

If there’s one thing that really confuses the brain, it’s inconsistency. Psychologists call this ‘cognitive dissonance’ – the discomfort which we experience as we try to accommodate two conflicting facts, emotions or opinions at the same time.

Nothing will cause the brain to reject, discard or lose your story more quickly, so two types of consistency are vital:

(i) Internal consistency: your story has to be consistent with itself, the product and your wider brand. If you say you’re cheap, you’re going to have a hard time persuading the brain that you’re also premium. If you’re fast, you’re unlikely to get your audience to remember much about your safety. Why do you think Volkswagen Group owns the Porsche, Audi, Skoda and Seat brands, as well as VW itself?

(ii) External consistency: your story also has be consistent with what your audience already understands about the world around them. To return to the cars, it really doesn’t matter if you believe Czech engineering to be among the best in the world (as Skoda probably did heading into the early 2000s) if the audience holds a distinctly different view. They simply won’t believe you.

So while audiences were happy to let Audi play directly on its German engineering heritage (“Vorsprung durch Technik, as they say in Germany”), Skoda needed to create a completely different story as it sought to relaunch the long-maligned brand. This, of course, was a challenge to which they rose.

3. Causal

As every reader knows, all good stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Your sales and marketing stories should be no different.

  1. A beginning: this is why marketers spend so much time developing brand and company back stories, developing the heritage and the values of the business and people behind the brand.
  2. A middle: at some point you need to get to the meat of the matter – what is your product or service, what are its features, and what makes it the best?
  3. An end: (and this is what your customer’s will really remember about your story) what can your product or service do to improve your customers’ futures? What problems does it solve, and what benefits does it deliver?

So, in a nutshell, a good causal marketing story starts with your values and heritage (often bundled up as ‘authenticity’ in modern marketing), leads on to product or service features, which in turn leads to benefits and outcomes.

Find your story

The art of storytelling is as old as commerce, but it remains as powerful today as it ever was.

Regardless of technology, sector, market or product, stories will always be what people find easiest to understand, remember and act upon.

Whether you are launching a new product or brand from scratch, or refining and improving your existing brand, making sure you have great stories to tell should guarantee that you and your marketing will live together happily ever after.

You can read more about how we develop and bring stories to life for clients on our Brand + Proposition page Or contact us today to discuss your brand and marketing requirements.

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