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How Brands Can Become Great Storytellers

2016 December 7
by Greg Satell

Today, every brand needs to become a publisher. It used to be that marketers could come up with some compelling images, add a clever tagline and then push their message out through mass media. That might have been simplistic, but if you could reach enough people efficiently, it worked well enough.

But today, when you create an effective promotion, your competitors can track its effects and then retarget the consumers you worked so hard to persuade. Essentially, by building awareness and walking away, you are doing lead generation for your competition. It’s no longer enough to grab attention, you now need to hold attention.

That’s why marketers need to learn how to tell stories. A great story can provide emotional transport for a brand and create the basis for a larger narrative. Make no mistake, brand publishing is vastly more than creating longer and more expensive versions of ads. Marketers need to shift their mindset from being promoters to becoming master narrators.

Know How Stories Are Structured

The first element of any great story is its exposition, which is the world you build around the story and includes the setting, the characters and any other background information. This often comes at the beginning of the story, but it doesn’t have to. Sometimes, elements of the setting or details about the characters are leaked out as the plot develops.

The most important aspect of any story is the conflict to be resolved. That’s what creates the tension that keeps the audience rapt with excitement. Will the hero survive? Does the boy end up with the girl? Will justice prevail? If you want to keep the audience’s attention, you need a conflict that holds the reader.

Finally, the conflict needs to be resolved in some way that is satisfying. That doesn’t mean that the characters in the story end up happy —  in fact, often it’s exactly the opposite — but if the main conflict is never resolved the audience will feel cheated. So however the story ends, with a lesson learned, a triumphant hero or whatever, it has to resolve the conflict.

These are the essential elements of a story: exposition, conflict and resolution They don’t need to be told in order. In fact, the best storytellers find creative ways of introducing the elements. In the hit TV show Lost, for example, key elements of the setting were introduced gradually throughout the series. However, each element needs to be there.

Show, Don’t Tell

The reason you tell a story is that you have a point to get across. Marketers focus on a value proposition, management consultants often tell stories to illustrate an underlying principle and novelists may want to reveal something important about human nature. A good story can do all of those things.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to get bogged down. Marketers have been conditioned to think exclusively in terms of features and benefits, which often get in the way of creating a powerful narrative. That’s why it’s important to show, not just tell your story.

Showing a story means painting a picture with real characters in a real setting to illustrate the points you are trying to convey. The details might not all follow the logic of your argument, but they are important nonetheless. Remember, the story is emotional transport for your message, not the message itself.

Create Real Characters

Successful ads demand clarity. The outcome is never in question. Products are “new and improved.” Customers are happy and satisfied. Good ads don’t lie, but they do tell an idealized version of the truth.

Great stories, on the other hand, are ambiguous. David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, points out that we find characters like Darth Vader more interesting than one dimensional characters like Superman because they lack moral clarity. It is that ambiguity that makes them interesting and provokes thought and discussion.

In Creativity Inc., Pixar CEO Ed Catmull writes that every story starts out as an “ugly baby.” It takes care and patience to transform those ugly babies into hit movies like Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Inside Out. Characters take on multiple dimensions, the plot weaves through twists and turns and we make new discoveries along the way.

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

Use Stories To Build A Larger Narrative

Stories spark interest, which is helpful, but if they are left alone they decay and eventually disappear altogether.  The problem with stories, as John Hagel points out, is that they are self contained—they have a beginning, a middle and an end.  Narratives, on the other hand, are open-ended and invite participation.  They encapsulate an ambition.

So what can make stories infinitely more powerful — and more interesting — is the narrative they support. That’s why great brand publishers understand that your mission needs to drive your strategy. Stories are what provide the building blocks that connect your narrative to your organization’s mission.

American Express’s Open Forum, for example, succeeded because it created stories that supported the narrative of the company’s commitment to small businesses. Pepsi Refresh, on the other hand, failed, in part, because it was unable to connect stories of social responsibility with what had always been a carefree lifestyle brand.

Great storytelling is infinitely more than simply producing content. It is, in fact, no less than helping customers connect with the soul of your enterprise.

– Greg


3 Responses leave one →
  1. Michael Breeden permalink
    December 11, 2016

    This is fascinating applied to a product. Really, creating a demand for a new product, but not keeping your customer, is giving that demand to your competitor. Considering it though, I don’t think that is so new. Think Charmin or Cool Aid. They have a major story behind them and Coke is continually generating stories. So I think your statement is meant to be applied to “new” tech products, especially because their relative value may be limited, say Apple vs Android. At the same time, some tech products are really intrinsically worthless, though the company is of great value, so that story becomes more important.
    Well, I’m just starting a re-write of a book on genetics. Usually science stuff does not lend itself to the “arc of a story”. This may. Lets see what I can do.

  2. December 12, 2016

    Thank you Greg, this is a very important point that many folks seem to miss. Value is not price, and it is the story behind the product that often creates value. What you tell yourself, your colleagues, your friend and family about the things you choose is what may define the value to the individual. Without this, there is often no reason to spend more or to choose one and brands become meaningless.
    Features and functions can and will be copied, and there are many who will work for less, charge less and deliver less than you, so a pile of features no one will use, or specs no one cares about are far less convincing or satisfying. In the end, it is the story that either satisfied or disappoints. True branding and the customer journey they take depend on the story and its ongoing promise.

  3. December 12, 2016

    Great points. Thanks Robert!

    – Greg

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