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Student Voices | The Power of Storytelling for Brands

Graduate | Jun 07, 2024 |

This past spring as part of its Industry Speaker Series, the Gabelli School of Business Marketing Area invited Leslie Ferraro, former co-chairman and president of Walt Disney’s Consumer Product and Interactive Media, to speak to students during an event titled “The Power of Storytelling in Building Iconic Brands.”

During her time at the Walt Disney Company, Ferraro developed a wealth of knowledge and skills in the marketing, and media and entertainment industries. Her highly successful career has also included a stint as executive VP of global marketing, sales, and travel operations, and chief marketing and sales officer for Walt Disney Parks & Resorts and Disney Destinations & Experiences. Prior to these roles, she was president and CEO of QVC and HSN live shopping channels, and has held several marketing and strategy positions at McCann-Erickson, Johnson & Johnson, and SmithKline Beecham.

As part of the April Speaker Series discussion on the power of storytelling, Ferraro talked about the ways inspirational figures such as college basketball superstar Caitlin Clark and Taylor Swift, represent stories that draw people in and ultimately lead to marketing and promotional successes such as the most-watched game in Women’s basketball history and sold-out concerts around the world. She emphasized that stories are critical for success because they are timeless, memorable, persuasive, and effective.

Ferraro also provided an example of the way she used marketing research to develop a new brand of storytelling at Disney. In this situation, she utilized the power of stories to address the company’s challenge in the “Princesses” franchise. Through research, she and her team realized that people did not connect with all princesses, but rather they had their favorites. The research also revealed that many consumers were not connecting with the traditional Disney Princess story. She and her team realized the need to expand what it meant to be a “Disney Princess” to be more relevant and aspirational for a larger and more diverse audience. Ferraro and her team went on to create the “I am a Princess” campaign, which redefined what being a Princess means by combining storylines with new messages that emphasized values such as kindness and courage. 

Throughout her talk, Ferraro stressed that stories are powerful because they connect with consumers on a more emotional, personal, and meaningful level and therefore, lead to greater remembrance and credibility, but they also build consumer trust in a brand and greater persuasion to follow a company’s direction. Integrating storytelling into marketing communications creates more effective strategies that ultimately lead to valuable brand loyalty and higher sales. 

Building an iconic brand is a challenging but rewarding goal for all companies. Ferraro explained that an iconic brand is built by first discovering what a company’s superpower is, and then by using stories to communicate that superpower. Accordingly, companies that know what they believe in, will be able to tell the most authentic stories. Utilizing the example of Coca-Cola, Ferraro described how this industry giant tied marketing elements to a compelling story that built an iconic brand, which has given the company a valuable competitive advantage. Furthermore, she described how the stories of Olympic athletes fuel the continuous engagement of their fans. Both of these examples show the value of building an iconic brand by attracting consumers via storytelling. 

In Fall 2024, the Gabelli School will welcome Ferraro in an adjunct professor in consumer behavior for the Marketing Area, and students will benefit greatly from her deep knowledge in the areas of storytelling and the ways in which it can elevate brands to new levels.

Written by: Amelia Semler ’24, M.S. in Marketing Intelligence

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