Innovations That Inspire

Brand Storytelling and Identity

Recognition Year(s): 2024
School: Michael Neidorff School of Business, Trinity University
Location: United States

The Brand Storytelling and Identity course is a forward-looking, transformational learning experience that meets learners where they are and shows them the power of storytelling to better communicate with and engage audiences across business functions.

Call to Action

Stories are at the core of human experience. They have evolved to ensure our survival. Storytellers have existed in every community to inspire, teach, and share advice in the form of myths, legends, and tales. Through the years, these stories have traveled from one generation to the next.

Stories are how we make sense of the world around us. Fictional or not, stories allow us to simulate what-if scenarios, put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, and build empathy. As the award-winning screenwriter Robert McKee puts it, “Story is a metaphor for life.” Through stories we make sense of our lives and learn from the lives of others.

Stories are more than the format in which they are told, be it a movie or a book. They are narratives conveying universal lessons that transcend the stories themselves. They can change minds, shift perspectives, and transform communities. They are sense-making vehicles that connect us with others through our shared experiences. Equal parts agents of change and agents of preservation, stories can usher us into new points of view and help us pass on collective wisdom.

In higher education, storytelling is taught almost exclusively in the humanities. With the exception of some efforts to feature storytelling as part of sales or leadership courses, it has never been comprehensively incorporated into business curricula. Yet almost every business function has become inherently interpersonal and more reliant on effective communication in the midst of a technological transformation. The Brand Storytelling and Identity course was born out of this gap.

Innovation Description

The course starts by building participants’ confidence in their storytelling skills, through sharing stories about themselves using writing prompts. Participants are then trained in a technique called digital storytelling, using three dimensions—word-based, visual, and aural—to tell a compelling story. They learn how each dimension individually conveys meaning, but it is in the ensemble of the three that engagement resides.

Throughout the course, learners are exposed to several examples of digital stories featuring quality storytelling. They learn first to see in order to understand how to do. At the end of this initial training, they work on transforming one of the writing prompts into a digital story. Their stories are screened, and participants collectively reflect on the challenges they experienced in the creative process and the discoveries they made along the way. Three examples of participant-created digital stories are “Heading Out,” “The Sign,” and “It Just Takes One.”

The course next turns to a formal exploration of a story’s fundamental elements: a plot, a clearly defined protagonist, a conflict, and a central message or premise. Combined, these components deliver an engaging narrative by eliciting emotional involvement. We review some of the students’ digital stories as well as a selection of popular movies and speeches to identify story elements, deduce each story’s central message, and discuss the different ways in which plot emotionally connects the audience and characters. Participants spend the last two weeks of the semester applying storytelling skills to the communication of a brand’s identity for marketing purposes.

Innovation Impact

Participant comments indicate a transformational learning experience in the course’s multifaceted application of storytelling to business. Below are some examples:

“[It] changed my whole perspective on how I viewed marketing, branding and storytelling in general and I feel I know more things now that I can use in my future career.”
“This class enlightened me with a whole new outlook on marketing, and the importance of storytelling in the business world. The powerful tool of storytelling is something I had overlooked and didn’t realize how useful it truly is.”

Several features make this course forward-looking and novel. It is based on the premise that everybody is a storyteller, thus meeting learners where they are at. It is a hands-on course and a participatory experience since participants create multiple digital stories and collectively help each other to improve and amplify their storyteller’s voice. And it is rooted in inductive reasoning (to do, you first need to see) pivoting instructors into facilitators that adapt content and its delivery to participants’ needs.

While the storytelling innovation was applied in this case to marketing, it could be adapted to a wider set of business functions through an integrative experience, such as a first-year business seminar. Under the program’s format, participants are first exposed to the versatile usage of stories in business applications (e.g., speeches, presentations, videos, social media activities, and data-driven exercises). Subsequently, faculty from different areas of expertise show participants how storytelling can be applied in their fields, and they mentor students through a final project focused on a single discipline or a combination of them.