The Psychology of Storytelling: Implications for brands and experiential marketing


Humans are members of the primate family, a large and diverse group of mammals of very ancient lineage. We belong to that subgroup of primates known as the catarrhines, the Old World monkeys and apes. We share with these monkeys and apes a deep sociality that is predicated on relatively (by comparison with other mammals and birds) advanced forms of social cognition. In other words, we have developed complex ways of coping with living in groups and forming intricate social relationships.

Moving forward in time, as humans began to evolve further, we started to live in ever-larger groups, which compounded more stress on social living. As a result, the capacity to exchange information needed to dramatically increase in human beings and it is thought that language was born out of this need.

Consequently, with the emergence of language, so began our long association with story.


Storytelling—from cave paintings, to Greek Mythology, to HBO shows—has been a key feature of human interaction for millennia. Through story humans have been able to pass on information from generation to generation and form complex social bonds that anthropologists have long argued to be a key factor of our evolution into the advanced species we see today.

As a consequence, the human brain is hardwired to relate to story; it has an uncanny knack of trying to see narrative in situations even where none may exist (read about experiment here). It does this because through story our brain attempts to find order within chaos, which we depend upon, rightly or wrongly, to help us better understand the world around us and give meaning to our lives.

Even today, whilst we’re surrounded by technology, story is still the most powerful way to cut through the noise and communicate a message in an interesting and entertaining way. Stories engage our emotions, and this is why they resonate with us and why they deliver information so effectively.

So story is a big deal. And, as a professional working in the field of marketing, you need to fully understand story, how it affects people and behaviour, and how to harness its power to enable you to be more persuasive and move people to action.

Read on to discover how you can begin your journey to become a better brand storyteller.

Yellow page of an old illustrated open book

The book—a tool that transformed the world through storytelling.


Stories are authentic human experiences that allow us to live vicariously through events that we may not otherwise live through. As Media Psychologist, Pamela Rutledge, points out there are several psychological reasons why stories are so powerful. For instance, she states:

“Stories have always been a primal form of communication. They are timeless links to ancient traditions, legends, archetypes, myths, and symbols. They connect us to a larger self and universal truths.

  • Stories are about collaboration and connection. They transcend generations, they engage us through emotions, and they connect us to others. Through stories we share passions, sadness, hardships and joys. We share meaning and purpose. Stories are the common ground that allows people to communicate, overcoming our defenses and our differences. Stories allow us to understand ourselves better and to find our commonality with others.
  • Stories are how we think. They are how we make meaning of life. Call them schemas, scripts, cognitive maps, mental models, metaphors, or narratives. Stories are how we explain how things work, how we make decisions, how we justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we understand our place in the world, create our identities, and define and teach social values.
  • Stories provide order. Humans seek certainty and narrative structure is familiar, predictable, and comforting. Within the context of the story arc we can withstand intense emotions because we know that resolution follows the conflict. We can experience with a safety net.
  • Stories are how we are wired. Stores take place in the imagination. To the human brain, imagined experiences are processed the same as real experiences. Stories create genuine emotions, presence (the sense of being somewhere), and behavioral responses.
  • Stories are the pathway to engaging our right brain and triggering our imagination. By engaging our imagination, we become participants in the narrative. We can step out of our own shoes, see differently, and increase our empathy for others. Through imagination, we tap into creativity that is the foundation of innovation, self-discovery and change.”

In addition, some interesting research studies have even found evidence suggesting that stories are 22 times more memorable than facts alone. Stanford Marketing Professor Jennifer Aaker says:

“When people think of advocating for their ideas, they think of convincing arguments based on data, facts, and figures. However, studies show that if you share a story, people are often more likely to be persuaded. And when data and story are used together, audiences are moved both intellectually and emotionally. When telling a story, you take the listener on a journey, moving them from one perspective to another. In this way, story is a powerful tool for engendering confidence in you and your vision.”

No wonder PowerPoint slides generally bore people to death—well to sleep, at least. Narrative, as well as content, is king when trying to engage people.

Furthermore, Daniel Kahneman, a living psychologist of great renowned, along with others developed two theories called duration neglect and peak-end rule. Essentially both these rules suggest that there is a strange relationship between how we experience things and the associated memories that are subsequently generated.

For instance, to paraphrase an example Kahneman talks about on a TED lecture: in a painful situation, like a medical operation, the duration or time it takes has no effect on a patient’s memory of the total pain felt. So, if identical operations were carried out on two patients, where patient A’s lasted for two hours and ended very painfully, while patient B’s lasted six hours, reached the same pain levels, but ended much less painfully than patient A’s, patient A’s memory of the pain would be much worse than patient B’s—even though patient B’s operation was three times longer.

Thus, the ending of an experience is highly important in the formation of memories as it exerts the most amount of influence on the brain. A holiday can be remembered badly if a bad experience happened at the end, or similarly a customer’s experience can be negative if they had poor post-purchase support.

To the human mind life is a story, and it seeks narrative and follows a structure just like stories do.

Lets now look further into story structure and narrative; how it appears to display a universal quality in human society, and what this means for brands and experiential marketers.


I recently read two inspiring books about storytelling: The Seven Basic Plots, by Christopher Booker, and Into the Woods, by acclaimed screenwriter and founder of the BBC Writers Academy, John Yorke.

They both put forward the argument that there are some basic plot archetypes that all stories appear to fit into and, correspondingly, the human mind instinctually engages with.

But what are archetypes you may be wondering?

As the great psychologist, Carl Jung, explained in his essay,”The Collective Unconscious and Its Archetypes“, an archetype is an unconscious primary form, an original pattern or prototype in the human mind; archetypes are not learned or acquired—they are with us from birth and are as natural and embedded in us as our own DNA. So they are incredibly important to how we process and understand the world around us.

I thank the great people at D&AD for summarising the two books below via their excellent online course, Brand Storytelling, on the Future Learn MOOC platform. I highly recommend it to anybody looking to improve their storytelling abilities.

Take it away D&AD…

The Seven Basic Plots—Christopher Booker

7 Basic plots

1. Overcoming the Monster

“There is an evil force threatening our hero/their world/mankind. The hero must fight and slay this monster, which often isn’t easy, but they come out triumphant, and receive a great reward. Think Beowulf, Dracula and King Kong.

We see this plot popping up over and over again in the advertising world. Think of the ‘monster’ as an obstacle (very rarely an actual monster!), which the hero has to fight to overcome, usually with the help of a brand.”

2. Rags to Riches

“This one is fairly self-explanatory: at the beginning, our hero is insignificant and dismissed by others, but something happens to elevate them, revealing them to be exceptional. Think The Ugly Duckling, Aladdin and Superman.

In marketing, how could discovering a product/brand be seen to elevate someone, transforming his or her life?”

3. The Quest

“In the quest, our hero must set out on a long, hazardous journey, and will battle all obstacles until they are triumphant. Think The Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz and Harry Potter.

In advertising, we might see our hero channelling the values of the brand as they forge to do good and achieve its goals.”

4. Voyage and Return

“While also based on a journey, the Voyage and Return is very different from The Quest. Here, the hero travels out of their ‘normal world’ into the overwhelming and unknown, before escaping back to the safety of their home. Think Alice in Wonderland, Finding Nemo and Gulliver’s Travels.

How could a brand take you to another world? Can you represent the experience of a product through a journey?”

5. Comedy

“A story made up of comedic events, normally involving mistaken identity, misunderstanding or confusion, resulting in hilarious chaos. Think A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bridget Jones’ Diary and Some Like It Hot.

Comedy in advertising is often used to show the unfortunate alternative situation that your customer might find himself or herself in if they don’t use your brand/product.”

6. Tragedy

“This is the story without the happy ending. While our other archetypes have seen triumphant heroes and slain monsters, this plot takes a different turn, and ends in loss or death. Think Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and Breaking Bad.

Used with caution, we tend to see tragedy most frequently used hand-in-hand with shock tactics in charity advertising.”

7. Rebirth

“Our final plot type, rebirth, sees our hero ‘falling under a dark spell’ – whether this is sleep, sickness or enchantment – before breaking free and being redeemed. Think Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast and The Secret Garden.

When applying rebirth to advertising, you might think of ‘the dark spell’ as time away from your brand/product, or maybe your brand can reconnect or re-inspire people?”

Into The Woods—John Yorke

Into the woods

“There are many theories as to why we tell stories, and Yorke (among others) offers excellent analysis, but what is perhaps more useful for any student of storytelling is to understand why all stories share a similar underlying structure. Why is it that, as much as we try to escape archetypal story structure, every tale can be mapped onto it in some way?

The fact that the formula – thesis, antithesis, synthesis – is inescapable in the stories we tell suggests it is in fact a formula for living and learning, hardwired into our brains to serve a far deeper purpose. It isn’t a chicken and egg situation, we haven’t appropriated archetypal story formula into our mental processing, rather at a deep structural level, all stories reflect the natural way our brains work to bring order to the chaos of our worlds.

Here are some of Yorke’s explanations as to why this might be so.”

1. ‘The Societal Reason’

“Yorke suggests that it may be possible for “archetypal stories to carry in their DNA a blueprint for survival”. What does this mean? Well, think about the first time you ever used a cash machine. You approached it with fear and trepidation, thinking at best it would swallow your card, at worst swallow your fingers.

The machine was your antagonist. But you needed to overcome your fear and scepticism to get your money because the bank was closed. So you plucked up courage, did what was required with the machine, and lo and behold you got your money and kept your fingers! And in the process, you came to appreciate the simple ‘out of hours’ service the cash machine offered, and you also learned not to be quite so fearful about technological change in the future.

Inherent in this everyday task then is archetypal story structure – protagonist (you) faces antagonist (cash machine) and overcomes, ‘synthesising’ his or her findings to be born anew (no longer fearful of technological change). The ‘formula’ then is used to get us through life, pure and simple; it helps us to face and overcome challenges big and small every day, helps us to learn and grow, to survive and thrive.”

2. ‘The Rehearsal Reason’

“Archetypal story structure allows us to emotionally connect to characters in stories – characters have to face their antagonist for us to care. We are taken on an emotional journey with that character in a fictional world through which we experience, by proxy, the problems, circumstances, situations, etc., our protagonist faces and overcomes.

Therefore, by learning how to navigate and manage these circumstances in fictional form as the character, it gives us the wherewithal and tools to do the same in real life. Archetypal structure then allows stories to be a rehearsal for real life.”

3. ‘The Information Retrieval Reason’

“Archetypal story structure brings order to chaos, and the mass of information inside our heads is essentially chaos until we give it structure. And structure it we do. In fact, we understand our thoughts, memories, dreams and the ebb and flow of life itself as story. The maxim you learn on day one of every screenwriting course is ‘show, don’t tell’. As soon as we bombard someone with information, as soon as we ‘tell’, they switch off. Wrap that information into story – governed by archetypal structure – and it hits home far more emotionally and effectively. We like people to feel and remember the information we impart, so we deliver it as story.” 

4. ‘The Panacea Reason’

“Life is tough and the only thing that gets us out of bed in the morning is hope. Without hope we wouldn’t survive and hope is inherent in archetypal story structure. Just think about this – boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl again. Stories reinforce the fact that although we face challenges daily, we can overcome them and grow. They tell us we are right to believe in hope.”

5. ‘The Procreation Reason’

“If we look at the Darwinian reasons we humans exist – to be the best versions of ourselves and procreate – then archetypal story structure leads us right there. It’s no great surprise that a lot of stories end with the two leads kissing and we all know that one thing leads to another. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl and procreates. Archetypal story structure then suggests that by achieving “balance and harmony as an individual” we earn sexual union.”

6. ‘The Psychological Reason’

“We have constant struggles as humans between our desires and needs, both conscious and unconscious, and also between our internal and external worlds. Thus, stories are a manifestation of inner psychological conflict and all external antagonists are really projections of the inner divisions of the mind. Archetypal story structure – thesis, antithesis, synthesis – ultimately helps us find balance, be healed. The ‘formula’, therefore, helps us to find where sanity lies.”


Traditional storytelling, whether this is a film, a game, or a novel, generally follows a three act structure—beginning, middle and end—and feature common story elements such as character, conflict, resolution, and plot.

Characters, in particular, are very important, as they’re shortcuts to emotional engagement—they are very effective at delivering a message or point of view to the audience.

The story arc

The classic story arc

So we can create a story following a very simplistic formula.

Beginning of a story: Introduces the protagonist and the first crisis. For brands, we need a character with a problem that our product or service is going to help solve.

Middle of a story: A series of additional crises must be confronted, each building on the last add to the dramatic tension and keep the audience engaged. For brands, we should involve a character adopting a solution the brand is offering.

End of a story: One final crises leads to a triumphant climax; the denouement. For brands, we should show the character benefiting from using the solution.


It should be apparent now how important story is to both brands and experiential marketers even in a twenty-first century full of technological innovation.

A brand needs to continually carve an identity for itself so it needs to make clear to its audience exactly what it stands for. Storytelling does this in a memorable way that engages customers’ minds.

But it’s not just about the mind; it’s also about emotional connections. If a brand follows through sincerely on its promise of what it stands for, the customer believes in it, and becomes loyal. The brand builds a relationship—one with potential to last.

Below is a great talk about brand storytelling in the digital space (beware of the colourful language, however).

As Gary Vaynerchuk mentions in the above YouTube video to be effective brand storytellers in marketing we need to pay particular heed to where individuals’ attentions are at any given moment. Invariably this is more on their smartphones and social networks, and less watching TV or noticing billboard ads whilst they walk down the street.

Particularly interesting is how he says we need to focus on the psychology of each social network and change our content, tone and storytelling to best suit the platform—whether on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, our expectations, actions and how we share across the various social media platforms differs.

Consequently, if done well, experiential marketing offers a unique way for great brand storytelling that connects with modern consumers. Not only can it create opportunities for more intimate, emotive and attention-grabbing brand experiences via live events, but it can also generate high-quality, sharable content that people want to engage with.

So experiential marketers need to start thinking more like storytellers.

The advertising industry, for instance, has long known the power of a good yarn to create captivating TV ads. Just think of any John Lewis Christmas ad for compelling storytelling in a bite-size timeframe.

Celebrated storytelling in experiential marketing is arguably more difficult, however, due to the challenging environments we work across—festivals, streets, parks, shopping centres, train stations, etc.—then say a cosy film studio. Nonetheless, as we have seen in this article, there is a basic story structure and narrative that our brains are wired for and, subsequently, we can tap into.

As a result:

  • We need to pick plot archetypes that best fits a brand’s identity and objectives
  • We need to make sure we use strong characters to effectively get across a brand’s message;
  • We need both antagonists and protagonists—these can be obvious or more abstract concepts
  • We need inciting incidents to create tension and suspense
  • We need resolutions so we can learn vicariously
  • And we need find creative ways of delivering the story in a compelling and engaging way across face-to-face and digital touch-points drawing guidance from the story arc

A great example of storytelling through brand activation was by AirBnB at Sundance Festival. They not only told an interesting story at the experiential event, but also allowed people to become storytellers themselves by sharing content across social media. This is what Airbnb had to say about the activation.

“Beyond homes, Airbnb connects travelers and storytellers with locals and their neighborhoods. By showcasing local characters, we not only included the Airbnb community as creative partners, but put the Sundance spotlight on their stories. In addition to our community storytelling, we partnered with other respected creative storytellers to reach an even broader audience. Our partners included Adobe, Shared Studios, Local Murmurs and Vimeo.

We leveraged these partnerships by having them create content along with us including programs like Pillow Talk, Portals, and Pocket Stories. Through the power of social media, we communicated the magic of these partnerships with those who were at Sundance and those who were following along from afar. Each channel was used to share the kinds of stories we felt would make the most sense for the audience. When showcasing the experience of Shared Studio’s Portals and Adobe’s Pillow Talk, we used Periscope to capture real-time moments and pushed additionally messaging through Twitter to invite all those who couldn’t make it to watch along with us.

The result was a campaign that was driven, created, experienced, and shared by our creative community in Park City and around the world.”


Airbnb Haus—brand activation at Sundance Festival

I shall leave you with some final words of wisdom from John Yorke to help us remember the simple formula needed to construct stories that evolution has wired the human brain to engage with.

“The protagonists’ battles against their antagonists, their journey to victory through crisis, climax and resolution; these are the building blocks of every story.” 

Get involved by leaving a comment below, or by following me on Twitter. You can find me @EventPsychology.


  1. veratatianamunoz · March 4, 2016

    Hello! Excellent article. I will just add that there’s much more than the simple formula for storytelling. The end of the Hero’s Journey is also a new beginning of a never ending path.
    Keep writing about it and we all will get closer to some answers.




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