While advising marketers on the evolving role between brand and buyer, Robert McKee, the writing guru whose bestseller STORY remains the gold standard for aspiring screenwriters, offered a pointed and erudite perspective: “You don’t solve their world. They solve their world using you.” 

While this commentary isn’t at odds with the best examples of advertising or traditional brand strategy exercises, it does challenge the majority of business leaders and communications executives accustomed to pushing one-directional brand narratives that feature their company or product as the chief protagonist. 

McKee is saying what many believers of the effectiveness and purpose of content marketing also echo. Storytelling can win a customer’s heart and mind just as effectively as a film wins its audience. To do so, however, requires accepting the fact that you are not the hero. Your customer is. 

At its essence, content marketing is a practice that believes the best way to sell something is to not sell anything. Earning the awareness, trust and affinity of your audience through useful, entertaining or informative content can actually serve the brand better. This mindset is not only instinctual, it’s confirmed by consumer behavior and usage patterns: our reliance on digital content informs our brand preferences, choices and alliances. 

But much like journalism in the Internet age, brand storytelling can be a tough sell. To some, it appears to be inspired by techniques more common with film school than business school, sowing a bias that can be an impenetrable hindrance for adoption. 

Here are five ways that businesses can bring traditional storytelling techniques into their marketing programs with little controversy or concern.

1. Remember, you are not the protagonist. Your customer is. 
This is especially hard in certain industries, such as consumer technology, where features and functionality drive differentiation and are obsessed over by companies and media alike. But there are real narrative limitations in that type of messaging, which often forestall the catharsis found in promoting how your products can aid human potential, a more enduring reframing of the product story that makes your customer the hero.

2. Understand the effects of turning points.
Some of the best brand storytelling – Chipotle, Always – leverage a societal tension, and unveil the positivity that can be gained through insight and a shift in direction (one, not coincidentally, the brand supports). It’s a well-documented truth that to get people to see from your perspective, you first have to see it from theirs. That is how empathy is delivered, and it’s the most potent ingredient in powerful storytelling.

3. Appeal to the “emoter” and “rationalizer,” in the correct sequence and on the right platform.
According to a study by Blue Nile Research, it’s not enough to inhabit a channel – be it social, search, online or otherwise. You must also understand your audience’s state of mind within that channel, and then sequence your messaging appropriately. For instance, their study indicates emotion compels buyers to act, and this emotional connection typically occurs in discovery platforms and channels (mobile and social, specifically). Understanding this reality can properly inform your narrative choices – how and when you appeal to emotion vs. reason, and in what context – to convert interest into action.

4. Leadership stories require a comfort level in failings.
While outward storytelling should focus on your customer as the protagonist, inward storytelling allows businesses to show where they’ve been and where they’re going. Targeting employees, storytelling of this nature can capture a culture and breed advocacy and ambassadorship. Similarly, a narrative that observes and appreciates relatable events, and the good and bad a company and its leadership have endured, can humanize a brand. As McKee has said, rhetoric whose only purpose is to impress can be a business story black hole.

5. To trigger the optimal outcome, you have to build a persuasive call to action.
The purpose of content marketing is the same as traditional marketing: encourage action that drives business interests. While storytelling requires developing a core character, defining their obstacles and path to satisfaction, you can’t forget to include a call to action that carries an audience’s emotional investment into actionable behavior change. 

By Kevin Nabipour, SVP Content Strategies, Allison+Partners