March 14

Introduction to Brand Storytelling


Stories are powerful marketing tools. Here’s an introduction into brand storytelling for higher ed marketers.

Content marketing has now become the rule rather than the exception for higher education marketers.

Back in 2013, a guy named Joe Pulizzi wrote a book called Epic Content Marketing.

With this book, Pulizzi claims that in today’s constantly connected Information Age, every marketing department is now a media publishing house. 

Inside the book, he quotes Kirk Cheyfitz, CEO of Story Worldwide:

“Inform or entertain,” Cheyfitz said. “What other options do brands have when communicating with their customers and prospects? Brands serve their customers best when they are telling engaging stories.”

Pulizzi offers a third option after quoting his friend.

Your third choice is to develop lackluster content that doesn’t move the needle. 

This is content that could be self-serving and promotional. It could also be content that you want to be useful or entertaining, but because of quality, consistency, or planning issues, is ignored by your customers.

Unfortunately, I think this is the option too many are taking in higher ed marketing.

One part of the answer to moving the needle is “telling engaging stories.”

Brand storytelling is a powerful marketing tool.

It’s an art that takes time to master, but here are some introductory thoughts to get us started.

What is brand storytelling?

Brand storytelling takes the rules of “engaging storytelling” as taught by story gurus like Aristotle and applies them to marketing.

So instead of simply publishing information, we take that information and place it in the context of a well-told story.

There is an entire body of books and blogs dedicated to the art of storytelling, but for now, let’s use a popular story concept called “The Hero’s Journey.”

In this breakdown of a good story, you begin with the hero. 

Soon, the hero is sent on a quest of some kind. 

While on his journey, the hero encounters many obstacles that seem to overwhelm him or her. 

However, the hero meets certain characters that help them along the way. 

Through their experiences, the hero is changed and hopefully prevails. 

Brand storytelling takes this framework and applies it to marketing.

”STORYBRAND PRINCIPLE ONE: THE CUSTOMER IS THE HERO, NOT YOUR BRAND.  When we position our customer as the hero and ourselves as the guide, we will be recognized as a trusted resource to help them overcome their challenges. Positioning the customer as the hero in the story is more than just good manners; it’s also good business.” — Donald Miller, Building a Storybrand

Identify your audience and make them the hero. 

On The Higher Ed Marketer podcast, Troy Singer and I were able to interview Notre Dame’s Jim Small

During the interview, Jim told us about his five-step brand storytelling strategy.

His first step was to identify his marketing audience.

The first step is always audience. We want to know who we’re going to be engaging. And I want to know everything I can about them. The first question we ask is “Who’s the audience?” Then learn everything you can about them.

Too many times, we as higher ed marketers create content that is “self-serving and promotional” rather than content that pulls the audience into the story informing or inspiring them.

Engaging content makes the audience the hero. 

That is, you start first with their questions, concerns, and needs. 

Then, you craft stories around your education brand that answer their questions, calm their concerns, or meet their needs.

Position your brand as a helpful guide.

Your audience is going to encounter many obstacles along their quest for higher education.

  • High tuition costs
  • Choosing a career
  • Picking the right place for their child
  • Learning to live away from home
  • Finding the right programs for their schedule

These are perplexing questions your audience is trying to solve. 

Make your education brand a helpful guide for your audience through brand storytelling.

Show them through information and stories of other successful students how they can overcome economic challenges.

Walk them through the process of picking the right career by telling stories of others who’ve found their way at your school. 

Be the helpful sage or guide that gives your hero what they need to make their quest a success.

Determine your “walk away.”

Jim Small told us this in his podcast interview.

Before crafting a story for your next email campaign, landing page, or other marketing piece, think through how you want your hero, your audience, to feel.

The second step – and it’s probably the most important step – is what we call “walkaways.” This is what we want people to think, feel, and do. 

Think. Feel. Do. That’s what a marketer or a storyteller does. 

Their job is to make you think something or feel something, to drive you to do something. Upfront, we establish what it is we want someone to think or feel. We have to learn what people will need to think and what they need to feel. So we write that down, and that helps us drive everything else.

Publish your stories.

Lastly, you need to publish your “stories.”

Think of yourself as a publishing house. 

Your whole purpose is to be publishing engaging stories that help your audience connect with your education brand.

Use all the marketing channels available to you. 

Video content, written content, digital content, social media content, and print content – all of these are just distribution platforms to get your brand storytelling in front of your audience.

I find that sometimes it’s helpful to stop thinking like a marketer and think for a moment like an author or storyteller.

  • What are my publication channels? 
  • Where is my audience already getting their stories and information?
  • How do I get my stories onto those platforms?

Consistently publishing quality, engaging content on multiple platforms is key to successful brand storytelling. 

If you would like to know more about using brand storytelling to promote your school, please let us know today!

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