Why Storytelling Builds Brands


At the Cancer Moonshot Summit in June 2016,  Vice President Joe Biden shared a story of something that many patients and caregivers have experienced.  During his son Beau Biden’s cancer treatment, Beau’s medical records needed to be transferred from one hospital to another a thousand miles away.  Because of the lack of interoperability of systems, the Vice President had to get on an airplane and fly the medical records to the other institutions.  It is striking that even someone with all the resources in the world had exactly the same problem as the rest of us.  His story connected.

Alicia Staley, a breast cancer survivor and advocate, also attended the Cancer Moonshot Summit.  She joined Inspire in a discussion of the Cancer Moonshot at a Halftime Show online interview segment at the Stanford Medicine X 2016 conference.  Here’s her take on the Moonshot: “While I think the program and the goals of the program are strongly rooted in science, I think the way that this program will be successful is the utilization of patient stories to drive home why we need to do this at an accelerated pace.  The patient stories are going to envelop this process in a way that I don’t think we’ve been able to do before.  They’re allowing patients to participate in a process that has been historically closed, and I think it’s a very exciting time.”1

Beau Biden’s story and the stories of other cancer patients helped to get The Cancer Moonshot $1.8 billion in funding on December 7, 2016.2  Vice President Biden will continue his work on the Moonshot in the coming years.

Results of Inspire’s Annual Patient Surveys from both 2014 and 2015 indicate a general lack of brand awareness and a detachment from the industry that serves them: nearly 40% of patients knew nothing about the companies that made their medications.  Only 12% (2014)3 and 14% (2015)4 stated they had a relationship with the companies that made their medicine.

Is there a connection?  Could stories, especially patients’ stories, be truly valuable to the pharmaceutical industry? Could they build relationship and brand awareness?

The Brain On Stories

For an answer let’s look at some science.  Here are two sentences:

1) The chocolaty rich, warm-from-the oven aroma of brownies made Jim’s mouth water.

2) The brownies smelled delicious to Jim.

Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to visualize brain activity, researchers found that when people read or heard descriptive, vivid sentences like the first one, the sensory part of their brains activated the way they would if they were actually having the experience themselves.  This did not happen with declarative sentences like the second.5  Further brain research indicate that stories which include descriptive and vivid sentences are experienced or lived by their audience.

Perhaps stories have this effect because humans evolved in a storytelling milieu.  Myths and legends taught and explained the world around us.  Our brains carry this legacy.  In fact, people remember stories better than mere facts.  Research also shows that the brain can store more information and retrieve it more easily when it is in story form.6

Moreover, storytelling impacts behavior.  Dramatic storytelling, especially when it involves us emotionally, increases levels of the neurochemical oxytocin in the bloodstream.Oxytocin, increases pro-social feelings like generosity and trust.8,9  Beyond feelings, the increase in oxytocin from hearing or viewing dramatic stories can impact behavior.  In one series of experiments, researchers found that they could predict from fMRI and oxytocin levels, with 82% accuracy, if people would donate money after exposure to an engaging, transporting narrative.9

So, stories grab our attention, are memorable, affect feelings and move people to action.  What is more, patient stories are authentic and genuine “windows into the lived experience,” as Irish breast cancer survivor, blogger and marketing consultant, Marie Ennis O’Connor states.10 11  Recently, two companies in particular, Merck KGaA’s EMD Serono group and Amgen have started innovative ways for patients to share their stories.12  Amgen has joined with NPR’s StoryCorp to record the stories of myeloma patients, caregivers and others to be shared on bloodcounts.com.13  Merck KGaA’s EMD Serono group created a “storybook” template for patients with MS and caregivers to collect stories and photos of their MS journey.  These pdfs can be shared privately or to the larger MS community through mslifelines.com/story.12

As pharmaceutical companies embrace patient-centricity, the audience for its marketing and branding must change.  In the past, pharma’s audience was solely the physician who treated the patient.  Now the co-decision maker, the patient, must be included.

Occasionally members of Inspire’s patient-caregiver community share pieces of their journey with us via video. Here is one mother’s story.

Perhaps a lesson can be learned from the connection I felt to our member’s video, the Vice President’s story, and the excitement that Alicia Staley expresses about the Cancer Moonshot: that is, incorporating patient stories can be useful in reaching a crucial audience.  Furthermore, according to business researchers, a core story (with authentic stories that support it) goes beyond branding and marketing to become a part of the entire culture of the company.14  Meaning, in the long run, patient stories can be instrumental in making patient-centricity a reality.  Now that’s compelling!

For more patient stories written by Inspire members, download our eBook Experts by Experience 2017

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Experts By Experience 2017 cover

Inspire offers a trusted community to patients and caregivers.  Our goal with this blog, this website and our content is to provide the life science industry access to the true, authentic patient voice.  In so doing, we support faithful operationalization of patient-centricity.  Take a look at our case studies, eBooks and news outlet coverage.


1 https://youtu.be/76XYPKWEtSU.

2 http://www.politico.com/story/2016/12/joe-biden-cancer-moonshot-bill-232342

3 https://corp.inspire.com/resources/ebooks/.


5 http://news.emory.edu/stories/2012/02/metaphor_brain_imaging/

6 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0028393204000478 Accessed October 22, 2016.

7 http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v435/n7042/full/nature03701.html

8 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04504.x/abstract


10 https://kdhhealthcomm.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/power-patient-blogs Accessed October 21, 2016.

11 http://journeyingbeyondbreastcancer.com.

12 http://www.fiercepharma.com/marketing/emd-serono-launches-my-story-template-to-help-ms-patients-chronicle-journey

13 http://www.fiercepharma.com/marketing/amgen-teams-npr-famed-storycorps-to-collect-and-share-myeloma-stories

14 http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/02756661011036673