Brand storytelling trends are evolving for 2021, and it’s becoming clear that nuanced, creative brand stories are earning more respect from e-commerce retailers – and their shoppers – than in the past.

There are some clear reasons for this.

Not the least of these is plain old competition for online retail market share, as e-commerce merchants expand their efforts to engage shoppers who are themselves evolving before our eyes.

More importantly, as consumer sensibilities continue to change, shoppers have started thinking of e-commerce retailers as more than anonymous, automated suppliers identifiable mostly by their logos.

Why You Need Better E-Commerce Brand Storytelling

Shoppers are clearly looking for greater depth, more transparency and accountability, more purchase and fulfilment options, more immersive shopping experiences, and (crucially) more of a relationship with their favorite e-commerce merchants.

They’re also looking for greater consistency in their e-commerce retailers’ merchant personae. They want a reliable sense of connection, identity, social conscience, and commitment from their retailers.

Well-developed brand storytelling is the key. In fact, without it, giving shoppers what they want will soon become almost impossible.

But let’s be clear, just because there’s so much material that’s aimed (sometimes unsuccessfully) at helping us be better brand storytellers. First, some reminders of about the nature of brand storytelling. It’s not:

  • just an organized history of your business’s growth and success.
  • a reworded version of your mission statement, though elements of your mission ought to echo through your storytelling regularly.
  • a one-time exercise, after which you never have to revisit it again.
  • anonymous, detached in tone, or generalized.

Brand storytelling can be so much more, and in 2021, it must be.

Brand storytelling is an evolving process intended to strengthen a brand and enhance its relationships with shoppers. Our brand stories itself will evolve continuously, and that’s what drives our storytelling.

Properly developed, brand storytelling defines and enriches every piece of content we produce, and it colors every aspect of our shoppers’ interactions on our retail sites.

As an e-commerce retailer, you can think of brand storytelling as building the persona of your e-commerce brand over time. When it works as it should, your business and your e-commerce site aren’t just identifiable to your shoppers. They also appear to have a personality – an actual identity to which your shoppers can relate as they would to a trusted friend.

In 2021, that sense of identity and relationship is crucial to ongoing engagement and conversions, and it’s the foundation on which shoppers will base their trust in retailers, their products, and the security and familiarity of the retail experiences on offer.

If you’d like to see an example of a brand doing this successfully, you can have a look at Dannijo, the jewelry brand founded by the Snyder sisters. They’re believers in authenticity, and have shared their brand truth meaningfully on their own website and blog, on Instagram and in podcasts. They’ve actually managed to become part of their own brand story, relating as sisters to their loyal shoppers.

Once Upon a Time: 4 Key Storytelling Trends to Breathe Life into Your Brand This Year

Among the top trends in brand storytelling for e-commerce retailers in 2021, we see four that you should consider following.

It’s important that you remember something as you’re giving them the once-over.

The personally invested and socially aware consumers we see pushing these trends are young, committed, and driven in many aspects of their lives that extend well beyond their behavior as consumers. They include millennials and relatively young “Generation Z” types who refuse to be distracted from  important issues because they saw a shiny thing online that excited them as shoppers.

Your brand story isn’t the most important thing in their lives, so your storytelling must make your brand relevant and worthy of inclusion in their personal worlds.

1. Social Impact: Telling Stories That Matter

We’re starting to see the term “social impact consumerism” more frequently in early 2021.

It refers to the behaviors and preferences of shoppers who are growing more insistent that the brands they favor reflect their values, their sense of social conscience, and their commitment to specific personal or community goals.

Some retail brands, like outdoor wear brand Patagonia, are taking their social impact and activism very seriously, weaving them into every facet of their stories and involving both company personnel and consumers. Patagonia recognizes that its brand values and ethical positions separate it from less committed competitors.

This means that as retailers, we’re going to have to do some digging to figure out our own points of impact.

It’s even fair to say that brands will increasingly look to their consumers for real stories to help shape their brand storytelling. The sense of partnership this will give their customers, if continuously nurtured, will strengthen brand/shopper bonds.

It’s also accurate to say that effective and socially impactful brand storytelling will rely heavily on the creation of empathy in 2021. Brand storytellers will look for ways to generate empathy, not merely for the brand, but for their consumers’ causes and interests.

By doing so, they’ll be able to create foundations and “sub-plot” brand storylines that rely on empathy to enhance engagement, build connections and drive better, more focused results.

To achieve greater social impact, brand storytellers may also find themselves entering the world of private social media, following shoppers who are moving increasingly to private messaging and highly localized groups with shared interests.

It will still be about your retail platform, your website and blog, your visuals and videos, and your static content, because all of those evolve over time. But it will also be about coordinated, ongoing efforts on other social media platforms.

2. “Artistic” Storytelling: the Value of the Experience

There’s also a trend in 2021 toward being more artistic in brand storytelling.

What exactly does that mean?

For practical purposes, brand storytelling that is artistic creates an experience that’s both informative or educational, and enjoyable for the consumer. The aim is to support the brand by involving shoppers in a journey that’s ongoing (for long-term engagement), and that always provides informational and entertainment value.

For example, Moxy Hotels (part of the Marriott organization), has been relying on artistic brand storytelling in ways that are entertaining and highly effective.

Artistic brand storytelling emphasizes increasingly clever and nuanced emotional connection-building. It can take skill, time, and constant effort to get it right in a way that shoppers love.

This is because they’re already over-exposed.

In other words, your brand isn’t the only one to realize the value of artistic storytelling and emotional connections for e-commerce consumers. Many competing brands have figured it out as well, and they’re all trying to inform, entertain, and connect emotionally.

That means artistic brand storytelling now requires both objective research and analysis, and a level of subjectivity and human understanding that may be a new thing entirely for many brands.

It’s also worth noting here that the latest brand storytelling trends involve increasing audio and voice content. It’s soon going to be possible for brands to access and leverage the smart home speakers many consumers are buying.

We think this will do one of two things. It will either provide amazing opportunities for brand storytelling that’s both socially impactful and artistic if handled well, or open the door to unmitigated marketing catastrophe for brands that don’t spend the time on artistic storytelling content development in their rush to jump on the bandwagon.

The potential for annoying shoppers is at least as great as the potential for educating and entertaining them through added audio and voice content. Be optimistic, but cautious…

3. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Questions of Fairness

There are clear trends in current brand storytelling that reflect public concerns with diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as with basic transparency and openness.

E-commerce brands have a legitimate interest in being seen by consumers to operate on principles of fairness and integrity. That’s a business perspective, but there’s more to it.

Our sense of fairness and corporate integrity should drive a genuine commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion – not just because it’s expected or demanded by others, but because we recognize it as appropriate, just, and long overdue. For example, Ulta Beauty, the NASDAQ-listed retail beauty giant, has recognized this and is making public its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

These principles, and their translation into both fresh content and corporate action, have become matters of intense  brand self-examination. As e-commerce retailers and community members, we can look within ourselves deeply and honestly to see how we can create meaningful changes in the human equations underlying our brands and our storytelling.

Our brand storytelling will have to adapt to our shoppers’ expectations in these areas, at least to some extent. At the simplest level, this means that our storytelling should adapt in order to reach demographics that are more diverse than our primary or singular target group.

We might look for elements reflecting the realities of more racially, economically, or socially diverse communities. We could invite participation by storytellers from widely differing backgrounds. We can develop material that has the effect of helping to level a socially inequitable playing field as part of our e-commerce businesses’ community relations.

There are endless possibilities for diversifying content substance and origin, encouraging “outside” storyteller participation, including other demographics, and broadening engagement. And we can do all that not only through our storytelling, but through the company policies that support it.

But be warned.

It’s well to remember that even the best-intentioned plans for encouraging a worthwhile goal can miss their mark. Just look at the recent situation Coca Cola created for itself when it organized workshops to teach employees how to be “less white” in an effort to encourage diversity and equity.

The move has created major brand problems for the company, and has not helped advance the cause of greater diversity and inclusion.

What an e-commerce brand decides to do about the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in its storytelling and its internal policies won’t just be about the brand’s adherence to the law, or occasional basic training programs it’s offered employees, or official statements in company policy documents.

We’ve got to address our consumers’ concerns in ways they consider meaningful, active, and current. For the foreseeable future, this will be part of our unfolding brand stories. Every brand will have to define its position and then incorporate efforts to make a difference into its brand storytelling.

4. The Tale that Never Ends: Immersive Long-Form Storytelling

There’s a truth that some e-commerce retailers aren’t going to like.

Immersive long-form content in brand storytelling will be critical in 2021 and beyond.

We’ve been hearing for some time about how Google’s algorithms are increasingly favoring natural language, excellent writing, intelligent keyword practices that no longer involve stuffing…and long-form content.

Despite this reality, there are still too many e-commerce retailers who think long-form content – whether in the form of copy, visuals or videos – will bore site visitors, who will then leave without converting or engaging if they have to read for too long or spend too much time watching a video.

That’s simply not correct, and the direction Google’s algorithms are taking as they evolve proves it.

The real issue is the quality and appropriateness of the long-form content. Shoppers and website visitors won’t get bored if the long-form content they find on their favorite retail sites is insightful, relevant to their interests, entertaining, and well written or produced.

That’s the truth.

It applies to written copy, visual storytelling, immersive podcasts, instructive case studies, and more. It doesn’t matter whether the material is all original, or sourced in part from outside storytellers or community sources for visuals and video.

For each of us, the goal is immersive, involving, entertaining storytelling that deals with subjects of interest to our demographic and stays true to our evolving brand story, aligning with specific products or our value propositions when possible.

  • Good long-form content in brand storytelling has flow. It has color. It shows our brand character proudly and consistently.
  • It reflects core values, and respects our relationships with consumers.
  • It provides unique opportunities for us to build experiences interwoven with our brand identities. It becomes the primary means of creating those emotional connections with users we mentioned earlier.
  • It lets us show aspects of our brand identity, character, and purposes without telling viewers about those things directly.
  • It offers a means to involve our users deeply with our brand in such away that we can build connections independently of specific products or transactions.

Immersive long-form content in brand storytelling frees us from limitations of time and available space. We can incorporate materials in multiple formats from different sources and different points in time to serve unique purposes in our brand stories.

And the expanding availability of AI resources, virtual reality, augmented reality, speech interaction, and other technologies means that we can produce the strongest direct connections possible with our consumers.

Instead of avoiding long-form content for fear of boring users or wrecking engagement, e-commerce retailers should up their game by investing in long-form content for brand storytelling.

It’s worked for the likes of Sweaty Betty, as well as IBM, Chevrolet, and QuickSprout.

It can work for all of us.

Some Final Thoughts

Your most important takeaway from this post should be that as an e-commerce retailer, you should be recognizing the importance of brand storytelling for your brand in 2021, and monitoring its development continuously.

If you can see that investing in brand storytelling might be a major means of building customer relationships, improving conversions, and growing your business, then now is the time to be thinking about it.