“Since I was born, I dreamed of being a Budweiser Clydesdale. Only problem is, I was born a donkey.”

If you watched the 2004 Super Bowl and remember anything other than Janet Jackson’s unfortunate wardrobe malfunction, you might know those lines from Budweiser’s “Clydesdale Donkey” ad. If you haven’t seen it, trust us when we say this one-minute spot ticks all the boxes for a captivating story.

Lessons from the Clydesdale Donkey

Likable hero that you root for? Absolutely. Humour? Yup. Check out the scene where the donkey tries ankle hair extensions to look like the Budweiser Clydesdales. Emotionally satisfying ending? Definitely. That donkey chases his dream, and by the end of the ad we’re getting teary-eyed as he trots proudly in front of the Budweiser wagon.

What Budweiser taps into with this and other entertaining ads featuring horses, puppies and the occasional human is the power of compelling narratives to help build a brand’s image and generate not only brand awareness, but also consumer loyalty. People associate Budweiser with tradition, simplicity and down-home American values, and the Clydesdale ads helped make that happen.

More than words

From Apple and GoPro to Budweiser and Dove, the most successful and buzzed-about brands are building savvy marketing strategies around the fact that humans are hardwired to respond to stories, not the dry technical specs of a camera or the chemical composition of a body wash.

They’re creating original ads that people actually choose to watch and share online. They’re posting action packed footage that encourages viewers to imagine life captured on a GoPro. And they’re building multiplatform campaigns driven by a larger mission and encouraging users to tell their own stories.

Brand storytelling isn’t just for companies with Super Bowl-sized marketing budgets. You can tell great stories about your brand too—in different formats and across different platforms. Here are some inspiring examples we can all learn from.

Make us feel something

There’s a reason why the iPhone has captured somewhere between 20 and 40 per cent of the worldwide cellphone market, depending on which country you’re looking at. The folks at Apple know a thing or two about marketing. Sure, having a multibillion dollar budget makes it possible for Apple to do just about anything with its creative, but what makes its ads stand out is the stories they tell. They’re fun and memorable. They usually feature quirky characters, both famous (like The Rock) and anonymous, and a cool soundtrack that makes you ask, “What’s that song?”

In a spot from 2017 called “Barbers”, a family barbershop that doesn’t get many clients sees its fortunes turn around thanks to Portrait Mode on the iPhone 7 Plus. The action starts when one bored barber decides to snap a pic of a customer’s new hairdo with his iPhone and post it in the window of the barbershop. A passerby sees the photo and decides to stop in for a haircut. Then his photo ends up in the window.

Soon people are lining up around the block for their turn in the barber’s chair—and getting their photos in the barbershop window. The feel-good ad has over 9 million views and 71,000 likes on Apple’s YouTube channel.

Takeaways

If you want people to see how a new feature of your product or service works, show don’t tell. Shoot a video of customers using your product, take some photos, upload them to your website and share them on social media. Whatever you do, don’t make it a talking head video where your CEO reads a script describing your services. Instead, tell a story.

“The best stories are the ones that tap into emotions. Make your audience feel something, and they’re more likely to remember you.”

Sell the lifestyle not the product

Everyone loves an adventure. GoPro allows you to surf the tallest waves in Australia, explore surreal landscapes in Iceland or tickle a baby gorilla in the Congo (and much more) and capture all of the excitement through a first-person POV.

Thanks to its high-energy videos online, GoPro has become synonymous with action and adrenaline. This brand understands that the best way to sell its products isn’t to talk about image quality and slow-motion playback, but rather to connect the product to an exciting lifestyle. That’s why GoPro has 5.7 million subscribers on its official YouTube channel and 13.7 million followers on Instagram.

Takeaways

Surfing, rock climbing, jumping out of airplanes—that’s a lifestyle, and GoPro sells it to consumers through image-driven social media every day. Browse GoPro’s Instagram feed, and you’ll see thousands of comments from people saying that a certain experience or destination is now on their bucket list because of a GoPro photo or video they just viewed.

Does every Like or Follow translate to a consumer buying the latest GoPro model? Not necessarily. But when that consumer does go shopping for a camera to take on their next vacation, you better believe they’ll look at GoPro because the equation of GoPro = Adventure has been made in their minds.

You don’t need words to tell your story. Depending on your product or service, you might want to let the images speak for themselves, especially on platforms like Instagram and YouTube where exceptional visuals are the best way to build a loyal following.

Adopt a higher purpose

“Bold. Brave. Smart. A message the world needed.” This is how ad pros have described Dove’s groundbreaking “Campaign for Real Beauty.” Named the top ad campaign of the 21st century by Ad Age, it’s still going strong nearly 15 years after it launched.

As one of the first examples of an advertising strategy all about tying a brand to a larger mission, the “Campaign for Real Beauty” was a game changer back in 2004. Plus it coincided with the rise of social media, which allowed consumers to engage with the campaign, sharing it within their networks and adding their own stories to the conversation about unrealistic beauty standards for women.

The campaign has evolved to encompass several sub-campaigns that support the original mission to “create a world where beauty is a source of confidence and not anxiety.” The sub-campaigns often have their own hashtags and involve women sharing personal stories about struggling with body positivity and learning to embrace their natural beauty.

Takeaways

Following in Dove’s footsteps, plenty of brands have gone on to adopt a social mission that is bigger than their business—think TOMS shoes or the (RED) initiative. In addition to raising awareness (and often funds) for a worthy cause, these campaigns can grow respect for the brand and strengthen consumer loyalty.

Adopting a higher purpose also opens up new possibilities for storytelling and engagement, but heed this advice: your strategy must be authentic and consistent, or people will call you on it.

In other words, the mission you embrace should feel natural for your brand and should be reflected in everything you say and do. Every social media post, print ad and digital campaign should contribute to your larger story, whatever that is. Dove learned this lesson the hard way last year when a clip about body wash posted to its U.S. Facebook page led to accusations of racism and consumer backlash. The clip was pulled down and an apology from Dove followed, but because of that misstep Dove took a hit to its reputation (and maybe its bottom line). When people are emotionally invested in your brand, you can expect to hear from them in good times and bad.

Need help telling your story?

If you have a story that needs to be told, but you’re not sure how to get started, the g[squared] team can help. We’re storytellers, problem solvers and experts at bringing our clients’ visions to life. Our work for Little Warriors, Little Warriors Be Brave Ranch and the Stollery Children’s Hospital are just some examples of what we can do.