Marketing and storytelling go hand-in-hand, to the extent that some organizations have alternative titles for their CMOs that highlight its importance: Chief Storytellers or Chief Storytelling Officers.

Stories are powerful things. A good story is incredibly memorable, builds an emotional connection, and will often be retold and shared over and over. These are all principles that good marketing should be built on, so it makes sense to approach them both in a similar fashion.

This means it’s essential for CMOs and marketers to understand why good stories are so important to marketing, how to build and tell an effective story, and where the most valuable storytelling opportunities lie. In this guide, I'll explore the components of great storytelling – and explain how they can be leveraged by marketing leaders. We'll look at the essential ingredients of great stories, and how compelling marketing stories ought to be structured.

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What are the essential components of a compelling story?

The essential ingredients for compelling storytelling in marketing mirror those found in great novels, films, and even everyday conversation. At the core, you need an emotional arc with rising narrative tension that resolves in a satisfying catharsis.

Too many marketing stories simply present a flat, conflict-free scenario of people frolicking through fields in pure bliss after using a product. While that might sound nice on paper, it fails to emotionally engage an audience. We don't connect with stories unless we can first empathize with the struggles and complications the protagonist faces.

Any good story needs an inciting incident that disrupts the normal status quo and kicks off a central conflict. There must be obstacles and mounting tensions that prevent the protagonist from easily achieving their goal or desire. Will the hero get the love interest? Defeat the villain? Realize their dream? The audience needs to be compelled to find out, which those rising narrative complications provide.

You can't have the climax and cathartic payoff without first doing the hard work of setting up the conflict and steadily raising the dramatic stakes.

But simply having conflict alone isn't enough. Within that broader emotional throughline, you need smaller, individualized story beats and specific character moments to make it unique and resonant. Individual scenes need their own micro-tensions and driving narrative questions to earn audience investment.

With these key ingredients working in harmony - an overarching emotional arc, rising narrative tensions, relatable character motives, individualized story beats, and unique distinguishing details - you construct a tale that can truly stir an audience. It makes them feel the visceral emotional highs and lows, while also seeing glimpses of their own lived experiences reflected back at them.

How to structure a story in marketing

The structure of a compelling marketing story closely mirrors the underlying structure found in great works of literature and film. At its core, there needs to be a complication or conflict that disrupts the normal state of affairs. The story then follows the protagonist's journey to resolve this conflict and (hopefully) return to a new normal by the conclusion.

Even though creativity can disrupt certain story conventions, you still need to understand those established story structures deeply. The classic three-act or five-act narrative arcs have stood the test of time because they align with how our brains naturally process and connect with stories.

In the first act, you establish the normal world and introduce the protagonist and other main characters. Then the inciting incident occurs that sparks the central conflict. The second act develops this conflict, with tensions and stakes steadily rising towards a climax. Finally, the third act brings the climax and ultimate resolution of the conflict.

Within each larger act, you build out the story through individual scenes that follow their own micro-version of this narrative arc structure. Each scene needs its own specific tension or driving question to hook the audience and propel the story forward.

The key is artfully balancing moments of conflict and complications with moments of relief and resolution. You cannot just show constant happiness without any problems to overcome. Audiences disengage without that narrative tension to latch onto. But you also cannot solely dwell on the negative without providing an emotional release.

Structure alone is not enough though. You need authentic, emotional details and character moments to make the story unique and resonant. But getting the fundamental story architecture right provides a rock-solid narrative backbone to build those memorable specifics around.

Why the traditional story structure resonates

Many have the misconception that creativity and structure are opposites - that great art and stories don't need any formal structure. However, this isn't true. You need to be actively aware of the structure you're trying to disrupt in the first place. There is already an inherent structure in place, and great pieces of art disrupt part of that structure rather than discarding it entirely.

Effective storytelling follows patterns that have been developed over centuries because that's how our brains naturally process narratives. It's very rare for someone to successfully overthrow centuries of established storytelling structures that tap into deep-rooted psychological underpinnings. Even avant-garde artists who aim to disrupt conventions are still working within an established framework.

Great marketing stories cannot avoid this fundamental narrative structure. Instead, you need to highlight tension and conflict to capture people's attention. If there's no tension, nothing's going to happen - the story will fall flat. Everything will just keep going at the same level, without rising or falling action to engage the audience.

Great marketers shouldn't avoid the traditional narrative structure. You need tension and conflict to really capture the audience's attenion.

This tension and conflict are essential because humans don't actually crave perfection in stories. We watch stories to connect emotionally with the ups and downs of the narrative, not to see a simplistic, uninterrupted stream of positivity. As I've said, "If everything is amazing, then you can't really relate to how amazing that moment is."

We value and appreciate happiness by comparing it to sadness. We feel the significance of triumph by first experiencing the struggle. This archetypal narrative pattern of complication followed by resolution creates the emotional release and catharsis that leaves an audience feeling satisfied. It's what a good story does - it makes you feel everything is lost, but then everything can also be recovered and become great again.

"If everything is amazing, then you can't really relate to how amazing that moment is."

Structuring your marketing stories around the three acts

This quintessential narrative arc originated with Aristotle's notion of desis (binding/complication) followed by lusis (unbinding/resolution). At its core, the traditional three-act story structure involves:

  1. The Setup: Establishing the normal state of affairs or status quo. This opening act depicts the protagonist's standard circumstances before the story really gets going.
  2. The Confrontation: Introducing a disruption, obstacle, or driving conflict that shatters the initial equilibrium and propels the action forward. This is the narrative's inciting incident that kickstarts the main drama.
  3. The Resolution: Depicting the climax of how the confrontation is resolved, leading to the dénouement and finale that reveal the consequences and wrap up loose ends.

This three-act structure, with a defined beginning, middle, and end, is evident across sprawling narratives like the original Star Wars trilogy as well as shorter marketing videos and ads. The principle is the same - you need to have a certain level of complication or disrupting conflict to make the story interesting and give it an emotional arc that rises and falls along.

Most marketing falls short by avoiding conflict and simply showing "people frolicking through the fields enjoying life." While this seems positive on the surface, it actually fails to provide the essential tension that hooks an audience and makes the uplifting moments resonate fully.

The UK retailer John Lewis has found immense success with their holiday ads precisely because they develop this narrative structure so effectively. As I mentioned, a standard Christmas ad would just show kids happily unwrapping presents, which is the baseline "perfect" scenario. But that becomes the norm if you don't first see the family struggling or yearning for that joyful moment.

The John Lewis ads are cultural sensations because they establish through heartfelt storytelling why the gifts mean so much. They explore the complicated tension or nostalgic longing that makes receiving the present resolution so cathartic and impactful. That's why millions go out of their way to stream the ads - not just for the products, but for the resonant emotional experience.

How to build conflict and tension in a marketing story

While the overall story arc follows the classic three-act structure, it's also vital to develop this pattern of tension and release within each individual scene. As I've said, "In every scene, it's vital to have tension to capture the audience's attention."

Even for positive, uplifting stories intended to make people feel good, there must still be challenges, obstacles, or misalignments that create narrative drama and an emotional arc. Conflict and tension don't have to mean constant negativity. Conflict and tension mean two forces pushing in different directions, but they're not necessarily negative forces.

Great comedies, for instance, use tension as the core driver of humor. The comedy of Mr. Bean derives its laughs from the tension of Bean failing to conform to basic social conventions and norms in each successive scene. We find it funny because Bean's offbeat behavior disrupts the expectation and status quo.

Bodyform's celebrated "Womb Stories" campaign about menstrual health tapped into a more subtle, nuanced tension "of your body not agreeing with who you are outside." The visuals and storytelling beautifully surfaced the vulnerability and divergence between a woman's external persona and her internal experience.

Relatable human tensions like vulnerability, unfulfilled yearning, and adversity aren't inherently negative. Rather, they're inexorable parts of the human condition that stories expose and navigate. Giving audiences a tension to emotionally engage with allows the story to then resolve in a cathartic, fulfilling manner.

"In every scene, it's vital to have tension to capture the audience's attention."

What's the process for creating engaging marketing stories?

So how can marketing teams put this into practice? I suggest two complementary approaches for developing structured brand narratives:

Bottom-Up Approach: Sometimes the spark begins with a fascinating real-life detail or compelling customer anecdote. The story structure then gets reverse-engineered around that differentiated nugget.

For example, at my previous company Appear Here, I structured a story around a customer named Steve who managed to launch his own wildly successful restaurant despite facing homelessness only a few years prior. The narrative didn't start with a pre-defined three-act blueprint, but rather Steve's inspirational hustle and passion for ingredient sourcing. We built outward from that gripping character detail.

Top-Down Approach: In other cases, it's more effective to map out the high-level story architecture first before getting granular. Define the setup that will establish the initial circumstances, the confrontation that will disrupt them, and the envisioned resolution.

Essentially, you're designing the narrative's overall trajectory by outlining the key "acts" of the story arc. Then you fill in the particular scenes and details that will bring that planned structure to life in an authentic, emotionally engaging way for your audience.

Whichever sequencing you choose, always visualize the specified story arc - literally draw out the rising action, climax, and falling action as a plot curve. This cements everyone's unified vision and ensures you're not just flatly expositing, but purposefully modulating tension to captivate your audience.

That said, remain flexible during production to evolve the framing based on what resonates most naturally. As I said, "When you are editing the video or the copy, you just see what feels right." Let the structure guide your strategic choices, not rigidly constrain them.

Crucially, the audience (whether current customers, prospects, or the general public) must be positioned as the "protagonist" at the heart of the story whose motivations matter most. The marketing team is never the hero - you are aiming to show how your brand, products, or organizational mission make the audience's life better in an emotionally impactful way.

To accomplish this, marketing needs full cross-functional partnership and integration. As I mentioned, "You need the product team to tell you which customers are using the product in an interesting way, and you need the commercial team to connect you with those customers."

The most compelling marketing stories humanize the brand by placing real people at the forefront through invaluable first-hand insights from diverse perspectives across the company. Every department plays a vital role in surfacing, shaping, and amplifying the tales that will stoke your audience's imagination.

"You need the product team to tell you which customers are using the product in an interesting way, and you need the commercial team to connect you with those customers."

Final Thoughts: embrace structure, then transcend it

While creative disruptors seem to flout conventions, they actually study and internalize the foundational structures before strategically subverting aspects of them. As I advise: "If you want to be a disruptor, pay attention to the stories you hear in the real world and try to understand their structures. You're not going to be able to disrupt anything unless you know what is already the norm."

True iconoclasts don't naively try to abandon narrative building blocks like tension and resolution. That would just render their stories incoherent and emotionally inert. Instead, masters of the craft ingeniously repackage the underlying principles in innovative, thought-provoking ways.

For marketing and brand storytelling, this means adopting the spirit of disruptive creativity within an overall framework derived from proven techniques. As I put it: "Keep the convention for 90% and disrupt 10% to keep things fresh."

Rather than avoiding narrative structure altogether in a misguided effort at pure novelty, modern marketers and advertisers should purposefully wield the essence of traditional storytelling - setup, confrontation, resolution - while continually pioneering fresh contexts, tensions, and conflicts that elevate the resonance.

Embracing the art of strategic limitation and playing within boundaries is what will allow your stories to truly sing. Master that frame, and you can transcend it to make your audience deeply feel your brand's impact and infinite creative possibilities. That's the immortal allure of compelling stories.

Looking for more ways to improve your storytelling skills as a marketing leader? Don't miss our Storytelling Certified: Masters course.

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