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5 Tips for Defining Brand Identity Through Intentional Storytelling

By Cristina Jones October 20, 2021

Last week, I was honored to host a virtual roundtable for a small group of nonprofit marketing and communications executives on The Art of Storytelling & Brand Identity. Our special guest speaker was master storyteller, pianist, and composer Harold O’Neal, a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts and creative expert on the Academy Award-winning Pixar film Soul. Harold led an exercise that challenged us to find ways to be more intentional with our storytelling. He shared some of his journey on his way to success, reminded us that everyone has a story and that the way we tell that story shapes our world.

Harold’s challenge to the group — to write a short story and assign one of five types of musical chords to each sentence — helped us explore what emotions we look to evoke when we share stories. Using his piano to underline participants’ voices as they shared their stories, he demonstrated how different chords call forth specific feelings and provide a shortcut directly to our emotional center.

Harold’s presentation and exercise set the tone (if you’ll forgive the pun) for a vibrant and insightful discussion among participants. We talked about how storytelling has evolved at their organizations during this pandemic, ways to counteract burnout and support mental health, and how they are amplifying the voices of their constituents and supporters to build a more profound sense of community. Here are my top five insights from that discussion.

Graphic illustration of the live storytelling event for nonprofit executives.

1. Let people tell their own stories. National or umbrella organizations can support local branches or individual chapters by lifting up their community-specific stories to become part of an overarching and authentic narrative. Or they can provide a platform where constituents can share their journeys, express their unique voices, and connect with others whose experiences may mirror their own. There is value and impact in stepping back and letting people tell their own stories in their own words.

2. Leaders must demonstrate leadership in the area of mental health. It’s no longer enough to tell people to “do yoga and exercise”; leaders must demonstrate that it is necessary to take time to care for ourselves. By showing that we can walk the walk, we open space for others to do the same.

3. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Social justice issues such as systemic racism have taken the spotlight in recent years. It has become clear that organizations must make a conscious decision to reflect all of the various communities they serve in their storytelling. Intentional storytelling remains not just the right thing to do but the smart thing to do, bringing in new donors and supporters to the cause as they see themselves represented and celebrated. We must stand in what is right and drive this change together.

4. Provide hope for the future. Right now, pandemic restrictions may be preventing some organizations from doing all the work they want to do on behalf of their constituent communities. But it is essential to keep our vision steadfast, plan wherever possible, and share those plans with those we serve — to offer them a glimmer of hope for what the future may hold. Good news helps us keep moving forward.

5. Emphasize emotions over words. There’s tremendous power in even the most straightforward short story when we focus on emotions rather than words. By deciding what type of musical chord each part of our story represents, we choose the emotion we want to associate with it, which informs how we craft our message and how others experience it. No one is suggesting we set all of our brand and organizational stories to music. Instead, we can use music as a way to set our intentions for the experiences we seek to convey through story.

It was an honor to lead this critical discussion and celebrate the work, resilience, and leadership, not only of the CMOs who attended this event but of our greater community. I continue to reflect on how fortunate I am that my purpose as CMEO of is to elevate our world-changing customers’ stories to inspire and drive the real change needed now more than ever in the world.

Read more from Cristina Jones: A Healthier World Depends on Us All and How Can We Address Hidden Hunger in Our Communities?

About the Author

Cristina Jones, Chief Marketing and Engagement Officer at
Cristina Jones
Chief Marketing and Engagement Officer at
Cristina is an intentional storyteller with a focus on action, impact, and culture. As CMEO, Cristina and her team use world-class storytelling to reach new audiences, spotlighting as the technology platform built to power purpose. She believes that when people and communities thrive, business thrives. Her team integrates customer advocacy, media partnerships, and influencer strategies to build lasting relationships. In 2020, Cristina was named to the Ebony Power 100, and was featured in the World Woman Foundation’s #ShesMyHero campaign.