Stories create an experience, whether they are imaginary, like "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," or real, like Gandhi's autobiography "The Story of My Experiments With Truth".
It's true of brand storytelling, too.
A now-legendary example of brand storytelling is the Dove "Real Beauty" promotional campaign, originally launched in 2003. It features "real" women, as opposed to models, to inspire us to think about every woman as beautiful, no matter her age, race, size or occupation. One ad, Sketches, features women describing their faces and the faces of others to an unseen sketch artist, revealing the gap between negative self-perception and the more positive perceptions of others. There's also the Choose Beautiful campaign, which is part research and part promotion. Women in five cities across the globe choose whether to enter the door marked "Beautiful" or the door marked "Average".
There's no doubt that these campaigns tell stories, but what makes that so effective? Narratives are a central part of how we learn about and understand the world. According to an article in Harvard Business Review, seeing a character-driven story makes us more empathetic. We neurologically connect with stories, and their messages then connect with us.
Storytelling as a branding strategy
Brand storytelling gets to the heart of branding: getting an audience to associate themselves with the values and experience of your brand. Women, Dove's target market, can relate to "real women" struggling with their looks and beauty.
This was all part of Dove's brand positioning. "Dove knows that women are constantly scrutinized about how they look ... [and that] women recognize self-respect remains a battle to be won," Jennifer Bremner, Dove's director of marketing told Adweek in March 2016. The brand's PR agency surveyed 3,000+ women in 10 different countries. Gathering all this data brought some startling truths to light, but what was there to do about it?
The corporate communications and marketing teams knew they had to "walk the talk," so Dove partnered with nonprofits that support women and girls, such as Girls Inc. and the Girl Scouts. They also created a school program to teach self-esteem to girls named the Dove Self-Esteem Project. When you solidify your brand identity by practicing what you preach, potential partners, investors and even employees take notice — and so do consumers.
"We believe that conversation leads to brand love, and brand love leads to brand loyalty," Bremner told the Huffington Post. "That's obviously a positive for us, not just in the power of the brand, but also ultimately in sales."
The quantitative impact
As Bremner acknowledged, all marketing communications strategies must support the company's goals, and sales are the ultimate goal, in addition to other quantitative and qualitative measures. As Adweek notes, the campaign drove Dove product sales growth from $2.5 billion at the launch in 2003 to $4 billion in 2014. Ohio University Strategic Social Media mentions that the "Sketches" ad became the most viewed ad ever, racking up 114 million views in under a month.
The campaign sparked passionate dialogue — some would say a "movement" — about women, beauty and self-image that is still in play today, and a trend of featuring "real" women (and men) in branding.
As Adweek put it, "Dove's 'Campaign for Real Beauty' is one of those legendary campaigns that changed everything, not just for the Unilever brand but for the category and, indeed, the industry as a whole — helping to usher in an era when brands could be more honest about the artifice of messaging, and become more real and relevant to consumers."
It's still going strong, still being talked about by social scientists, branding experts and consumers. And it's still selling Dove products. It was a truly multi-platform, integrated and targeted campaign, as all high-quality corporate communications programs are, and continues today, nearly 14 years later.
That's the magic of brand storytelling.