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According to a survey conducted by Headstream, almost 79% of adults think that brands telling stories is a positive thing, but only 64% believe that brands are doing it well. The survey also found that a great story will influence 15% of an audience to make a purchase immediately and 55% to make a purchase eventually.

As well as capturing attention and driving social shares, there is now a huge body of evidence that suggests that when brands tell stories it can have a huge impact in influencing the way people come to regard them. Research from Brainjuicer has also suggested that brand films that connect emotionally can also influence the purchasing decisions of your customer base.

Telling stories that promote your company, service offering or product is a subtle art thought. It’s all too easy to burst the bubble and bring the viewer crashing back to reality if they think they’re being sold something. What’s needed is to approach your brand film as you would approach any traditional story and that means understanding how narrative is structured.

In this short guide for Serious Startups I want to break down this narrative structure and look at how businesses can learn from the ancient art of telling stories.


Every compelling story has a central goal and, typically determined by the protagonist, it must be relatable, believable or intriguing (or all three). A quest is preceded by a status quo and is therefore a driving force to return to the status quo or create a new status quo.

Quests for tangible end goals in brand film need to be compelling and prompt an emotional connection through an empathetic response to the protagonist. Your quest could be something as tangible as blowing up the Death Star in Star Wars or killing the shark in Jaws.

In this typically honest piece of content marketing from Dove (see above), even though the story is told through interview clips with the women and experimenters, it is made clear from the outset that the quest is to make the women involved feel more confident with their appearance. As with so much of Dove’s marketing, the brand plays second fiddle to the wider social message.

Four things to consider:

  • What does your protagonist want to achieve and why?
  • Is your goal clear and compelling enough that your audience will become emotionally involved?
  • Is your protagonist being proactive in their quest or are events seemingly out of their control?


Incorporating an element of conflict or suspense will help to ensure your protagonist’s quest is not progressing too smoothly, and will keep your audience intrigued and interested.

It’s rare in brand marketing that you will create a conflict as extreme and diametrically opposed as Harry Potter’s stand-off with Voldemort. Conflict can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, such as the series of the short comedic vignettes that prevent Scrat from every getting his acorn in the Ice Age films.

A popular brand film equivalent to this could be the adorable Buster the Boxer ad (see above) from master storytellers John Lewis, in which our loveable canine protagonist is prevented from getting on the new trampoline by a mere pane of glass.

Three things to consider:

  • What is standing in the way of your protagonist?
  • Is your story suspenseful enough, or are events progressing too seamlessly to be believable?
  • Is your antagonist performing their role convincingly?

The Stakes

To maintain that all important emotional connection, you need your audience to get behind your protagonist and root for him or her, every step of the way. The stakes have to be established in other words.

When working to create the ‘Lost Scarf’ TV commerical with Nationwide (see above), we knew we had to build a strong emotional connection for the audience to really care about some guy who’d just lost his scarf on a bus. It’s why the first half of the film establishes the emotional importance that scarf has to the protagonist. Without establishing this first, the climax would not have been anywhere near as powerful.

Two things to consider:

  • Why is your protagonist’s goal significant and what implications does it have on the world around them?
  • If their goal is not reached, what happens and why?

The Climax

As your protagonist moves closer towards their goal, your narrative should escalate, play on tensions introduced by your antagonist, and create action as the conflict is overcome. The viewer’s emotional connection must pay off here as the story arc comes to its conclusion.

In Polish company Allegro’s masterstroke of narrative brand marketing, our protagonist’s quest to learn English is made clear from the outset (with hilarious effect), but it is only at the end do we see how perfectly this has been used to set up the almost unexpected emotional suckerpunch that lies at the heart of this film’s message.

Two things to consider:

  • How is your story going to escalate, whilst remaining believable and relatable?
  • Does your narrative come to a clear conclusion?

Emotional Resolution

As well delivering a satisfying climax to your narrative, you must consider whether the narrative has delivered an emotionally satisfying resolution. In Finding Dory, as Dory finds her parents before the end of the film, her quest is complete, but the emotional resolution doesn’t occur until she frees Marlin and Nemo, returning to the reef with her friends and her newly found parents.

In brand marketing, emotional resolution is as much about subtext and careful inclusion of the brand and it’s values as it is about narrative arc. You must not only establish empathy with your protagonist and their quest, but you must also associate this in some way with your brand.

In Turkish Airline’s fantastic commercial (see above), no subtitles are needed to explain how our protagonist’s dreams are realised when a plane lands in their seemingly quiet little patch of desert. This is the climax of the story but the emotional resolution is only delivered when the captain salutes our wide eyed and awe-struck heroes.

Three things to consider:

  • What is your emotional resolution?
  • What is your story really about and has it’s values been expressed without being too subtle or too obvious?
  • How do the values you’ve expressed line up with your brand?

Your Role

As well as telling the story, you must consider how your brand fits in with the message you are conveying. If your narrative heavily features your product, you should take care not to fall into the trap of ensuring your product is the hero, instead placing your brand as a key facilitator in your protagonist’s quest and ultimately its resolution.

Alternatively, your presence could be through the reflection of one of your central brand values. Although their products do not feature directly, the Dove advertisement works well to communicate the brand’s commitment to celebrating everyone’s natural beauty.

Two things to consider:

  • Is the story relevant to your brand and does it feel authentic?
  • Does your presence feel natural or are you forcing a connection?

Creating a convincing story that helps establish your brand and what you do isn’t easy but it’s important to remember to tell the story first and sell your brand second. You shouldn’t try to characterise your brand too literally. Instead, ensure your message is clear and easy to follow, and focus on creating value and prompting an emotional response from your audience.