Skip to content

4 Things Brands Need To Know About Storytelling

2016 August 3
by Greg Satell

For a long time, marketing was driven by taglines—short, evocative slogans that captured the essence of a brand’s message. Nike encouraged us to “Just Do It,” while Apple inspired us to “Think Different.” Miller Lite simply had to say, “Tastes great, less filling” and product flew off the shelves.

Taglines worked because they cut through the clutter and stood out in a sea of brands vying for our attention. Marketers needed to project images that were compact, but meaningful or risk getting lost in the mix. Yet it is no longer enough to merely grab attention. Marketers now need to hold attention.

Today, when consumers take notice of a brand, they are less likely to run to a store and more likely to jump on the Internet, where their digital activity can be retargeted by competitors. We need to shift from crafting messages to creating experiences. Brands can no longer rely on slogans and jingles, but must learn to tell stories. Here are four rules you need to know:

1. Content Is Crap

Probably the most profound misapprehension that marketers hold today is equating stories with something they call “content,” which is a buzzy term for any string of words or images that they deem worthy of spewing out on websites and social media. It is content, many insist, that will endear brands to their consumers.

The problem, as I’ve noted before, is that content is crap. We never call anything good “content.” Nobody walks out of a movie they loved and says, “Wow! What great content!” Just like nobody starts a conversation with, “Hey, I read some really interesting content on my mobile phone.” The concept of content is nothing more than a fiction in the minds of strategic planners.

Yet one thing that has captivated humans for as long as history has been recorded is stories. That’s what makes people stand in line outside movie theaters, rush home to watch their favorite show on TV and keeps their eyes glued to their mobile devices. A great story holds our attention because it captivates us. We want to see more.

The problem for marketers is that great stories are fundamentally different than traditional brand messages. They do not come wrapped in a tidy bow, but hold us spellbound as we wait to see what happens next. They don’t drive us immediately to action, we want to hold onto them and reflect. To create great stories, marketers need to think about brands in a new and different way.

2. Great Stories Don’t Start Out That Way

Brand messages are born in brainstorming meetings. Armed with research and insights, marketers endeavor to come up with the “big idea” that can serve as the organizing principle for a promotional campaign. From there, the message is honed, tested and modified to suit a wide range of formats and platforms.

Yet great stories do not simply appear because we want them to. They need to be discovered along the way. They start out as mostly incoherent impulses that are little more than vague figments of a concept, nothing that would survive the glaring scrutiny of a boardroom. It is only through nurturing them that they eventually begin to take on a life of their own.

Ed Catmull, CEO of Pixar, insists that “early on, all of our movies suck.” In his book, Creativity Inc., he writes that his company’s initial ideas are “ugly babies” that are “awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete.” “Originality is fragile,” he continues. “Our job is to protect our babies from being judged too quickly. Our job is to protect the new.”

Of course, none of this can achieved on a typical campaign timeline, which is why so often the brand stories we see come off as canned, linear and one dimensional. They more often inspire our revulsion than hold our attention.

3. Every Great Storyteller Needs Two Things: Consistency And Surprise

Dick Stolley, who created People magazine and was a longstanding editor at Time, likes to say that every great publication needs two things: consistency and surprise. Without a consistent product, you are left with a chaotic mishmash. Still, if you don’t break the rules every now and then, you risk boring your audience.

The problem with marketers is that after decades of striving to grab attention, they’ve become addicted to surprise. Anybody can go off-script, but it takes operational discipline to put out a consistent product over a sustained period of time, especially when you have dozens—even sometimes hundreds—of people involved in the process.

Have you ever noticed that when you watch a new TV show or read a new publication that it takes a while to acclimate yourself to it, but that once you understand its rhythms you start to become immersed and seem to be able to take in its stories with ease? Imagine if you had go through that same acclimation process every time you watched an episode or read an article.

Great publishers establish processes that govern things like architecture and pace, institute guidelines for headlines and openers and maintain a consistent style and voice. That’s what transforms a collection of stories into a coherent entity. And it is that coherence that builds loyalty over time.

4. If The Ending Is Obvious, There’s No Need To Tell The Story

Traditional ad campaigns thrive on clarity. The outcome is never in question. Products are “new and improved.” Customers are happy and satisfied. Unique features lead to clear benefits that support a value proposition. That’s a sensible formula for when you have 30 seconds or less to make your case.

Great stories, on the other hand, are ambiguous. As David Mitchell, author of bestsellers like Cloud Atlas, points out that we find enigmatic characters more interesting than one dimensional caricatures because they lack moral clarity. Superman sends a clear message about the power of good over evil, but Darth Vader is far more engrossing and compelling.

That’s the power of a good story. It provokes thought and discussion. It holds our attention because we want to see how it ends. Instead of a canned, linear sequence of events, we enter an unfamiliar world that surprises us and teaches us something. We genuinely don’t know how things will turn out.

And that is probably the biggest challenge marketers face in their struggle to become storytellers. Rather than controlling storylines, we need to learn to nurture them so that they can take on a life of their own. Stories, when told well, are not mere containers for a brand message, but advocates of brand potential that has yet to be discovered.

– Greg

6 Responses leave one →
  1. August 7, 2016

    Hi Greg. Any good example about a company that uses storytelling rather than brand messages? And happy 7th-B!

    [Reply]

    Greg Satell Reply:

    Sure, Marriot has a big storytelling program. Nike does a great job with storytelling and has millions of video views to prove it. Here are some links with other examples:

    http://locowise.com/blog/7-incredible-examples-of-brand-storytelling-on-social-media

    http://blog.contentmarketer.io/7-companies-that-are-killing-it-with-brand-driven-storytelling/

    [Reply]

  2. Fitz Fitzgerald permalink
    August 14, 2016

    The best short story of the year on the big cinema screen is Coke’s TWO BROTHERS 59 second spot – warm, crisp, low budget, touching, memorable… Quite powerful at cinema scale.

    [Reply]

    Greg Satell Reply:

    Thanks Fitz (or Peter). I haven’t seen it, would you mind sharing a link?

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  3. September 1, 2016

    Story telling is the best way for you to connect with people and deliver your marketing message to them effectively. With helpful,engaging and consistent story, it helps build trust and brand of your business that will surely lead you to marketing success.

    [Reply]

    Greg Satell Reply:

    Very true. Thanks Vince!

    – Greg

    [Reply]

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS