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Storytellings Effect

on the Consumer
Brand Experience
[COMM 427 Fall 2015]
By Casey Adam

Abstract:
This paper aims to explore the impact of storytelling on the consumer brand experience. I
will first define storytelling by identifying its various elements and discussing its cultural
significance. By thoroughly reviewing the literature and using relevant industry examples, this
paper will then demonstrate how storytelling can build credible brands and strong corporate
cultures in the branding process. As an important foundation for all MARCOM efforts, branding
defines the way a product or company will interact with the end user. After discussing the
significance of storytelling within branding, I will then examine the use of storytelling as a direct
communication tool with the consumer. This paper will conclude with a look at how conflict
between agencies and clients can arise when clients do not develop a clear story during their
companys branding process. Conflict may also develop when one or both parties in the
client/agency relationship discredit the importance of storytelling when communicating with
consumers. By acknowledging these potential conflicts I will then discuss storytellings impact
on my future role as an account manager.
With an unprecedented amount of advertising clutter and increasing consumer
fragmentation, marketers are looking for the most effective ways to engage consumers. The use
of storytelling in branding and MARCOM efforts surfaced in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a
new way to capture the minds and hearts of consumers (Harris, 2007). Today, storytelling is
more important than ever as clients and their agencies attempt to deliver a compelling and
engaging integrated marketing communications package across countless new mediums and
channels (Pulizzi, 2012). In order to understand storytellings critical role in the consumer brand
experience, storytelling must first be defined and identified.
Marketing scholar Jim Mittelstadt (2007) defines a story as anything with a beginning,
middle, and end that contains characters, plots, and a conflict resolution. Within this structure is

a message that communicates a big idea or moral values. Harris (2007) has a similar definition:
stories are anything that identify and communicate a universal idea or purpose. Psychology
literature defines stories in terms of scripts and scenes. Scenes are the organized frameworks that
include a time, place, setting, action, and character. Scripts occur when people store, connect,
and analyze the various scenes and can repeatedly interpret and predict them, forming a
schema, or an organized pattern of thought responsible for understanding a storys structure
(Harris, 2007).
In contrast to the internalized concepts of scenes and scripts, psychologists often cite the
Elaboration Likelihood Model when explaining how stories work in a communication context
between two or more individuals, or for the purpose of this paper, between advertisers and
consumers (Harris, 2007). The Elaboration Likelihood Model says that there are two types of
paths to persuasion: the central path and the peripheral path. The central path is activated when
the consumer has motivation to think about a message with minimum distraction and then
cognitively elaborates on it. Persuasion occurs when favorable thoughts are associated with the
elaborated message. Persuasion can also be achieved with the peripheral path, which is activated
when there is no motivation to think about the message, but the message is still in line with the
consumers attitude. Petty and Cacioppo (1986) use this models framework to understand the
relationship between advertising and sales, the main purpose of this approach lies in the
presumed links between memory, attitude, and purchaseif people are entertained by an ad they
will remember and like it, and if they remember and like it they will be predisposed to buy it.
(p. 23). Research has shown that a storytelling approach is more likely to activate the central path
in the Elaboration Likelihood Model because the consumer is entertained and motivated to
elaborate on the message (Harris, 2007).

Research done by Fog, Budtz, Munch, and Blanchette (2010) reveal that stories transcend
entertainment by functioning as a vital information system that fosters self-discovery. Telling
stories is the only way we can create meaning in our lives and make sense of our world (p.18).
This theory is prominently seen within childhood stories and fairy tales that pass on information
to help children understand the values of their culture and make sense of their world. For
example, fairy tales teach that good conquers evil and love always prevails. Other examples of
stories that serve as guiding moral values are found in the bible and other religious texts (Fog,
Budtz, Munch, & Blanchette, 2010).
For the purpose of this paper I will define storytelling based on two levels of meaning:
the first level is a cognitively elaborated message that has a beginning, middle, and end with
characters, conflict, plot, and conflict resolution. The second level is any message that creates
meaning and helps people make sense of their lives.
In order for storytelling to have an impact on the consumer brand experience there must
first be strong foundational support across the corporate level in the form of branding. Branding
will ultimately define the way a product or company will interact with the end user and guide its
MARCOM efforts. Here storytelling will also play an integral role; stories help build company
values and communicate them to all stakeholders. Excellent branding is authentic and based on
the unique truths of a company (Fog, Budtz, Munch, & Blanchette, 2010). Fog, Budtz, Munch,
and Blanchette (2010) argue that these unique truths are found in stories about a companys
roots, employees, CEOs, successes, failures, or challenges. Your corporate brand must be built
on the real-life stories told by employees, customers, and working partners (p.104). An example
of branding based on a companys story of success is demonstrated with 3M. In 1968 a low-level
employee invented the Post-it note, one of 3Ms most profitable products, on complete accident.
The Post-it note invention story created a company culture within 3M where the employees are

the heroes and the next big product breakthrough is right around the corner. This story of
innovation not only reflects on 3Ms past but also sets a standard of accomplishment for
employees and communicates where the company is going. This case can be found in multiple
management books that teach how companies can brand themselves as innovators (Fog, Budtz,
Munch, & Blanchette, 2010).
When a brand has more than one unique story, or is continually transforming, a narrative
arc can be used (Smith & Wintrob, 2013). Branding experts Smith and Wintrob (2013) define a
narrative arc as a brand building tool that provides a framework within which multiple brand
stories can co-exist, thus translating an overall brand promise into a narrative form (p. 37).
Nikes narrative arc is about pushing limits and physical achievement. The story under this arc
has since broadened to the empowerment of every athlete, where athlete is defined as anyone
with a body. In order for other brands to have effective narrative arcs like Nikes, integration is
key and multiple stories must be consistent and convey the same underlying message (Smith &
Wintrob, 2013).
Economic and social forces that are difficult for management to control can affect the
branding process and disrupt the narrative arc. Examples include Johnson & Johnsons Tylenol
cyanide crisis and Volkswagens gas emissions scandal (Beene, 2015). Both scandals disrupted
these brands narrative arcs of safety and trust. Only time will tell if Volkswagens image will
recover, but Johnson & Johnson was able to successfully save its narrative arc and tell a new
story about perseverance and swift action during crisis. Smith and Wintrob (2013) argue that
telling a robust brand story (p. 36) with both successes and hurdles makes the brand more
relatable and authentic. After narrative arcs and unique truths are established, brands will have a
compass to guide all internal and external communication (Smith & Wintrob, 2013). Fog, Budtz,

Munch, and Blanchette (2010) urge marketers to evaluate campaigns by asking a simple
question: does this campaign activate the core story of our corporate culture (p. 104)?
Once the brands core story is developed and anchored, storytelling can be effectively
used as a direct communication tool with consumers. Fog, Budtz, Munch, and Blanchette (2010)
argue that increased fragmentation in our modern society has led to an unraveled value system
where individuals now have the freedom to pick and choose their beliefs and establish their
identities. Using visual expressions and symbols, strong brands have become a way for people to
signal their values and personalities. By using storytelling as a way to make companies values
visible, strong brands can help communicate who consumers are or who they want to be (Fog,
Budtz, & Blanchette, 2010).
In order to become a strong brand, an emotional connection must first be established
(Pulizzi, 2012). Trends within the advertising industry have reflected this ideology by shifting
away from product features as the sole means of differentiation. It has become evident that a
physical product no longer equates to sales and brand loyalty; an emotional story is what now
drives the bond between the brand and consumer (Berkowitz, 2014). Smith and Wintrob (2013)
echo this sentiment: as consumers, we pursue brands with credible stories we can embrace and
share. We are magnetically drawn to stories because they unite ideas and emotions, often
articulating points we might feel in some way but have a difficult time expressing on our own
(p. 36).
Smith and Wintrob (2013) discuss four types of stories that brands can use as a direct
communication tool to reflect a companys values and create an emotional connection. The first
is the heritage story, which can be used when a company has a unique origin to leverage. In 2009
Papa Johns leveraged its heritage story by tracking down a 1971 Camero originally owned by
Papa Johns founder John Schnatter. Schnatter sold his beloved car to keep the Papa Johns

family business afloat. The story of the search for the Camaro and the reunion with Schnatter
was chronicled on social media and was one of Papa Johns most successful digital campaigns to
date. Keeping the heritage story relevant and meaningful is the key to success. Coca-Cola has
done a great job of activating a modern heritage story of the Coca-Cola creator and pharmacist
John Pemperton with his humorous fake twitter account @docpemperton. With over 121,000
followers, the hilarious tweets of a digital un-native do an excellent job of appealing to
younger generations (Smith & Wintrob 2013).
In contrast to the heritage story, contemporary stories can be used with plotlines that are
relevant to the brand and rely heavily on cultural fuel. The contemporary construct includes a
suite of stories that brands tell to narrate their general purpose, their connection to today, and
what they are doing to stay connected to their audience (Smith & Wintrob, 2013, p. 39). Harley
Davidson does a nice job of promoting new bike technology; helping both old and young
generations enjoy the open road by telling its contemporary story of high-tech freedom across its
advertisements, dealers, and clubs. The third type of story, the vision story, tells where the brand
is going, it is a lighthouse strategy for future-state tactics that may be connected to management
goals, new directional objectives, or inspirational territories the brand seeks to achieve (Smither
& Wintrob, 2013 p. 41). Patagonia has created a vision story of a world that is free of
environmental crisis and pollution (Kolowich, 2015). Lastly, the folklore story is organically
created by consumers and has become the most popular type of storytelling. TOMS shoes has
utilized folklore stories by encouraging customers to be a part of TOMS Nation by sharing
pictures and their personal TOMS story on the companys website. This has created a
community for TOMS fans to connect with one another and build the brand together (Smith &
Wintrob, 2013).

Ad Age writer David Berkowitz (2015) sees merit in folklore storytelling initiated by
consumers, the future of storytelling isnt about telling anyone anything. Its about storymaking,
where the brand facilitates and taps into the stories people are creating and sharing with each
other (page 1). An example of successfully tapping into stories that people are creating and
sharing comes from rapper Dr. Dre, who successfully marketed his movie Straight Outta
Compton through use of storytelling on social media. The movie is about Dres 1980s pioneer
rap group called N.W.A. and his controversial rise to fame. The movie also depicts the violent
street life and police brutality in Compton, CA at the most culturally relevant time; right after the
racially fueled riots in Ferguson and Baltimore. Prior to the movie release, Dre created a viral
social media initiative that had users sharing their stories and discussing racial inequities. Users
could turn their photos into memes, plastering on a recognizable "Straight Outta" label and
typing in their location (Jutkowitz, 2015, p. 2). Dr. Dre had his finger on the cultural pulse, and
was able to promote his movie by letting users share their stories and create a social media
dialogue (Jutkowitz, 2015).
Berkowtiz (2015) also emphasizes the advantages of making consumers the directors of
the storytelling process while brands function as the catalysts. He says that the key to success is
for a brand to listen and find their role in the dialogue, and then create a story with a social
function. Engleman (2013) also agrees that storytelling is important for consumers to participate
in as he states, enabling consumers to actively participate in the storytelling process is
increasingly as important as the story itself. The more a consumer can customize and reshape a
story, the more personally meaningful it becomes to them, and the more deeply they want to be
involved in it (p.1).
So how can brands get consumers more actively involved in the storytelling process and
create a dialogue? Pulizzi (2012) says that a participatory storytelling experience is best achieved

through non-traditional media vehicles such as blogs, social media, articles, and online videos,
which allow brands and consumers to share and build rich content together. Content is another
big buzzword in the advertising industry, but Pulizzi (2012) sees content and storytelling as one
in the same, defining content marketing as the idea that storytelling is key to attract and retain
customersit is the creation of valuable, relevant, and compelling content by the brand itself on
a consistent basis (p. 116).
A Google research projected called Zero Moment of Truth revealed that consumers are
participating, sharing, and engaging in twice the amount of content year over year before making
a purchase (Pulizzi, 2012). Major brands like Coca-Cola have shown us that two-way
storytelling is at the center of new content marketing. The Coca-Cola Content 2020 initiative
aims to produce materials with the help of their consumers that tells interesting and engaging
brand stories. So far their tactics have included a new blogger series and the visually contentladen My Journey website. As a result, Coca-Cola went from being creatively bankrupt in
2004 to the Cannes Creative Marketer of the Year in 2013 (Savut, 2013).
With all the focus on drawing consumers into an engaging story there has been concern
that the product and ad sponsor will be lost. A research study done by a professor at the
University of Minnesota aimed to see if viewers lost sight of the product information when
viewing automobile and financial service commercials that had a high degree of storytelling. The
study measured brand and product awareness using aided recall, unaided recall, and
autobiographical memory (Harris, 2007). According to Harris (2007), autobiographical memory
measures how people write themselves into a scene and empathize with the characters, situation,
or setting. The results of this study are encouraging: storytelling in the ads predicted brand
awareness, positive brand attitudes, and increased likelihood to make a purchase. Harris (2007)
concludes that when consumers like a message, they are easily able to link it back to the sponsor

because they are both cognitively and emotionally engaged. Additional research done by Pulizzi
(2012) concluded that storytelling is even more effective when the brands are in the background
of the story with minimal reference. Brands that have used this approach and have seen
successful campaign ROIs include Adobe, Sherwin Williams, General Electric, and PTC
(Pulizzi, 2012).
So far this paper has examined the importance of storytelling in the branding process and
its function as a direct communication tool within campaigns. Both of these functions have a
positive impact on the consumer brand experience by entertaining, engaging, communicating
values, and connecting on an emotional level (Fog, Budtz, Munch, & Blanchette, 2010). In
addition to its impact on consumers, storytelling also affects the client/agency relationship. To
understand this effect, we must acknowledge how storytelling has played a role in changing the
structure of advertising agencies. Much of the advertising industry literature in the 70s and 80s
focused on rational product messaging. It was not until the 90s that the industry began to
recognize the merits of emotional messaging through a story framework. Once this shift took
place, research departments became planning departments where product analysis replaced
consumer analysis. Agencies began to realize that focusing on their consumers instead of the
products would increase interest and connection to the company (Snow, 2014).
Although the majority of clients stand with their agencies on this consumer-centric
movement, many clients still feel that rational product messaging is the only way to increase
sales and have not yet embraced the merits of the account planning function or story-based
advertising. For most companies storytelling remains an abstract concept, at best reserved for
PR and advertising executives, at worst wishy washy claptrap with no real value (Fog, Budtz,
Munch, & Blanchette, 2010 p. 17). As discussed earlier, storytelling has been proven to be most
effective when the brand and the product take a backseat in the advertisement. It is often very

difficult for an account manager to get a client to agree on a storytelling campaign where the
clients product will barely be shown in the advertisements. This type of strategy disagreement
can cause discord in the relationship. This disagreement may also be reversed; the client may
push for storytelling but the agency resists. In many cases the agency may not have the resources
and capabilities to pull off effective storytelling, which often requires seamless integration across
multiple media channels (Smith & Wintrob, 2013).
Storytelling may also affect the client/agency relationship when clients have weak
branding and do not develop a strong story within their own company. Earlier this paper
discussed how the narrative arcs developed during the branding process guide a companys
MARCOM efforts and ultimately impact the consumer brand experience. If there is no unique
story or truth developed within a company then there is no compass for external communication,
making it more difficult for the agency and the account manager to help differentiate the clients
brand (Smith & Wintrob, 2013). An example of this situation can be found by examining the
tumultuous relationship between Subaru and Wieden + Kennedy in the novel Where The Suckers
Moon. Subaru lacked internal branding and a strong company story needed to guide Wieden +
Kennedy in the campaign process. At the end of the novel, Subaru finally finds its soul (p.
427) and its new agency is able to execute a successful campaign that focuses on the true story
and strengths of the brands: Subarus engineering and the engineers behind it (Rothenberg,
1995).
As a rising professional in the advertising industry, my goal as an account manager will
be to help grow my clients business and solve their communication problems. After
synthesizing the research on storytelling, I believe that it is a highly effective way to engage
consumers and ultimately drive sales. I hope to utilize storytelling whenever applicable and
appropriate. However, I know I will have to overcome many challenges mentioned above in

order to keep a healthy client/agency relationship intact. If faced with a client that wants to focus
solely on product features, I will need to take on the role of a teacher and expert consultant. By
educating my client on the effectiveness of storytelling and providing examples of
groundbreaking campaigns I hope to help my client become a better advertiser and consider
embracing a storytelling structure. In the case where my clients have weak internal branding, I
hope to be their guiding partner who helps them find the unique truth about their company and
assists in developing a story for their brand. By working together with my client and trusting one
another, I look forward to creating captivating stories and making an impact on the consumer
brand experience among countless other exciting opportunities that await me in this industry.

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