The keys to successful brand storytelling

The keys to successful brand storytelling

No brand thrives on information alone. Try as they might impress flattering facts on would-be consumers, companies are remembered and respected on the strength of their core narratives instead.

In the human mind, isolated data make only fleeting impressions – especially with more screens clamoring for our attention than ever before. When it comes to breaking through to consumers, it’s brand stories that stick.

At their most effective, these brand stories allow customers to cast themselves in the role of protagonist, achieving an emotional goal with the brand’s help. These emotional narratives can then precipitate action. As social scientists Chip and Dan Heath noted in their best-selling book “Made to Stick,” “An emotional idea makes people care. The right stories make people act.”

So how do some of the most successful and beloved brands in the world tell their own stories – and incite millions of customers to act?

We studied this question through the techniques of social science, using a research methodology called Narrative Inquiry to uncover how brand loyalists feel about 10 of the country’s top companies: Coke, Google, Microsoft, McDonald’s, Apple, Toyota, Samsung, Facebook, Disney, and Amazon.  

Our findings help illustrate the essence of these brands’ narratives, and why they resonate so deeply with customers worldwide. Through our Narrative Inquiry approach, we’ve identified the elements of each brand story that customers remember and see how these characteristics frame consumers’ perceptions about each brand.

We then explored how these brands’ top ads of 2017 helped continue telling this story to the general public. How do these brands communicate their values to further the connection we feel with them already?

Read on to learn:

  • What a brand story looks like
  • How brands’ ads reinforce their stories
  • How you can create ads that continue your brand story

With These Businesses, It’s Personal

The stories of America's biggest brands

As we studied the results of our Narrative Inquiry approach, a few themes appear in consumer associations with most of the 10 brands. The first is happiness, which clearly plays a crucial role in many powerful brand narratives. But two other common threads stand out, as well: connection and security.

Humans are social, and when brands facilitate feelings of tribal connection and shared values, their efforts truly resonate with consumers. Some brands are more inherently tied to the concept of connection, like Facebook, where people are able to talk to friends and loved ones all across the world. But there are other forms of connection, too, like how Disney helps parents connect with their children through shared experiences.

Additionally, a few brands – McDonald’s, Apple, and Microsoft – had respondents who noted they had positive interactions with staff, making them feel like the brand really cared for them. This is another level of connection that involves the actual engagement between brands and their consumers, which can create a lot of brand loyalty – and trust. When employees bring a brand’s service principles to life, consumers perceive the company as a whole as benevolent and competent.

Then, there’s the element of security. Consumers feel safe not just when the product itself might literally protect them, like in the case of Toyota, but when interactions with the brand and the brand’s site/products are secure, as well. The capacity to alleviate concern – even of the nonconscious variety – is a powerful tool for brand advocates, and should be emphasized with your own brand story wherever possible.

Now let’s take a look at these brands’ top 2017 ads to see how their stories permeate their messages to the public.

Reinforcing Feelings: How Top Brands’ Ads Support Their Stories

Closer investigation each ad yields one inescapable conclusion: For the best-known brands around the world, emotional impact is the aspiration. Additionally, resonance with core values is a must – while one principle might be emphasized in particular, these ads never fall out of step with the brand’s broader ideals.

Some brands achieve emotional impacts by relating their missions to the cultural moment: Both Microsoft and Disney’s ads encourage the empowerment of young women. For advocates of each brand, the ads were effective because they presented a fresh and relevant take on brand stories these companies had cultivated for decades: Disney’s sense of endless possibility, and Microsoft’s relentless innovation for everyone.

Other brands were more light-hearted in their approaches. Coke employed family competition for a pool boy’s affections to demonstrate one of its products’ greatest assets: They’re universally enjoyed. Humor can still incite emotion – and vast amplification via sharing as well.

If these ads all aim to provoke emotional responses, the world’s most prominent brands have reached the same conclusions as our Brandtrust team: Emotion helps people see themselves in the ad and understand what a brand might mean for their lives. When a message is expressed in the terms of human truth, it’s far more likely to penetrate the powerful realm of choice.

Some emotions are more impactful than others, however. To track the emotional effects of one memorable ad from each aforementioned brand, we conducted biofeedback studies of people watching these spots, studying the emergence of feeling at a physiological level. We also conducted research to determine the emotional responses participants identified themselves when observing each ad. The graphic below shows which emotions were the most prevalent in some of these top ads of 2017.

The top emotions in big brand storytelling ads

Some of the feelings inspired most often by these ads are among the most powerful in the human repertoire. And if moving content has always been a valuable tool for converting consumers, the overwhelming pace of our “attention economy” makes this especially so.

To navigate thousands of choices we face daily, we rely upon mental shortcuts called heuristics to save time. These pathways of swift association are emotional in nature, even if they never rise to the level of conscious deliberation. They’re how we choose quickly among brands competing for our attention and dollars, rather than agonizing over details in the aisle.

In this light, an ad that produces joy can be considered all the more effective – especially if combined with a broader brand narrative that achieves the same impression. Similarly, positive surprises can create deep and lasting heuristic associations, just as brands that shock customers with the quality of their service can earn undying loyalty.

Of course, our participants reported a range of negative emotions as well, ranging from sadness to disgust and fear. These kinds of emotion might seem ineffective in advertising, but they likely represent just one part of a larger narrative arc. Some of the most effective brand stories present their business as the answer to some challenge. If the consumer is to connect with the brand’s solution, they must feel deeply (and negatively) about the problem first.

If an ad thrives or fails by the emotions it inspires, how do the ads we studied inspire feelings more specifically? We analyzed biofeedback data for our participants to track how these ads make an emotional impact within a limited timeframe.

Connecting With Consumers:
An Ad Chronology

In an age when more advertising occurs on more platforms than ever before, perhaps it’s no surprise that these ads seek to make an impact quickly.

Consider the biofeedback data from the Coke ad presented above: The number of electrodermal events peaks in the first five seconds, and the intensity of electrodermal events reaches its highest point in the next 5 seconds. The frequency and intensity of these events are associated with the presence of emotional stimuli, and Coke wastes no time in grabbing viewers’ attention.

This pattern held true for other brands as well: Most supplied peak emotional content in the beginning of the ad, presumably to create emotional investment early. We also see an elevated rate of electrodermal events in the middle of the Coke ad, and greater average event magnitude in the final 10 seconds. These observations were consistent with responses for the other ads as well.

When to make brand storytelling videos emotional

If the front-loaded emotional hooks are meant to capture our attention, why would brands choose to close their ads on an emotionally intense note as well? Perhaps they’re hoping to capitalize on the Peak-End rule, a phenomenon first described by behavioral economist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. When we form emotional impressions of whole experiences, our brains rely on the most emotionally intense moments and final moments. So if an ad designed to generate emotional impacts, closing on a powerful note is sound strategy.

Of course, your ad’s timing will mean little if its emotional power pales in comparison to that of other brands. So which brands were most capable of making their audiences feel something?

Emotional Response and Spreading
a Brand’s Story

Electrodermal events per second in each brand storytelling advertisement

According to our biofeedback measures, Coke’s ad surpassed any other in terms of emotional power. The ad may owe some of its power to its inclusive vision (both brother and sister eye the hunky pool boy) a choice that likely moved many viewers. But the content also resonates firmly with the brand’s narrative of universality – everyone can enjoy a Coke. This union is an excellent example of brand purpose in action: Values and value propositions coincide.

Toyota took second place in our data, helped along by adrenaline-raising images of its sportscar racing along curvy highways. But the ad’s premise also leverages “tribal” identification: Either you’re meant for the ‘86, or you’re not. When we “badge” ourselves with the brands we buy, the payoff is primarily emotional.

Disney and McDonald’s also had relatively strong numbers, with each brand appealing to the power of childhood memories. Conversely, Google and Samsung produced the lowest levels of emotional response, according to our metrics.

In Google’s case, the ad may have suffered from an excess of detail. Research has consistently shown that narrative triumphs over data in communicating ideas successfully, and the quickfire presentation of a smartphone’s features may not have been as emotionally compelling as its makers hoped.

Of course, many advertisers hope to craft messages that do more than convince individual customers. In the age of social media, the potential for organic amplification via sharing is yet another benefit of emotionally affecting content. To analyze this dynamic in more detail, we asked our participants how likely they’d be to share each ad, then compared their answers to our biofeedback data.  

Electrodermal events and the likelihood of sharing your brand story

Our findings suggest emotional impact and sharing potential aren’t always correlated: Many of the ads with the highest average likelihood of sharing generated only modest biofeedback statistics.

Apparently, the propensity to share runs deeper than one ad, however powerful that commercial may be. After all, aligning oneself with a brand on social media requires more than simple approval – it’s an expression of shared values.

That identification, akin to what we share with people we trust, is typically formed through consistency of action. To achieve this next level of customer loyalty, a brand must demonstrate its values in word and deed over a more extended period. On this basis, consumers can actually form a relationship with a brand they trust – as opposed to a passing moment of approval.

Of course, consistency of action can also lead to more important and exciting results than social shares alone. When a brand’s story comes to life in its performance, “storydoing” takes place. In this approach, brand narrative evolves beyond rhetoric, cementing a company’s values in consumers’ minds. That lofty goal is entirely possible, but not with a single commercial.

Telling – and Doing –
Your Own Brand Story

Our findings present the efforts of the world’s largest brands to communicate their promise to millions – with varying degrees of success. But if some of the world’s most powerful companies still have room to improve their emotional connection with customers, there can be doubt about the complexity of effective brand storytelling. Without crucial insights to guide their messaging, even brand’s best efforts may fall flat with consumers. Or they may succeed – and fail to understand their success well enough to replicate it.

For the past 20 years, Brandtrust has uncovered the deep human truth for some of the world’s most visible brands. Our team employs techniques from the social and behavioral sciences to solve complex business challenges – including the nuanced art of telling a brand’s story.

Our methodologies are designed to unlock the nonconscious needs and desires of customers, providing insight-driven strategic direction for brand development, innovation, customer experience, and behavior design. If your brand is in need of deep, actionable insights to inform every aspect of your strategy, let us put our approach to work for you. We’ll help you find your brand’s true story and put it into action every day.


Brands were selected based on being the top 10 brands according to The World’s Most Valuable Brands; the advertisements were their most watched videos of 2017 as of December 6.

To tap into the brand stories, we used our Narrative Inquiry methodology, which delves deep into the consumer experiential memory through the stories 70 to 80 brand loyalists per company chose to tell. Using story to understand a memory’s construction context, we were able to identify mental-model patterns which influenced consumer behavior and perception. Brandtrust efficiently identified these narrative patterns from these stories to analyze and provide strategic meaning to each respective brand. The brand loyalists we interviewed were not a part of the group that conducted the ad analysis.

For the ad analysis, we recruited 15 participants to watch 10 advertisements while hooked to an electrodermal monitor. After getting calibrated, participants viewed a neutral video to ensure they had gotten used to the monitor and to standardize the emotional state of participants going into the first video. The videos were presented in a random order. And, before each video, participants were presented with a grey screen with a “+” in the center. Participants were asked to stare directly into the center of the screen for the entire 30 seconds.

Electrodermal events were then decoded by comparing spikes in electrodermal activity to the activity recorded in the baseline.


In the physiological ad analysis, with a greater sample size of participants and advertisements, it’s possible stronger trends would have emerged. We found a spike in GSR (galvanic skin response) at the beginning of some advertisements; this could be due to participants adjusting to watching video content after a 30-second period of remaining idle.

Fair Use Statement

You’re welcome to share our findings and images with your own audience in any noncommercial capacity– we’re happy to help you tell your story. If you do use our work, simply provide a link to this page in return. We appreciate the attribution, and your readers will have an opportunity to explore this project in its entirety.