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What One City's Identity Crisis Can Teach You About Storytelling

For more than a century, Sacramento was defined by its history as a Gold Rush town. The mystique of rugged, enterprising gold miners drew tourists from around the country hoping to catch a glimpse of the Wild West.

This was great for tourism, but it didn’t hold much appeal for locals. They certainly weren’t ashamed of their city’s past, but they had heard the same stories of rags turned riches so many times that they could repeat them in their sleep. Grizzled prospectors mining for gold isn’t the sexiest or most exciting imagery in today’s tech-focused world.

When Visit Sacramento CMO Sonya Bradley and her team were tasked with updating the city’s branding, they built their messaging around a different kind of Sacramento gold: its thriving culinary scene. Her team highlighted the history of Sacramento’s vineyards — many of which dated back to the Gold Rush — and its thriving agricultural community.

“It’s an authentic story. It’s always been here,” she told me. “Not everyone has found gold, but everyone has to eat.”

By rebranding the city as America’s farm-to-fork capital, Visit Sacramento rewrote its narrative and brought it out of the Bay Area’s shadow. Sonya saw an opportunity to take advantage of the rising popularity of foodie culture while expanding Sacramento’s brand. Most importantly, the shift inspired residents to become brand advocates for their hometown.

Storytelling differentiates brands and enables them to forge emotional connections with audiences. People love a compelling story, and they’re eager to share their own tales after they’ve had a great brand experience. The testimonials people share via word of mouth and social media platforms can carry significant weight with other consumers, creating a swell of goodwill.

Brand advocates are powerful allies because they believe in the companies whose messages they share. The blog posts they write and social content they share have far-reaching consequences. Case in point: A whopping 92 percent of people surveyed for one study said they trust brand advocates, but only 18 percent trust brand influencers. Effective storytelling is the key to winning advocates over to your cause.

The Customer Is Always the Hero

Generating buy-in from consumers begins with a great story. People know when you’re trying to sell them something, so your brand narrative must feel authentic and unique. It should illustrate your company’s origin story and connect those beginnings to its present-day mission. Above all else, your story must tell people why they should care about the company — and why its story is worth sharing with others.

But brands often make the mistake of putting themselves at the center of their stories, forgetting that consumers buy products that make them feel like the heroes.

User-generated content has become increasingly important in the marketing realm. Brand narratives originate with companies, but they’re shaped and developed by consumers who are eager to lend their voices to the conversation. This collaborative relationship expands a brand’s influence and reach.

Expedia’s “Train” commercial serves as a great example of how to tell a memorable story. Instead of showcasing Expedia’s mobile app or travel-booking options, the ad follows a woman as she travels the world and makes a difference in people’s lives. Brands that don’t try to be the heroes of their own stories can connect more meaningfully with consumers.

Every Chapter Tells a Story

High-quality storytelling strategies go beyond B2C campaigns and advertisements. They influence all aspects of a brand’s content and messaging.

Consider the following example from Groove, a software company focused on customer service. To test the idea that story is more compelling than value-based content, Groove ran a simple A/B test on a blog post titled “How We Got 1,000+ Subscribers From a Single Blog Post in 24 Hours.”

One version of the post included a simple introduction that led directly into the content; the other began with a compelling narrative. The post with the narrative intro motivated about 300 percent more readers to scroll all the way to the bottom of the article, and their average time on the page was more than five times higher.

Imagine the results if every email in your lead-nurturing program served as the next chapter of a much larger narrative. A holistic approach to storytelling immerses customers in your narrative at every touchpoint, creating a more cohesive, engaging experience.

Fuel Your Story With Authenticity

Although it might be tempting to embellish and enhance your brand stories with colorful writing, they should always begin with a true story. This helps establish credibility and create a stronger bond with audience members.

When Visit Sacramento linked the city’s rich agricultural history with its modern food scene, it tapped into latent local pride. Referring to food and culinary offerings as gold was a bit of creative license, but the substance of the story was genuine.

Any truly effective story begins with authenticity. Sonya’s approach was so effective because she noticed an emerging trend and latched onto it. Not sure how to spot a solid story? Check out Anecdote’s story test for a little guidance.

Park Howell is a master storyteller who recognizes the power of spinning a compelling yarn. “I’ve learned that stories are instinctual for our species,” Howell wrote in a stellar blog post on the primal nature of stories. “But our reptilian brains are not logic processors. They’re story processors.” An engaging story will stick with an audience far longer than a mountain of statistics and facts.

As with any good story, your brand narrative should be a page turner. Each piece of content and every interaction should draw people further into following your company’s success. Great brand narratives take people on an adventure and inspire them to pass along your tale. Create stories worth sharing, and your brand will have no problem recruiting an army of advocates who carry on our species’ long tradition of storytelling.

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