There is a lot of confusion circling the notion of brand storytelling.

The term is used in a variety of contexts and in different ways, with little consensus about what it actually means. However, most definitions include the idea that it involves a cohesive narrative that unites the facts and emotions associated with your brand in a way that gives your product/service a purpose in your customer's experience. While there isn't one definitive understanding of what brand storytelling is, there is certainly agreement that it is essential to engaging your customers. In a Forbes article, the author notes that

Brand storytelling is no longer a nice to have. It is a need to have, and what will ultimately maximize your business’s visibility, profit, and impact. Treat it as a compass for your marketing strategy, and the result will be a brand that is as profitable as it is captivating.

But why are stories so important?

Narrative is the organising principle of human thinking.

Human experience is highly influenced by the act of understanding and creating stories. Researchers argue that our inherent tendency to tell and consume stories originates from the primary motivation for conscious understanding structured through purposeful movement in time. By listening to and creating stories we are able to represent the importance to ourselves of other persons’ presence and actions, and the properties of objects in relation to ourselves. Therefore, it is in stories that we are able to assign values to all sorts of things.


Research indicates that narratives allow us to share a sense of passing time, and to create and share the emotional arcs that evolve through this shared time. They allow us to express innate motives and create meaning in joint activity, and that joint meaning can ultimately be experienced as purpose. This emerges at a very young age, when we develop long-lasting emotional attachments to our shared stories, which have the power to change our beliefs about the real world and can change the way we behave. This is because we play out the stories in our own lives and then recount our stories to others, who in turn share and are changed by the narrative.


So, if narrative structures thinking, how do images structure narrative?

First emotion, then logic.

Research shows that emotion comes first and then logic adds structure to the story. Some researchers go so far as to say that emotion has its own narrative, as it tells us what is happening to us. Feeling is therefore a self-referential function. Since the easiest way to depict emotion is through imagery, it is also the easiest way to make a story immediately relevant to the audience.


The quickest way to someone's heart is through their eyes.

This is because emotion schemas are embedded in our visual systems, i.e. our emotional and visual processing systems are intimately related. Some researchers argue that this is due to our evolutionary development in that strong emotional responses to visual stimuli give us information about what is in our environment and how we should respond to it. For example, if we see a spider, we immediately experience fear and retreat, in order to avoid any harm. The idea is that this same structure has developed within our social space, and that we are hardwired to have emotional responses to certain visual cues, especially with regards to judging the trustworthiness and competence associated with faces.


So, emotion not only primes the general tone of the narrative but also provides information about how it relates to us and how one should behave in relation to that narrative. Another reason we get so much information from a rapid emotional response to visual stimuli is because we share a visual language, as mediated by shared culture and history, which tells us how to respond to situations.


So, what does photography have to do with all this?

The brain loves unambiguous reality.

Research suggests that our brains are better equipped to deal with clear depictions of reality. We are hard coded to process real images: The human visual system is optimised for processing the spatial information in natural visual images. Natural real images can elicit self-related imagery which can (1) increase the likelihood of remembering the associated information; (2) promote positive attitudes towards the story and (3) increase the value of the story to the individual.


Consumers look for realistic engagements with brands.

Recent marketing research indicates that consumers are looking for authentic and relevant brand stories based in the here and now. This is good news for photographers because:


  • Photos add authenticity: By it's very design, photography is able to capture real world experiences and emotions, without having to compromise the dramatic or stylistic aspects of the overall aesthetic.
  • Photos are sensory: Photos are good at triggering sensory experiences, which anchor the story in visceral experience. By stimulating certain parts of the brain, the audience is literally immersed in the story.
  • Photos are grounding: Photos place our stories in a real time and place, grounded in the reality from which our most enduring stories emerge.



Linking the personal story to the #BrandStory

While photos can stimulate the initial self-referential emotions that connect the story directly to the individual, it is the way the image supports the timeless themes associated with the brand that can make a story personal. This is what we refer to as a #BrandStory.


The purpose of brand photography is not to reflect a message in the image but rather to depict the themes inherent in the brand and the emotions connected with those themes. Brands form part of a long history of narratives that existed long before the brand. Our photos serve to evoke the feelings and thought schemas that situate a brand in our shared narrative history by connecting your brand to the self, larger social spaces, and the purpose in relation to the self and society in the here and now.


The peculiarity of a personal story involves the specific development of themes according to which the individual confronts himself/herself. These themes act as organisers of meaning in the experience and manifest themselves across cultures and organisations of personality. These themes are constraints but also opportunities for the development of the narrative plot as they guide the attribution of meaning to experience. Psychologist Dan McAdams distinguishes two main critical themes around which individuals extend the accounts of their existence: agency, which is based on self-identification and affirmation and communion, which refers to the processes of sharing within interpersonal relationships.


Timeless themes can trigger narrative identity. This refers to the process according to which we organise a continuous, coherent idea of who we are over time and is related to core themes, often referred to as master themes. Four of the most well documented master themes include agency and communion, as well as redemption and contamination. Redemption refers to finding a kernel of good in the bad and is often associated with the theme of self-development, and contamination concerns identifying a negative trajectory in a good situation. Agency and communion are motivational themes, while redemption and contamination are emotional themes in narrative identity. These master themes are the narratives used by all people to to think about themselves across situations and times. We implicitly organise how we value and connect to others and situations using these themes, as well as organising our present and future behaviours.


RnD uses these elements, combined with psychological principles, to develop visual concepts that contain all the essential emotional and intuitive aspects of your brand story in a visual concept. We aim toward authentic visual, conceptual and emotional alignment in depicting your story. That is our purpose and our narrative.


by Bronwyn Wood - Brand Analyst/Psychologist