A Crash Course in Marketing With Stories

image of big brother

Remember learning Greek mythology in school?

I’m going to give you one name, and I want you to think about the first image that pops into your head …


What’d you think about? Was it what you read in that dusty old history book, or was it the unforgettable Disney cartoon?

That, my friends, is the power of storytelling in action.

According to Chip and Dan Heath in their book “Made to Stick”, stories are an incredibly important element in creating ideas that stick.

We humans process information much more efficiently when it’s in the form of a story, and we’re therefore much more likely to remember it.

We quickly forget a dry recitation of the facts.

And yet, most marketing is just that: fact after fact after fact …

“Buy this widget from us, and it’ll do this, this and this.”

That doesn’t stick.

If you want your marketing to really sizzle, if you want people to remember it, you need to turn your marketing messages into stories.

I’ve broken down the classical elements of story below so you can begin to think like a storyteller, and make your marketing messages stick …

The protagonist leads the way

You don’t have a story unless you have a main character — also known as the protagonist — whom the audience empathizes with.

The protagonist helps the audience become emotionally engaged with the story.

That’s why very emotional scenes, such as love and action scenes, are so powerful.

Think about horror movies, particularly when the killer is chasing the protagonist.

The audience is on the edge of their seats because they are experiencing the same fears and rush of adrenaline as the protagonist.

Who or what is the protagonist — the hero — of your business?

Your antagonist is their antagonist

In addition to a protagonist, a story also needs an imposing antagonist — someone (or something) hindering the protagonist from reaching her goal.

The antagonist creates conflict.

An antagonist can be a person, an entity, or even the protagonist herself (for instance, the protagonist trying to overcome her own fear).

Tap into and talk about a common “enemy” to bond with your customers, and their loyalty to you will grow very strong, very fast.

The protagonist must be on the move

Boring stories are ones where things happen to the protagonist.

Engaging stories are ones where the protagonist takes action to defeat the antagonist.

In other words, there’s an active struggle.

Let’s say there’s a story about some really bad guys who steal a boy’s dog. The boy is sitting on his couch, crying, missing his dog terribly.

A few moments later, a police officer knocks on the door and delivers the slobbering, excited dog back to the boy.


We’d rather see the boy chasing down the bad guys, trying to get his beloved dog back himself.

Are you boring your clients/readers/customers?

This is a cardinal sin of marketing.

Boring kills sales.

No plot, big problem

Of course, a story isn’t a story unless it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The beginning sets the stage, showing what the protagonist’s life is like before the antagonist disturbs it.

After the antagonist is introduced, we enter the middle of the story where the protagonist fights the antagonist, trying to accomplish a particular goal.

Then, we reach the climax.

All seems lost. The protagonist makes one more dramatic move and defeats the antagonist totally.

In the end we see how the protagonist restores order to his life.

What’s the “plot” of your content marketing?

Is there a beginning, middle, and end present in your messages?

The moral of the story is …

Lastly, great stories have an overarching message, or moral.

For instance, the moral of “Beauty and the Beast” is that we shouldn’t judge people by their looks.

What’s the major message — or, moral — of your business or idea?

Distill it into one or two very clear lines that you repeat, like a mantra, over and over in all of your marketing efforts.

Pulling it all together

Now, let me bring this all together by diagramming one of the greatest marketing stories of all time: Apple, Inc.’s “1984” commercial.

Take a minute to watch it here:

The protagonist in this story is the running woman.

The antagonist is “the man” on the screen (Big Brother for you “1984” fans).

The plot here is interesting. There is a beginning, middle, and end, but the commercial only shows us the climax, and merely hints at all the other elements.

We can determine the beginning of the story was that the woman and society were living free. Then, Big Brother came and forced everyone to conform. But the woman — possibly alone — resisted (the middle).

Now, when there is no hope left and the entire culture has submitted to the will of “the Man” (the climax), she takes one last action: she destroys big brother by launching that hammer through the screen.

And she does it in front of the entire world.

As the screen explodes, we know that both the woman and society have been freed from Big Brother once and for all.

The moral? We must act to overcome tyranny and conformity.

And the marketing message? Macintosh will set you free from the tyranny and conformity of the other droning, boring PC manufacturers.

See how stories really help make a marketing message stick?

Apple could have just said, “Hey, we make better computers, and here’s why …”

Instead, they told a story.

Take a look at your marketing message and ask yourself: How can I use a story to make my message stick?

It’s how we humans communicate with each other best.

Go tell your story …

About the Author: Ready to create relationships with your customers that lead to more sales? Want to build a business consumers know, like, and trust? Check out Brandon Yanofsky’s website, B-List Marketing, and discover how.

Print Friendly

What do you want to learn?

Click to get a free course and resources about:

Reader Comments (108)

  1. says

    That 1984 commercial only aired once, and is probably the most famous commercial of all time. Why? Just like you said, it tells a story. Even if you look at the latest Mac vs. PC commercials, they tell a story that makes us laugh and think at the same time. The best campaigns keep us involved.

    • says

      Very true Nick. And not only do they keep us involved, but they also get their marketing message across effectively. There are many commercials that tell great stories, but which people can’t remember the product.

  2. says

    The use of storytelling makes sense. Apart from using storytelling in commercials, are there other examples of how conventional businesses use storytelling as part of their marketing?

    • says

      Adarsh, stories are used all the time in effective marketing, so much so that you don’t register it — it just resonates. It can be telling the story of a customer (think Jared of Subway) which small businesses do all the time. It can be the story of the business owner, if that story causes people to identify with, like, and trust the storyteller. Check out this post by Jon Morrow for a great example.

      • says

        I remember Seth Godin book Marketers are Liars, the one who is a better story teller wins the game. When it comes to telling stories, marketers got to understand that the best stories are one that convince your customers. If they don’t, you are missing the whole point of the story. Remember Fables? They convince you that morals are good (not that they aren’t)…

    • says

      In addition to what Brian said, a simple use of stories are case studies. They’ll show a client (protagonist) who is facing a problem (antagonist) and discuss how they went about doing it. If they do it well, it reads just like a story. And the best case studies I’ve read can actually be entertaining.

  3. says

    Exactly what made the Chrysler/Eminem/Imported From Detroit Superbowl commercial so powerful that it overshadowed all the other gimmicky ads. It told a story. And for those of us who live in or near Detroit, it meant even more.

  4. says

    Awesome post! Thanks for the reminder! Oftentimes, customers need to be inspired to take action and stories are some of the best platforms for motivating folks.

  5. says

    Again, another great post from Copyblogger. As an artist, this post speaks to me beyond marketing and as the core elements I use for an illustration or painting. This was a yummy snack for creativity before going into the studio this morning, I just love your blogs…. Thank you!

  6. says

    I spent the evening last night free-flowing a description of a new social good startup I’m building, but I left much of the story out. I included the stats, why and how, but didn’t include all elements of the story. So true. The emotional connection is key. I’ll be reworking it now. Thanks for the timely reminder.



    • says

      Congrats on the startup Zack, and definitely include the story. Even for startups considering pitching ideas, a pitch that includes stories gets investors to perk up and listen. Everyone uses stats, few use stories.

  7. says

    When I hear Hercules I think of the dusty old book, but that’s because the stories in those old books came alive for me. Which also proves your point :)

    • says

      To each his own Mike. lol. I read mythology by Edith Hamilton, and for me it was painful. But when I saw Hercules the movie, or someone TOLD ME the story of Greek myths, it was much more enjoyable.

      Likewise, I enjoy reading business books, while others would rather die before reading a business book.

  8. says

    Thank you for sharing this form of communication that sells audiences in a different way but yet achieves the same thing in a different manner.

  9. Trish says

    Very timely post indeed! I just ordered Made to Stick from Amazon yesterday (based on a recommendation by Jon Morrow in my guest blogging class). I love storytelling and the fact that it works so well for marketing and blogging makes me like them even more! Thanks for this great post.

    • says

      You’re welcome Trish. If you haven’t already, you should read Tipping Point as well. The Heath brothers say Made to Stick is like a sibling to Tipping Point: they go hand in hand.

  10. says

    Right now, I feel like my blog is a PC manufacturer… but hey, some people like PC still, right? 😉

    Either way, this is great post and I am feeling pretty inspired to change up the way I write and maybe mix it up here and there.

    Thanks for the awesome post!
    Gabriel Johansson

    • says

      Very true Gabriel. There are people who live and die by PCs. There’s nothing wrong with that. I grew up with people who found programming more entertaining than a story.

      Really, what it comes down to is what will engage your audience? From what I’ve seen, my audience and a lot of the Copyblogger audience is engaged by stories. By no mean does it mean everyone is.

  11. says

    When creating a story strategy for a company it is important to not lose sight of the fact that the protagonist is necessarily representative of the customer, not the business. The business is the quest’s answer, the way to achieve the desire. The antagonist is the blockage that keeps the customer from achieving the desire. It’s very simple, but what we see in a lot of advertising is a confusion where the protagonist is the company telling the story, and the customer is the answer. That may be internally true, but it is not the story that a customer needs to know about. The consumer must always relate him or herself to the protagonist of the storied campaign.

      • says

        Kiss. We storytellers have to stick together. :) Thank you for acknowledging way down below that just because it works, doesn’t mean it is easy.

    • says

      Excellent point. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of writing from the perspective of the company/product as the “hero,” but as you say, Amanda, that leads to a far less effective and engaging story. Readers want to relate to the hero and their struggles, not read a lot of pompous posturing about how great the writer thinks their company or product is.

  12. says

    Great post about storytelling Brandon.

    Using your model, if you tell the story of a happy customer, the satisfied customer is the protagonist, the customer’s challenge is the antagonist, and the plot becomes the customer’s overcoming of those challenge’s with the help of the vendor’s solution.

  13. says

    But, it would also be wrong to assume that every story is told FROM the protagonist’s point of view…for instance…All State’s Mayhem tells the story, and Mayhem is the antagonist…Old Spice Man is also the villain telling your man that while he can’t be the villain, he can smell like him. 😉 Even the answer to the quest can tell the story in a fun way — the Progressive woman is the ultimate customer care answer, but the hero’s are the buyers…:) So, it doesn’t have to be a BOX that is uncomfortable.

    • says

      True Amanda. Storytelling doesn’t fit into a box. And there never are rules. As soon as someone states a rule, you’ll come across an exception. While I laid out rules/principles here, it’s what I observe most commonly works. But it doesn’t always. People should do what works, not what they are told works.

      • says

        Robert McKee is great, but maybe not where I would start to understand story…because he’s very complex. I would start with John Truby’s 22 building blocks or story, and Walter Mosley’s “This Year You Write Your Novel.” Because both are very short, and sweet and to the point without stepping all over a new storyteller’s ego…:)

  14. says

    Another element that makes storytelling effective is the fact that people always want resolution. If the story is written well, customers will keep reading to find out how it ends. That’s good for marketing.

    Brandon, do you agree?

    • says

      Hey Joseph. I agree completely, and wish I included this point.

      Think about all those horrible Lifetime movies you may have seen. You sit there saying how much it sucks, but you can’t switch channels. It’s because you want to see how the story unfolds.

      As soon as a story begins, we as humans want to see how it concludes. The cool thing is, even if your marketing isn’t 100%, if you use a story, people will still be engaged.

  15. says

    Hey guys…

    I have heard other people use it the past. For example many years ago I was in AMWAY….they were people there who used story telling if I remember correctly.

    Having a hard time with this, how do I apply this to real estate investing, our target market is home owners who must sell their home due to a distressful situation.

    Also we will provide training to real estate investor newbies who want to get started in the near future, so how we can use story telling need an example. I am stuck :(

    • says

      Wow, You have many, many opportunities for stories.
      First–are there examples of people in this same situation whose homes you HAVE sold? Tell their stories! There are plenty out there. Tell their stories of how desperate they were, how they decided they had to sell, then the happiness they felt having sold. If you can get it in THEIR words, much better. That is called a testimonial. It should be not too long, but hitting the major points–problem, on the road to their solution, then their solution (the sales). Even better if there is now better stuff happening in their lives because they got their house sold. Helps if you can use their name, their city, state and have a picture (like a little gravatar like on this reply post area)

      Next, find some relatively new investors (like 12-18 months) who’ve had great success. Tell their stories of how investing has changed their lives. Then write something like “If you’d like to learn how to do this, grab your seat for this seminar . . . ” It would be best if the investors had been to your seminar or something like it that you offer.
      Again, name, city, state, picture.

      That is exactly what the Amway people were doing in your example at the beginning of the post.

      Where do you put these stories? Everywhere–on your website, in your emails, FB Page posts and Tweets. Get them out there! And good luck!

  16. says

    It’s not always easy to do this storytelling instead of just listing the facts. However, I do see some possible ways of implementing this into my own business. Thanks for that!

  17. says

    As you say, stories are remembered. To me, this “fact” is ubiquitous and yet I see ad campaigns, landing pages, blogs etc where a story would be powerful and important yet they’re not used.

    I facilitated an in-person workshop for people who wanted to tell their story on an ABout Page. I was surprised by the difficulty many people had in doing this. It is a still that still needs to be learned and this post will help get people there.

    • says

      RIght on Cherry. I’ll admit, there are times when I forget to use stories. It’s so much easier to just state things and get on. But crafting a story is much more effective.

      Your workshop sounds way interesting. Would love to hear more about it, if you could shoot me an email:

      brandon [at] blistmarketing [dot] com

      • says

        Often I find people get overwhelmed by details and trail off into a million directions when you ask them to tell their own story. I ask a lot of questions to arrive at a simple basic premise. With screenwriting, I’ve learned to write the same story in 100 different ways for a premise line *before* I ever start outlining much less screenwriting, and I would think that would translate very well to brand stories.

  18. says

    A very tough methodology I suppose. It is very very difficult to build a story & market a business with the story. Although a new methodology to market!

  19. says

    Let’s not forget the importance of the audience in your story. Or rather, how as a storyteller one must always keep their interests in mind. If the audience can see themselves in your story, then the need to persuade disappears. They’re hooked – they believe. But if your story doesn’t resonate with the audience, even if it has all the right parts, it won’t move their hearts and minds (and wallets) towards your idea.

    Make sure you take the time to research and understand the audience’s needs in order to craft your story appropriately. Apple’s commercial was so effective because they knew the audience had felt this oppression by PCs seemingly dominating the market and they felt they had nowhere to run.

  20. says

    Hi Brandon, great post. You’ve really captured the power of brand storytelling.

    One thing I would add is that a brand story needn’t – and shouldn’t – necessarily be compressed into a single piece of marketing communication (the Apple 1984 ad, for example).

    A brand story is something bigger, a wider narrative that can be communicated in sections at different touchpoints, from ads to websites to packaging, then re-assembled by the consumer so they take ownership of the story and pass it on.

    So that Apple ad, although it was a story in itself, represented something larger: an introduction of a product that would shatter what had come before in the personal computer market. In effect, it was the first chapter of the Apple story.

    I’ve written some posts about brands that have told their stories well (http://www.aesopagency.com/index.php/blog/how-to-beat-coke/) (http://www.aesopagency.com/index.php/blog/brand-storytelling-at-glastonbury-the-50p-tea-tent/) that you might be interested in. Thanks!

  21. says

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I know “stories sell,” but I wasn’t sure how to write a story for *marketing*. I didn’t know it’d be similar to writing any other story. And I’m a writer, so I can do this! I’m excited to incorporate some of these into my editing service. Thanks!

  22. says

    Awesome post Brandon! Stories are the best way to introduce yourself and if the story is good it will stick. Made to Stick is a great book too. Highly recommend it as well. Thanks for bringing the value here in this post. Have a good one Brandon!

  23. says

    An intriguing post. I like the idea of story telling but I guess it’s only useful in certain situations, to create a particularly compelling advertisement or YouTube video.

    Often in web content or brochures, etc there is no real room to create a great story other than the classic you need this (protagonist) because of this (antagonist) and we can help (hero).

    • says

      I disagree. There’s no room for boring stories. If it’s interesting, and catches attention, people will read.

      If it’s boring, then yes, keep it short.

      • says

        Brandon, this whole thread has been interesting to follow. I find this comment section the most intriguing. Boring stories do abound everywhere. Hollywood even has a penchant for making brilliant stories boring when they adapt them badly. So how do you suggest people test the strength of their brand stories?

        • says

          I wish there was an easy way to say what’s interesting. It depends on your audience. The stories programmers find interesting won’t be the same that moms find interesting.

          Now, there are basic structures that can help a story be more interesting. This article was meant to outline a few. But also just basic story structures such as cliffhangers work.

          Bottom line: learn the techniques, test them, modify, then try again.

  24. says

    I like your analogies and stories. I have been developing my own marketing blog with slow but steady increases. I hope to be to your level soon.

  25. says

    Any mention of Apple’s “1984” spot is A-okay in my book. I saw the thumbnail image on the main page and decided to give this article a shot. I’m glad I did!

    It’s easy to forget the simple things in writing, especially when it comes to copy writing or blogging. Telling a story — or even offering a brief summary of a story — can be essential in capturing the reader’s attention. Remembering Apple’s classic ad will probably help me keep this point in mind.

    Thanks a bunch!

  26. says

    Better late than never reading this terrific, inspiring post, Brandon, and dozens of comments.

    Story telling is what my work is all about, but my method takes the opposite approach. I ask people a question and then help them (through posts filled with tips & how-tos) answer it by writing their own short, true story.

    I’m not really sure how to make your marketing work for me, but I just tried it on my blog. We’ll see what happens…

  27. says

    With the first question of this note (“think about the first image that pops into your head …Hercules. What’d you think about?) I’ve been making a sort of focus group with my job partners. They are mostly females. All of them have answered me: “Brad Pitt performing Achilles”. I’m feeling a little bit misunderstood.
    Never the less, I totally agree with you and a I strongly recommend that you read about the bardic function.

Comments are open for seven days. This article's comments are now closed.