The Neuroscience Behind Brand Storytelling

By Sarah Archambault, Editorial Director

As we say at Pinwheel, “Stories rule the world.” And that’s because, for some reason, they’ve always had a mysteriously powerful hold over humans. They grab us, involve us, entertain us, fascinate us, and persuade us. Stories can help us feel that we have control over the world and allow us to spot patterns and make meaning from chaos. It’s been described as a form of existential problem-solving and we’ve been doing it literally forever. 

Why? The answer is in our wiring. 

The neuroscience of storytelling

Researchers have made some pretty neat connections over the years proving that storytelling is actually a fundamental part of how our brains work. In fact, according to the work of Greg J. Stephens, Lauren J. Silbert, and Uri Hasson, when we see or hear a story, our brains go through a process called “neural coupling,” meaning that the neurons fire in the same exact pattern as the person telling the story. 

This wild chain of events is also sometimes referred to as “mirroring” and engages different parts of our brains, like our frontal, motor, and sensory cortices. When this happens, we experience a hit of dopamine (one of the brain’s happy chemicals). Through neural coupling, our brain feels like we’re the ones experiencing the storyteller’s story first hand. And it’s why we get so invested when information is packaged up in a story.

But when that information is delivered as just plain ol’ boring facts (think of a bulleted list or a flight attendant breaking down emergency protocols), we’re far less likely to remember what we heard. Without the feel-good rush of dopamine, our brains essentially zone out. And poof, the information we just heard (or read) goes in one ear and out the other. 

Good storytelling can get us to take action

It turns out this nifty thing our brains do when we hear stories can be pretty useful for marketers that want to create a stronger bond with their audiences and inspire trust. According to findings published by Paul J. Zak, founding director for the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, not only does storytelling trigger the release of dopamine, but when done right, it also activates the release of oxytocin (another happy brain chemical). 

According to this research, to really get our oxytocin flowing, a story must have a “well-constructed narrative.” Zak and his team also discovered that the amount of oxytocin our brains release when engaging with a story is directly correlated with how much action we’re willing to take after hearing the story. For brands that want to motivate consumers to buy their products or become lifelong enthusiasts (Apple, anyone?) storytelling should be their primary focus.  

Storytelling is big business

Ten years after his initial discovery, Zak and his team took a deeper dive to see if there was a way to actually “hack the oxytocin system to motivate people to engage in cooperative behaviors.” 

Sure enough, there is. They found that the more a story successfully captured our attention, the stronger our connection and investment to the information. And character-driven narratives that create tension seem to work best. In fact, Zak’s research found that the more a listener/reader felt emotionally connected to a story’s hero, the more inclined they were to empathize with the main character and take action after hearing a story.

This was especially true in stories about “human struggle and eventual triumph.” In the literary world, this is also known as a particular type of narrative called the “hero’s journey” (think Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or even the new Barbie movie). 

It’s no wonder the US media and entertainment industry – which includes movies, TV programs, streaming content, music, radio, books, and video games – is valued at a whopping $717 billion. Not to be outdone, the US advertising industry also packs a hefty financial punch with brands expected to spend nearly $300 billion in 2023 on marketing. While some brands may use storytelling to varying degrees of effectiveness, the majority of advertising contains no storytelling elements whatsoever.

The power of a brand story 

Brands that make us laugh, cry, or simply relate to them, are getting dopamine and oxytocin pumping through our brains. This triggers us to take action – especially when they create some sort of tension. 

Think of your favorite brand and there’s a good chance your brain will recall something about the brand that made you feel something. From Nike’s forever lingering Just Do It campaign to the Folgers coffee commercials of the 80s and just about every Coke ad, storytelling is at the crux of many leading marketing campaigns. 

When we connect with a brand, it’s because we feel like we’re living the brand story (or aspire to). We buy the stuff, drive their vehicle, book a trip with a certain airline, or drink exclusively one brand of coffee. Some brands move us because they make us feel good and bring us joy, like Disney. Other brands drive connection because we get to do good, like Patagonia or Warby Parker. And then other brands are just relatable – we get them, and they get us. Like Ikea. 

Telling your brand story 

If you find yourself struggling to make consumer connections or build lasting brand loyalty, your brand story needs help. Even if your brand is successful, you still may find better ways to engage your audience and really make them listen. After all, the more someone is invested in your brand story (and the way you tell it), the more likely they are to not only remember what you’re saying but to take some kind of action. Thank you dopamine and oxytocin. 

Here are a few things to consider as you think about your brand or your next marketing campaign: 

Need help crafting a brand story that sticks? Give us a shout.

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