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Giving Your Brand Story “Primal Power”: The Science of Storytelling

This post was originally featured on FastCompany.com.  The original blog, written by Nick Nanton and JW Dicks can be found here: Giving Your Brand Primal Power Through Storytelling

“Once upon a time…”

Those four little words, when combined, have an amazing allure, simply because we know that they signify that something special is about to happen…a story.

Humanity has used stories from the beginning to bind communities, create movements, inspire religions and promote patriotism.  From cave drawings to campfire tales, from papyrus writings to the Guttenberg Bible, our species has always rallied around stories – narratives that had the ability to hit us where we live and take us to someplace new.

At our agency, we make what we call “story-selling” an essential component of our branding efforts with our clients.  We’ve seen first-hand that, when you create the proper story, you’ve done most of the heavy-lifting required to build a successful brand.

The question, though, is why – why do stories have such “primal power” when it comes to influencing an audience?

It turns out there’s a perfectly good scientific explanation: Stories affect us on both on an incredibly deep intellectual and emotional level that studies are just beginning to understand.

That quest began when scientists discovered that fictional stories affected the same region of the brain that reacts when we ourselves are engaged in real-life drama.  Stories create a bonding empathy which causes us to strongly identify with the made-up protagonist – as if we were, in fact, that person.  In other words, stories have such impact because our brains actually get a little mixed-up as to what’s real and what’s not.

Further investigation has revealed that the actual physical process triggered by stories is the release of oxytocin, which is a hormone that’s usually affected by close emotional interaction – which is why its nickname is “the love hormone.”  Researcher Paul Zak from Claremont Graduate University, California, explains how oxytocin makes well-crafted stories that we read in books and watch in films and on television irresistible:  "We are empathetically engaged. We are treating this as if it is our real family. We can't help but care for these people."

Scientists have also determined why stories are so important to our intellectual activity: Our brains use them to process different strands of information and make sense of it all.  It’s no secret that our early ancestors created elaborate stories about various mythological gods to explain various natural phenomena they couldn’t understand.  Frankly, all of us are always after an explanation for why things are the way they are.

Think about all the data you take in on a daily basis (especially these days when non-stop information is the rule, not the exception); for the most part, it adds up to nothing but chaos.  Your brain, however, desperately wants a narrative to make it all understandable – even if that narrative happens to be wrong.

This is why certain stories have “primal power” as well as an enduring fascination.  Consider that NBC’s coverage of the Olympics in recent years, including this year’s London games, has focused extensively on the stories of the U.S. athletes’ various challenges and struggles, so that the events themselves have more narrative power.  And then there are the multitude of network one-hour “procedural” dramas, the alphabet-soup of CSI, L&O and NCIS shows and spin-offs, in which the killer is always caught and the audience is allowed to feel things are under control.

When someone’s brand story hits “the sweet spot” with his or her intended audience, the effects can be far-reaching and incredible – because it’s all about biology.  We can’t help but be drawn in by a great story.  That’s why Donald Trump knows it’s valuable to keep sounding off about whatever he wants – because being outspoken is his “brand story,” just as elegant entertaining is Martha Stewart’s and everyday cooking is Rachael Ray’s.  Their brands endure because the public wants to keep hearing their “stories.”

The power of storytelling is no fairy tale.  So put a strong story in place with your brand – that is, if you want your business to have a happy ending.

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