Storytelling Marketing: Rounding Up the Biggest Ideas in Brand Narratives

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I came across an old Native American statue of The Storyteller – a simply clay molding of a woman with many children around her. It’s such a simply caricature that shares such a powerful message for anyone trying to get heard today. That message is about two things. First: people are innately yearning for stories and they’re drawn to people who tell them well. Second: in order for something to be communicated well, it has to be related simply – very much like how you would relate a story to a child. In essence, you could say we’re all children waiting to hear the next story. It’s an idea that becomes more concrete each time I see a powerful ad campaign on TV, simply because despite technology and an enormous ad budgets, it has done the same thing as our clay figurine…and that’s to tell a story.

Forbes’ Jayson DeMers believes that stories create an emotional investment through which viewer emphasis can be on a story rather than a product. This is sort of a Trojan Horse of marketing – everyone so busy paying attention to A (the story) that they’re allowing through B (the product). In an article titled “How to Maximize your Marketing Campaign Through Storytelling,” DeMers writes, “Masterful storytelling will show the viewer/reader that the company understands the problem and how their product solves it. This is why visual content is so effective in social media.”

Dr. Pamela Rutledge tells us that stories leap frog technology, taking us to authentic experience. In a Psychology Today article titled “The Psychological Power of Storytelling,” Rutledge writes how stories are the “ultimate mashup of ancient traditions and new communications models.” Her argument pivots most interestingly on our own evolutionary ability (or hindrance) in catching up with technology, adding that “the human brain has been on a slower evolutionary trajectory than the technology. Our brains still respond to content by looking for the story to make sense out of the experience.” Fundamentally, this is why storytelling is so wildly successful, especially today and why it’s made such a strong comeback in a technologically saturated market.

Equally as important as what’s done right, is what’s done not quite so right. Take the case of Dove’s campaign advocating realistic standards of beauty. In UK’s Marketing Magazine, writer Suzy Bashford notes some key points in her article titled “Deconstructing the art and science of storytelling.” There she quotes Sarah Walker, global director who leads Millward Browns’ neuromarketing practice. Of “Dove onslaught” campaign, Walker feels that “it was a great ad, but often when a story is so hard-hitting, people look away from the screen. Even if they don’t, there’s often an ‘attentional blink’, which shows they are having difficulty processing the tough content.”

Bashford agrees, writing that the campaign breaks a key rule in neuroscience. She notes how Dove is only “credited at the end of the film, leaving the viewer to make the link between the story and the brand.” For Walker, this is a marketing ‘don’t’, who says that “if you can describe what happens in your story without mentioning your brand, the brand isn’t well enough integrated.”

As a counter example, consider the victorious hail of iPad Air’s recent viral campaigns…where the entire campaign brilliantly both is completely about the product and not at the same time. There’s no distinguishing product from story. The two are the same.

In a bold move against blatant commercialism but supplanting stories as natural organic ads, take Chipotle’s brave new video which released last year. One writer called it “the most beautiful, haunting infomercial you’ll ever see.” Gawker added to the kudos, writing “all other ads should just give up.” This, pulled from a Content Marketing Institute article by Michael Weiss, titled “How Powerful Brand Storytelling Can Supplant Commercials,” reasserts the power of a story (with zero ad placement dollars) over the (expensive) efforts of its competitors. Weiss describes the Chipotle story featuring “a sad-sack scarecrow living in a processed-food dystopia dreams of turning his tiny garden into a bountiful farm (and eventually opens up a little burrito stand). As Weiss notes, it’s not an ad. It’s brand storytelling, and moreover it moves from the “beige to brave” mark by taking on a heavily populated social issue which is processed foods. There is no question of The Scarecrow’s success, which reaped 11.6 million views on YouTube, more than 12,000 Facebook posts, over 31,000 tweets, and an overwhelming 126 million impressions.

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