Imagine hearing the story of Aladdin, but starting in the middle once Aladdin has already transitioned into Prince Ali. Or reading the story of Cinderella, but skipping straight from meeting her new stepmother to riding to the ball in a pumpkin carriage. Not only would these disjointed stories be confusing, but they would also be easy to dismiss.

Stories, and all the fairytales we loved as children, follow a formula of sorts. The plots have a clear beginning, a middle and an end. They contain good and evil characters, aspects of make believe, and convey valuable lessons. This formula is powerful—we remember, and are captivated by, these stories for the rest of our lives.

Just as parents use stories as conduits to teach their kids, so do brands use stories as a way to make a lasting impression on their customers. However, the noisy, digital, multi-device era has disrupted traditional brand storytelling by fragmenting plots, which makes it difficult to engage prospective customers in a meaningful way.

Once upon a time

Before we all carried smartphones around in our pockets, brands used TV, print and radio to tell their stories cohesively and straightforwardly. These stories were a critical part of the marketing arsenal because they told a tale about how a brand would improve people’s lives, providing call-to-actions and influencing decision-making.

This is no longer the case. Digital media has disrupted traditional brand storytelling and made it impossible for a brand story to retain its core elements in a chronological, coherent way. Power has shifted away from the narrator and to the customer, who is now able to engage with the story on their own terms, whenever, wherever and however they want. This shift has profoundly changed the dynamics of how brands tell stories, and the businesses that fail to adapt to this new age will find their stories fall flat (if they make sense at all).

Today, brand stories fail due to two main factors. First, as mentioned above, because customers engage with the stories at various points across devices. This interrupts, and thus undermines, the plot. Secondly, because customer attention spans are lower. Research from The Guardian found that customers are exposed to over 3,500 marketing messages a day. It is difficult for a brand to break through this noise, and even if a brand does manage to stand out, they only have about 12 seconds to make their message stick. Furthermore, the scarcity of customer attention has made it far more expensive. A a Harvard Business School report estimates that the cost of attention has increased by seven-to-nine times over the past twenty years.

These trends put brands in the difficult position of needing to tell stories, but without the traditional formula to serve as a guide. Let’s take a look at three ways that brands can tell memorable stories in today’s fragmented digital era.

  1. Make your customer the hero (and your competitors the villains)

The digital era means customers are now in control of the stories they consume. In response, brands should make the customers the protagonists of their stories. This means aiming for their “hearts, not their wallets.” Instead of viewing your brand stories as a vehicle to sell, view them as a vehicle for cultivating relationships.

The fact is that brand loyalty is rooted in emotion, rather than finances. People stick with brands that make them feel good, that are aligned with their personal values and preferences. Take the example of an airline. The company could pitch customers on “Our cheapest tickets ever” or it could say “Make your family’s summer holidays the best ever with our airline.”

The second example makes the customer the main character of the story. The brand/product is not the focus. Instead, the customer is at the center of the narrative. They are empowered to take action, solve a problem, and emerge looking like the hero.

In addition, brands can turn their competitors into the villain. To stick with the airline theme, Virgin Atlantic created a common enemy out of British Airways, positioning it as the stodgy, unpleasant, outdated option. This gave customers something to rally around, as well as a shared identity—choosing to fly Virgin came to be seen as the hipper, more discerning choice.

If your brand does not want to specifically call out competitors, than you can use an idea, belief system or even the status quo as the enemy. For example, small car makers have made fun of people who drive large SUVs in ads to demonstrate that their offering is more practical and cost-effective, and less wasteful. Or look at the ecommerce brand ASOS, which promoted its free and easy return policy by emphasizing how difficult it is to buy clothes that fit online. This acknowledged an existing problem (villain), distinguished ASOS in the market, and crafted a story that put the customers’ needs at the center.

  1. Create a conflict-resolution ark

Even if brand stories no longer have a clear cut beginning, middle and end, that doesn’t mean they should not involve a journey. Your storytelling should still create an experience that defines a problem and outlines a solution. Customers are most likely to use your service or product if it addresses a pain point. The problem your protagonist (customer) is facing, and the one your brand proposes to solve, should be the setting for the story.

Begin your story by identifying the pain point. Then establish a conflict between your main character and the villains (as described in the previous section). Outline your own brand’s unique selling proposition (USP), make a case for how it connects to your ideal customers’ values, and show how this stands in opposition to your competitors. The plot then becomes the customer journey, as they progress from their problem, to the conflict, and the solution you provide to overcome it all.

  1. Turn your touch-points into narrators

The last, and most challenging, part of creating cohesive brand stories is to turn your multichannel touchpoints (web, in-store, social, mobile) into your narrators. Every customer interaction should move the story forward, so brands need to understand how customers interact with them at each touchpoint. This requires collecting customer data across every channel to create a single customer view.

For example, with an airline, customers are often booking online, checking their status on mobile devices, and then having a face-to-face interaction at the airport. Each of these steps is an opportunity to drive engagement. Moreover, since these touch points generally happen in a similar chronological progression, they are an opportunity for brands to articulate a plot from start to finish, in the right order, and create a coherent customer experience in the process.

Modern marketers may yearn for the days (once upon a time) when they had a 60 second TV ad slot to tell a story from start to finish. Brand stories are undoubtedly trickier to tell today, but this does not mean they are impossible. There are no magic beans, but by using the 3 approaches detailed here, you can write brand stories that leave a memorable impression, and you and your customers will live happily ever after.