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The impact of storytelling on the consumer brand experience: The case of a firm-originated story

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Stories fascinate people and are often more easily remembered than facts. Much has been written about the power of stories in branding, but very little empirical evidence exists of their effects on consumer responses. In the present study, we investigate how a firm-originated story influences consumers’ brand experience, by comparing the brand experiences of two groups of consumers. One group was exposed to the story and one group was not. An existing brand was used in the study, which had not been launched in the focal country. In-depth interviews were conducted with individuals in the two experimental conditions. The comparison revealed remarkable differences between the two groups. Consumers who were exposed to the story described the brand in much more positive terms and were willing to pay more for the product. The study contributes to brand management research and practice by demonstrating the power of storytelling on consumer experiences. The results are also important from a managerial point of view. They demonstrate how brand stories can be used to create and reinforce positive brand associations. A review of past research in combination with the findings demonstrates that more research is needed on the effect of stories on consumer brand responses.
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The impact of storytelling on the consumer brand experience: the case
of a firm-originated story
Anna Lundqvist, Veronica Liljander, Johanna Gummerus and Allard
van Riel
This is a pre-print of an article (prepared by the authors prior to review)
published in Journal of Brand Management. The definitive publisher-
authenticated version Lundqvist, A., Liljander, V., Gummerus, J. and van Riel,
A. (2013), The impact of storytelling on the consumer brand experience: the
case of a firm-originated story, Journal of Brand Management 20, 283-297
(February/March 2013), doi:10.1057/bm.2012.15
is available online at: http://www.palgrave-
journals.com/bm/journal/v20/n4/full/bm201215a.html
Abstract
Stories fascinate people and are often more easily remembered than facts. Much has been
written about the power of stories in branding, but very little empirical evidence exists of their
effects on consumer responses. In the present study, we investigate how a firm-originated
story influences consumers’ brand experience, by comparing the brand experiences of two
groups of consumers. One group was exposed to the story and one group was not. An existing
brand was used in the study, which had not been launched in the focal country. In-depth
interviews were conducted with individuals in the two experimental conditions. The
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comparison revealed remarkable differences between the two groups. Consumers who were
exposed to the story described the brand in much more positive terms and were willing to pay
more for the product. The study contributes to brand management research and practice by
demonstrating the power of storytelling on consumer experiences. The results are also
important from a managerial point of view. They demonstrate how brand stories can be used
to create and reinforce positive brand associations. A review of past research in combination
with the findings demonstrates that more research is needed on the effect of stories on
consumer brand responses.
Keywords: Storytelling, Brand experience, Brand associations, Brand value, Qualitative
method, Experiment
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Introduction
Stories have always fascinated people and are more easily remembered than facts. Well-told
stories regarding a brand appear to have the potential to influence consumers’ brand
experience, which consists of all the “sensations, feelings, cognitions, and behavioral
responses evoked by brand-related stimuli that are part of brand’s design and identity,
packing, communications, and environment” (Brakus et al, 2009 , p. 52).
Consumer-originated stories about brands circulate widely, but firms can also create
their own stories. The use of such firm-originated brand stories is esteemed to be influential,
especially in services (e.g., Mossberg and Nissen Johansen, 2006). Consequently, there has
recently been an increase in storytelling research (Adaval and Wyer, 1998, Benjamin, 2006,
Mattila, 2000, Mossberg and Nissen Johansen, 2006, Woodside et al, 2008). Most brand story
research investigates consumer experiences, consequences of product use (Chang, 2009,
p.22), or story content in advertising (Stern, 1994). Furthermore, a wide variety of sources
have been analyzed for brand story content, including travel blogs (Hsu et al, 2009, Woodside
et al, 2008), Harry Potter (Brown and Patterson, 2010) and consumer blogs and discussions
on DNA tests (Hirschman, 2010). However, firm-originated stories have not been widely
investigated. Case descriptions and some examples can be found in the literature, but very
little empirical evidence exists of their effects on consumer responses. A notable exception is
Merchant et al. (2010), who studied the effects of firm-originated stories on donors’
(negative) emotions and intentions, and concluded that story content affected both.
The present study investigates if brand experiences differ between consumers who are
introduced to a brand with a firm-originated story and consumers who get to know the same
brand without the story. We investigate if a well told, firm-originated brand story could make
the brand more attractive to consumers.
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The present study contributes to brand management literature by providing empirical
evidence of the effects of company generated and communicated brand stories on consumers’
brand experience. Clear differences were found between the groups in how they responded to
the brand.
The article is structured as follows. In a literature review storytelling is analyzed and an
overview is provided of effects on consumers’ brand experiences. Thereafter, the method and
empirical results are presented. The study was conducted as a between-subject experiment
with twenty qualitative interviews. The article concludes with a discussion of the results,
managerial implications, limitations and future research directions.
Storytelling
The essence of stories
A story has a structure that keeps it together and engages the listener. Brand stories
resemble traditional fairy tales (Twitchell, 2004), and narratives, and answer questions like:
who, what, why, where, when, how and with the help of what (Shankar et al, 2001). They
have a beginning, middle and end, and events unfold in a chronological sequence, which,
when causal, is called a plot (Stern, 1993, p.604). Stories always make a point that is valued
(positively or negatively) by the audience (Shankar et al, 2001), and include a message, a
conflict, a role distribution and action (Stern et al, 1998). Brand stories need to be credible
and well executed to be successful. The audience should be able to identify with its characters
and the message should put the brand in a positive light (Mossberg and Nissen Johansen,
2006). Each story should convey only one single message (Fog et al, 2005), which is clearly
focused, so that it can be summarized in only one or two sentences (Twitchell, 2004). Stories
are often used to convey brand values. In his book, The Dream Society, Jensen (1999, p. 52)
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even defines stories as value statements (emphasis in the original), and lists various values
that could form the basis of stories.
A conflict often propels the story, in addition to a quest for restoring harmony (Fog et
al, 2005). The solution to the conflict, which needs not be very dramatic, is the central
message (Mossberg and Nissen Johansen, 2006). It is important that the action raises interest
from the beginning and that the message is clear. A compelling story typically includes an
unexpected or unusual twist (Peracchio and Escalas, 2008). Finally, the end, which is often
best remembered, should emotionally satisfy the audience (Fog et al, 2005, Guber, 2007,
Mossberg and Nissen Johansen, 2006).
Storytelling and brands
Stories have caught people’s attention since the beginning of time. People want to
believe in myths and stories (Jensen, 1999, Kelley and Littman, 2006), while brands
communicate myths (Holt, 2003, Holt and Thompson, 2004). Brands also play an important
role in consumers’ life stories (Fournier, 1998, Gabriel and Lang, 1995, Woodside et al,
2008). Moreover, a company can tell its own story to communicate the brand values and what
the company stands for (Fog et al, 2005). Whether real or fictional, stories provide meaning
to brands (Halliday, 1998, Salzer-Mörling and Strannegård, 2004, Simmons, 2006). They can
be thought of as frameworks in which brands can be embedded (Kozinets et al, 2010), for
instance by coupling luxury brands with archetypal stories
Consumer stories have been studied in the form of narratives (Delgadillo and Escalas,
2004, Escalas, 2004b, Megehee and Woodside, 2010, Schembri et al, 2010), associations and
collages (Koll et al, 2010), nethnography (Hsu et al, 2009), and memorable incidents
(Durgee, 1988). Studies on storytelling from a management perspective, however, tend to be
either purely conceptual or conceptual combined with anecdotes and case descriptions.
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The scarceness of empirical studies regarding firm-originated stories should not be
interpreted as a lack of managerial interest in the subject. An increasing number of companies
have realized the value of stories and express intentions to make more use of storytelling in
marketing. Mossberg and Nissen Johansen (2006) provide numerous examples of how
marketers have used real or invented stories to create an atmosphere and enhance the
uniqueness of service brands. Story-based messages are assumed to be particularly well-suited
for the promotion of services due to their ability to communicate both symbolic and
experiential components (Padgett and Allen, 1997). However, since comparative studies on
goods are lacking, it is too early to draw conclusions regarding differences in story
effectiveness between goods and services.
Positive consequences of brand stories
Consumers seek experiences appealing to their emotions and dreams, and stories help to
create such experiences (Fog et al, 2005, Silverstein and Fiske, 2003). Stories have heroes
and marketers can turn the brand, the employees, or the customers into heroes with positive
effects on both internal and external brand perceptions (Guber, 2007, Kelley and Littman,
2006).
Stories catch consumers’ interest (Escalas, 2004a, Mossberg and Nissen Johansen,
2006) and convince by what is called narrative transportation - after being immersed in a
story the reader is left changed (Escalas, 2004a, Green and Brock, 2000). Stories also help
consumers understand the benefits of the brand (Kaufman, 2003), are less critically analyzed
and provokes less negative thoughts than regular advertisements (Escalas, 2004a, p. 38).
Storytelling generates positive feelings in customers and is perceived as more
convincing than facts, increasing brand trust, raising awareness and making the brand unique
(Kaufman, 2003, Kelley and Littman, 2006, Mossberg and Nissen Johansen, 2006).
Advertising research has shown that advertisements with story content increase positive
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emotions, such as feeling upbeat or warm(Escalas, 2004a). Stories are stored in memory in
multiple ways, factually, visually and emotionally, making it highly likely that the consumers
will remember them (Mossberg and Nissen Johansen, 2006).
A story also creates expectations (Rosen, 2000), which affect subsequent evaluations of
the brand. The story can convey positive features of a good or service, without being
perceived as commercial. The ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s may serve as an example. On
their homepage (www.benjerry.com) the brand’s story is presented. In the story, the idea of
high quality has been weaved in by describing ingredients and queuing customers.
Based on the above, it can be assumed that stories may add favorable and unique
associations to a brand, which can increase customer brand equity (Keller, 1993, Leone et al,
2006, Wood, 2000). A story may become a value adding asset, as described in Aaker’s (1991,
p. 15) definition of brand equity as “a set of brand assets and liabilities linked to a brand, its
name and symbol, that add or subtract from the value provided by a product or service to a
firm and/or to that firm’s customers”.
The episodic nature of a story increases the likelihood that consumers will pass it along
(Fog et al, 2005, Mossberg, 2008). The story makes the brand more interesting to talk about
and consumers are more likely to become ambassadors of the brand (Guber, 2007, Mossberg
and Nissen Johansen, 2006).
To achieve these positive consequences, the brand and the story must be perceived as
authentic, because many consumers are critical of what they perceive as manipulative
marketing (Firat and Venkatesh, 1995, Holt, 2002). The story need not be based on real
events, as long as the consumer perceives the story to be real. People enjoy made up tales, as
long as they can relate to the characters (Mossberg and Nissen Johansen, 2006). Often it is
enough that the relationship between the brand and the story appears authentic. A story that is
meant to entertain need not be true, but stories should never be perceived as deceptive.
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Pretending that fiction is reality will eventually lead to loss of trust in the brand (Mossberg
and Nissen Johansen, 2006).
Method
The empirical study was conducted as an experimental case study of an international
cosmetics brand. Although findings from case studies cannot be generalized directly to other
cases (Stake, 2000), they provide in-depth information that can be used for theory building
purposes (Eisenhardt, 1989), and for further research directions (Patton, 1990). As will be
demonstrated, we found that the story indeed affected the consumer brand experience,
including brand associations and willingness to pay for the brand.
The chosen cosmetics brand was suitable for the study for several reasons. Cosmetics
and health products often use stories to enhance perceptions of their products. Typically,
someone has encountered a problem, but through innovation and persistence the hero (a
person or company) has found a remedy (usually a nature-based ingredient) that solves the
problem (Mossberg and Nissen Johansen, 2006). In addition to representing an industry
where storytelling is often used, the chosen brand has built its marketing strategy around a
company brand story and individual cosmetic product stories, which are told to customers by
the salespeople. The packaging of the products is plain, coherent with the story. Labels on
bottles and tubes only contain a logo and the ingredients. The brand relies on word-of-mouth
and PR. A policy of generously sampling products encourages trial and reduces the threshold
of repeat purchases. The brand is sold mainly through stores designed to support and enhance
the story. The story and brand values are actively communicated through the stores’
servicescape (Bitner, 1992). The brand has been on the market for many decades and is now
owned by a global cosmetics company, which seeks to further expand the market. The
products are rather expensive, in line with other exclusive cosmetics brands. Since the brand
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has not been launched in Finland, it was possible to study a real brand with a real story, rather
than an invented brand and story.
Research design
The study was conducted in cooperation with the company owning the brand. For
competitive reasons, we cannot reveal the name of the brand. According to the brand manager
in Sweden, a neighbor Nordic country, typical customers are young, urban, and trendy. Eighty
percent are women. When the brand is first introduced to a market, it tends to appeal to
young, trendy customers. Through them it spreads to a wider customer base. Based on this
information, the study was limited to urban women who had no previous knowledge of the
brand. A market research agency recruited 20 participants. They were informed that it was a
market research on cosmetics and were rewarded for participation. Ages ranged between 25
and 40 with a mean of 31.4 years. The participants represented a wide range of professions,
for example, hair dresser, lawyer, psychologist, entrepreneur, nurse, boat seller, sales
secretary, and customer manager.
Individual thematic interviews were conducted of about 60 minutes. The interviews
were conducted at the market research company’s facilities in Helsinki, Finland. The
interviews confirmed that none of the respondents had any previous knowledge of the brand.
Participants were randomly allocated to one of the two experimental conditions and
individually interviewed. Half of the participants were asked to first read a 3-page story about
the company brand, including the company values, where after they were shown a slide show
of a shop where the products were sold. They were also told the story of one of the cosmetics
products, a facial cream of which they were asked to express the monetary value later in the
interview. The other half of the participants was exposed neither to any stories nor to the
slideshow.
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Each participant was then invited to investigate and test a selection of 15 products of the
brand and to express their thoughts aloud. The packaging of the products can be described as
plain, as they are modeled from reusable plastic. Participants were asked what they thought of
the products (probing, if necessary, their feelings, thoughts on the content, smell, form),
which associations they experienced in connection with the brand, whether it evoked interest,
what they liked or didn’t like, their overall perceptions. They were also asked to describe the
brand with three adjectives. The interviewer then picked out one of the products, a facial
cream, and asked the participant how much they thought it would cost in retail and if they, in
general, would be prepared to pay the expected price for a good facial cream. Six cost ranges
were provided to cover a wide range of brands of cosmetics on the market, from cheap retail
brands to luxury brands: 1) <10€, 2) 10-20€, 3) 20-30€, 4) 30-40€, 5) 40-50€, and 6) >50€.
Thereafter the price of the cream (31€) was revealed and the respondents were asked if they
would pay that price for this cream. Last, participants were asked if they had anything else to
add regarding their perception of the brand.
The analysis followed common procedures in a qualitative study. The data were
organized according to themes, which were coded and categorized (Spiggle, 1994). The
interviews were analyzed according to the similarities and differences between the two groups
of respondents on how they perceived the brand. The presentation of the findings is organized
according to 1) packaging associations, 2) other brand-related experiences, and 3) willingness
to pay for the brand.
Findings
Associations related to the packaging
The two groups differed clearly in their perceptions of the packaging. The findings are
summarized in Table 1, with examples of quotes for each category.
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Table 1. Associations to the package (respondent identification in parenthesis)
Non-story group
Story group
Amount of text
An awful lot of text, which could be on the back of the jar.
Gives a feeling of ecological product. The text makes it
look like it tries to be scientific. (R1)
…that oh no, I can’t be bothered to find out what they are
for and what is in them. Like they are trying to be so
scientific when there is so much of that text. (R4)
Amount of text
I like that there is a lot of text. They don’t say
things that they can’t keep. No statements that you
will become one thousand years younger, but
saying what it is about. Informative (R15)
First when you look at it you may think that ”what
a lot of text”. But then when you start looking you
understand, its idea opens up for you, that they
really want to tell you what is in them. They have
nothing to hide. And that is really good (R14)
Ecological
It looks like that kind of ecological store products. Not
very interesting. I would walk right by it at [department
store] if they had it. (R2)
Ecological
Well, first of all it is really good that one sees, that
they can be recycled. That they are plastic and not a
combination of plastic and glass. The jar does not
have to be so great if the content is good. It is really
positive that they are so simple. It gave a positive
reaction immediately. (R14)
Cheap product
A bit cheapish. Brings to mind some [grocery store private
label] bottle. (R3)
Clearly cheap, so that you might perhaps find it in some
ecological store. (R6)
Nice smell but the neutrality of that packaging and sort of
modesty makes one doubt whether they can be good. (R8)
Simple elegance
One can really see that they have put a lot of effort
into the appearance. Wonderful! Really nice. (R11)
These bottles are charmingtheir simplicity
appeals to me. (R13)
I was thinking that, wonderful simple elegance.
(R17)
Conservative
Looks Swiss or German. Alps-thing. Pretty conservative.
Looks more like some kind of network marketing product
line that something that would be on a store shelf. (R1).
A feeling of old-fashion. Old Spice has something like it.
Could be the kind of every man’s product. (R7
Interest in values
Well, I got interested in what they are really like.
That how caring they are. I would like to get to
know them better (R11)
Confusion
And then in some [products] there is this [picture].Like
why is it, it is not in those. That like makes one wonder --
It doesn’t look very uniform. (R4)
The product is probably good but the bottles not…a bit
mixed. If there was some uniformity it would be like
easier to find a kind of… that now it’s just like… quite
difficultSense tells that the plastic bottles are quite
good but…still (R5).
But I don’t like get it why so much text is needed? Like
what’s the point? (R3)
Story-enhanced image
I think it is really charming! They have kept the
old style. One can see that it has its own history and
that it has been there for a long time. It works.
(R17)
My favorite is this... Now that one knows its story
it becomes nice somehow (R11)
It is surely to a large extent the story that raised my
interest. I immediately forgot the modest outlook.
The story clearly affects you. (R12)
Underestimating customers
Well, perhaps I perceive it so that they underestimate the
customer when they don’t put any effort into the look of
it. They don’t even want the customer to buy it with the
help of how it looks. That they are somehow
underestimating the customer. Almost saying F--- you.
(R3)
The group that was not exposed derived only negative associations from the packaging
style. They perceived the brand as cheap, mundane, boring, old-fashioned, and conservative.
The large amount of text on the packaging was perceived as irritating. The brand was
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perceived as pretending to be scientific although it was not. Packaging was perceived to look
eco-friendly, but this was expressed in a slightly negative tone, perceiving the brand as naïve
or bohemian, and the plastic bottles as cheapish. One respondent complained that “the
modesty [of the packaging] kind of goes against the use of cosmetics” (R8), finding the
packaging design ill-suited to the product category. Some participants showed outright
contempt towards the brand and one thought that it misjudged its customers. It was perceived
as a brand that could be found in grocery stores, perhaps a retail brand. In addition,
respondents found the brand image confusing, and complained that they had difficulty
understanding why the products looked like they did.
By contrast, participants exposed to the story developed much more positive and
uniform associations with the brand. The relatively simple packaging style did not appear to
disturb them. The story seemed to more than compensate for the packaging’s lack of visual
extravagance. As a result, the style was interpreted as radiating simple elegance. The
respondents repeatedly, and unprompted, mentioned the story.
I became interested in a completely new way, now that I have heard and seen a
bit more. My interest in these products rose with that story in a totally different
way. I now have a completely different view, compared to what I had before you
told me the story. Back then I thought that they were just a bunch of products.
They all look a bit different, but on the other hand it kind of brings out the feeling
of the origin of them [referring to the story]. They are not in a negative way like
maybe that is the wrong word - but like ‘branded’ as so many cosmetics brands
are nowadays” (R11).
The packaging style was perceived as honest, supporting the contents, while the
historic outlook and text made the products look trustworthy. The ecological, reusable plastic
of the bottle was perceived positively. Overall, the products were perceived as attractive.
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Other brand associations
When the participants were asked to use adjectives to describe the brand, further
differences became apparent. Those who had not been exposed to the story described the
brand as traditional (5), clean (3), ordinary (3), ecological (2), but also as high quality (2).
Other associations included old-fashioned, safe, multifaceted, informative, cheap, and
inconsistent. As one participant said, “more a utilitarian, not a trendy product…it doesn’t
raise my interest. One gets the feeling that this is not at all for you. Made for someone
different” (R1). However, those who heard the story chose adjectives that described the brand
as a sympathetic and high quality humane brand with a long history. They used terms as
friendly/sympathetic/warm (5), traditional (5), high quality (4), natural (3), interesting (2), as
well as trendy, valuable, and elegant. Only positive associations were made with the brand.
“Those values are very important to me. Really. Today when you don’t know where these
products come from and like that. That they take part in projects and those ethical principles.
Today it feels like they are decreasing. It feels like there are very few companies that really
care. Nice if some cosmetic brand manages to naturally combine good values in its work”
(R11).
Different aspects of the story seemed to appeal to different people. Some picked out the
environmental aspects, others social responsibility, service, or the history as a family owned
company.
“When I read the story I thought it was a really good choice not to make ads, that
it is the service that is important. That it is important to meet the customer.
Perhaps because of my profession [Educator in a company] I value that and pay
attention to it, but even as a customer it is nice that they make an effort with
customers” (R15)
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“… somehow the story brought a lot into the picture. I am definitely impressed by
those ethical values. Environment, welfare and work with developing countries
that is the ethical values. That it is not only profit maximization, it can be
something else, something softer.” (R18)
“You see that it has its own history and it has been going on for so long. It
works.” (R14)
One participant spontaneously said that she would talk about the story and the brand to
others: “It would certainly raise discussion! If you would replace the brands you use with this
one, you could start telling these stories they are based on. I think that would be fun. If there
are wonderful stories behind some product it is good when they are spread around…This
document made me think ‘cool’. I could imagine that when I sit with friends I could talk
about these products.” (R15)
Willingness to pay
To establish if hearing the story would increase the perceived value of the brand, the
participants were asked what they would be prepared to pay for a specific product. They were
asked to inspect a facial cream of 125ml and say what they thought its approximate retail
price was. They were then asked if they would be willing to pay that price for a good facial
cream (in general). The real price of the product (31€) was then revealed to the participants,
who were asked if they were prepared to pay that price for the product. The results are
summarized in Table 2
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Table 2. Willingness to pay for the brand (number of observations in parenthesis).
Non story
Story
Own price estimate of the
shown face cream
10-20 euro (7)
20-30 euro (3)
10-20 euro (3)
20-30 euro (3)
30-40 euro (2)
>50 euro (2)
Willingness to pay own price
estimate for a face cream
Yes (10)
Yes (10)
Willingness to pay
31 euro for the shown face
cream
Yes (5)
No (5)
Yes (10)
The results show that the respondents in the non-exposed group estimated the price to
be between 10 and 30€, while a majority chose the lower price range of 10-20€. In the story
group the price range was broader, from 10 to more than 50€, evenly spread over four price
ranges. In both groups, all the participants were willing to pay the estimated price range for a
good facial cream. In the non-exposed group, only half the respondents were willing to pay
the product’s real price, 31€, for this product. By contrast, all respondents in the exposed
group were willing to buy the cream at the real retail price.
Conclusions
The study demonstrates that a well-crafted story may create positive associations with a
brand and ultimately increase consumers’ willingness to pay for it. Consumers in the two
conditions perceived the brand attributes quite differently and developed different brand
attitudes. Specific features were interpreted differently, such as the amount of text on the
packaging, and the groups also developed distinct product associations. The difference
between the two conditions and their impact on participants were also evidenced by the
atmosphere during the interviews. Consumers who were exposed to the story talked more
about the brand and behaved much livelier when making associations. Their voice and facial
expressions were more positive towards the brand and they often related it to themselves.
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Respondents who were not exposed to the story were more impatient and showed a relatively
negative attitude towards the brand, not only by their choice of words but also through their
tone of voice, and by being more critical towards it.
The story did indeed create high quality expectations, based on genuine values, which,
according to Rosen (2000), is one of the most important aspects of stories. The group that was
not exposed to the story developed expectations regarding functional benefits mainly based
upon the packaging and to some extent upon inspecting the content. They also experienced
difficulties in making sense of the brand, and expressed confusion about the packaging design
and the brand’s overall message. In the other group, however, the story took over the visual
role of the packaging, and the brand associations appeared to be developed based on the story,
as evidenced by the following quote: “It was to a large extent the story that made me
interested. I immediately forgot the modest outlook” (R12). It could be said that the
personality of the brand (Aaker, 1997) changed from sincerity to excitement in the group that
was exposed to the story.
In essence, the story had a filtering effect, changing the evaluation of the brand, raising
its value. This effect is illustrated in Figure 1, showing that consumers in the non-exposed
group based their brand associations solely on the packaging, whereas those who heard the
story related all their associations to the story.
Figure 1. The effect of storytelling on brand experience
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The stories were backed up by the servicescape, which forms part of the consumer’s
brand experience (Brakus et al, 2009 ). When asked to what extent the pictures of the store
had influenced them, respondents said things like: “It was the worldview that was most
important” (R5), “The story itself had the biggest impact” (R16), and “The story impacted
more than the pictures… even if the store was exactly like the story” (R17).
We conclude that storytelling is an effective way of communicating brand values to
consumers. A story can embrace the core values of a brand in ways that traditional marketing
communication cannot. Hence, storytelling deserves a more prominent place in the brand
management literature. Apart from books with practical advice and case examples (Fog et al,
2005, Vincent, 2002), storytelling has been scarcely discussed in the brand management
literature (Aaker, 1991, Kapferer, 2008, Keller, 1998, Keller et al, 2008).
Managerial implications
Stories add symbolic value to goods and services, and can be used to sell a broad array
of products, ranging from antiques to everyday goods. A good story may engage consumers
to become ambassadors of the brand, spreading positive word-of-mouth and recommending
the brand to others. Due to its relationship-building elements, storytelling is also well suited
for customer-to-customer marketing. First, however, the story, or stories must be
communicated to potential customers. Stories can be incorporated into TV commercials as ad
vignettes or plots (Stern, 1994), into online advertising, as exemplified by the ice-cream brand
Ben & Jerry’s, or they can be told interactively to customers who enter a specially designed
store to inspect products. The servicescape can then be used to support and strengthen the
image of the story and the brand.
We would like to caution brand managers against being too optimistic regarding the
effects of introducing firm-originated storytelling into their marketing efforts. There are no
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studies to show what kinds of story work and when, and a sudden surge of brand related
stories could cause consumer irritation. Furthermore, consumers cannot identify themselves
equally well with all brands or become immersed into every brand story. For some brands,
consumers’ own stories might be more effective communicators of brand benefits and brand
values than a firm-originated story. Indeed, research has reported some commonalities
between firms that generate stories among consumers (Solnet and Kandampully, 2008). An
engaging, funny, fanciful TV-ad plot that only remotely relates to the brand could also be
more effective than a true story that does not engage the customer. When the company has a
good story to tell, however, our study shows that it is worth telling it.
Limitations and future research directions
Based on the previous discussion, it can be observed that this study has some
limitations, some of which lead to suggestions for further research. One limitation is that the
study was performed on a relatively small sample, thereby limiting the generalizability of
conclusions that can be drawn from the study. Small samples are common in qualitative
studies and many recent studies on consumer brand stories have used even smaller samples
(Hirschman, 2010, Schembri et al, 2010, Woodside et al, 2008). To be able to generalize the
results, there is a need for further tests of the effect of stories on consumer brand experiences.
In our study, the servicescape appeared to add little to the formation of brand
associations. This may be due to the experimental design, where participants could not
actually visit the store. The role of the store atmosphere and the way it conveys the story may
be more important in reality, as part of the full brand experience. It is also possible that the
sevicescape plays a smaller role in goods retailing than in a pure service environment, like in
hotels and restaurants (cf., Mossberg, 2008). This consideration warrants further studies.
Some caution should be taken when transferring the results of this study to other
contexts or other types of stories. Our study was limited to one brand, which markets itself
19
with a claimed authentic story about the history of the brand. No traditional marketing
channels are used, with the exception of online sales in selected countries. Word-of-mouth
marketing and handing out samples form the basis of brand marketing. This is not a concept
that suits all brands. Therefore further research is needed on different types of stories.
Distinctions could be made between authentic and non-authentic stories, or stories based on
the history of the product vs. stories about consumers using the product.
Of particular interest appear consumer reactions to made-up stories when the story is
revealed to be non-authentic. Mossberg and Nissen Johansen (2006) tell the story of a
woman who swore never to return when the story of a restaurant was revealed to her as
invented. Furthermore, it seems that many brand stories have been created early on in a
brand’s life. One could wonder whether it is possible to add stories later on, when remodeling
the market communication of an existing brand.
Moreover, stories and storytelling have been interpreted in a number of different ways
(Gabriel and Lang, 1995), comprising any type of story related to the use of a product, or
claim about a brand, making comparisons between studies extremely difficult. Comparative
studies regarding stories around a variety of goods and services should be performed to
answer the question if storytelling works equally well for all types of products and price
ranges. One might also ask if some products are particularly well suited for storytelling. Is
storytelling, for example, better suited for ego-involving and self-expressive products than for
utility goods? Furthermore, could stories add to the value of business-to-business products?
Although benefits were not expressed as such in the study, consumers in the group that
was exposed to the story expressed an emotional enthusiasm for the story, which may
ultimately develop into emotional and symbolic benefits of the brand. We therefore suggest
that future studies should look closer at what types of benefits storytelling may bring to
consumers’ brand experiences.
20
Finally, a consumer perspective was taken in this study, but there is also a need to study
companies’ views of the role of storytelling in brand building. Of primary interest is studying
how stories are related to other brand building elements, whether there is a fit between them,
and how that fit affects consumers, employees and company performance.
21
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