What Brands Must Know About Storytelling
Even before the days of Don Draper, brands have used taglines as the main driver for their marketing and advertising messages. Today, any marketing message worth its salt is still often judged by the power and efficacy of its tagline.
“I’m Lovin’ It”, says McDonalds, while a BMW automobile is “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” The reason you should buy L’Oréal is “Because You’re Worth It.” You get the idea.
Slogans and taglines ruled the roost for one simple reason: they worked. Stuff got sold. Marketers crafted short and sharp messages that not only captured the essence of a brand’s position, but were strong enough to stand out. The thinking was that having something short, memorable, and (hopefully) meaningful had more chance of being remembered – and acted upon. The marketing mission was simple: Grab Their Attention.
Today, however, simply attracting buyer attention isn’t enough – buyers are looking for more.
As soon as a potential buyer for your product or service takes notice of your brand, more often than not they look to the internet to find out more. Maybe they’ll check out your website. But they’re more likely to check out the gazillion other sources of information about your brand – opinions, reviews, forums, social media, whatever. Not only does this mean marketers have little direct influence on a brand’s perception, but the buyer’s digital activity and user journey can be pounced upon by competitors.
Grabbing attention is all well and good. But today marketers need to find ways to hold that attention. Hence the current thinking around brand storytelling.
Storytelling As Part Of Brand Communication
Storytelling? What, you mean the “Once upon a time there were three bears who lived in the woods” kind of storytelling?
Well, pretty much. Yes.
The stories that we grew up with, such as Goldilocks And The Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs, or Little Red Riding Hood have various underlying messages at their core, that we want kids to understand and remember. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t lie, cheat, or steal. So why dress-up the message with stuff about houses made of straw, transvestite wolves, or porridge that’s too hot? Why not just cut to the chase?
The reason lies in how the human brain works. When we’re reading ‘matter-of-fact’ empirical data, the cognitive and language interpretation areas of the brain do most of the heavy-lifting to provide comprehension of the information presented to us.
But when we read a story, other areas of the brain fire up too. Areas of the brain that fire up when we’re actually experiencing something, also activate when we’re simply reading about the experience.
Cognitive Science researcher Véronique Boulenger, and her team at the Laboratory of Language Dynamics, found that reading sentences containing action caused activity in the motor cortex – the part of the brain which normally coordinates body movement. Simply reading a sentence such as “Pablo kicked the ball” makes the brain go through a simulated experience of actually kicking a ball.
Why is that important? Because the brain remembers it better.
Most people can’t remember facts or statistics for very long but can remember stories because of the way multiple areas of the brain become stimulated. Mnemonics work on the same principle.
Giving the brain additional hooks to aid in remembering and recollection is one of many reasons why brands need to evolve from simple one-dimensional slogans or taglines, to multi-tiered, story-based communications.
Stop Calling It “Content”
For years, my most hated word in marketing was “Engagement”. Overused, misunderstood, and dropped into conversations by people who didn’t really understand the fundamental premise but wanted to sound knowledgeable.
But “Engagement” has fallen by the wayside. The torched has been passed to a new generation of meaningless marketing terminology: something that marketers call “Content“.
Marketers use the word ‘content’ to describe words, sounds, or images that they consider worthy of vomiting onto websites, apps and social media channels. It is through the crafting of “content”, they insist, that will ultimately endear brands to their customers. They’re so out of touch that they even use the word directly when conversing with their audience – “Click here to share this content”, “Your content will be shown after this short message”.
The problem I have with this is that no-one in the real world would ever call anything “good content”. Real people don’t finish reading a riveting novel, watching an Oscar-winning motion picture, or experiencing an amazing concert and say to themselves “Wow – that was such a great piece of content.“
On the other hand, stories have enthralled human beings for as long as history has been recorded. The power of stories are the reason why we race home to watch our favorite TV show, turn the pages of a real – or virtual – book, or stay glued to our smartphones or tablets. A story that’s interesting and well told cannot fail to hold our attention because it envelopes and consumes us. We want to see/hear/know more.
Creating A Good Story Is Hard
Compared to developing a great story, coming up with a brand message is easy. Stakeholders spitball ideas between themselves, possibly aided by previously-conducted research and insights. The goal is to come up with that single, all-conquering ‘eureka concept’ which will serve to underpin the campaign. What follows next is a tested process of tweaking, honing and iteration to ensure the position can be framed across a range of media, platforms, and formats.
Exceptional storytelling, in contrast, is a much harder task. Great stories are not devised as much as uncovered. An authentic story, by its very definition, cannot be manufactured. The disparate parts that will ultimately take on a life on their own need to be coaxed and cajoled, far away from the merciless scrutiny of the Boardroom. Hemingway is quoted as saying that the first draft of anything is rubbish. But that initial discovery and idea journey is vital, as well as being fragile and vulnerable.
It hopefully goes without saying that none of this can happen on a typical campaign production timeline. This is the main reason why most brand stories are inauthentic, unemotional and one-dimensional.
If They Can See How The Story Ends, You’ve Failed
Conventional ad wisdom is based upon getting the point across quickly, simply, and clearly. There can be no room for doubt, uncertainty, or openness to interpretation on the part of the audience. “The Price is X”. “10 Million Satisfied Users”. “Better, Faster, Cheaper.” Outline the problem, explain how the features deliver clear benefits, that in turn underpin a particular value proposition. It’s the process used for a gazillion campaigns and has become the accepted best-practice for reaching an audience. But it assumes a limited and restricted window of communication: It assumes you have maybe 30 seconds to get your point across.
Great stories, in contrast, can be interpreted in a number of ways. Their ambiguity compels us to take a more active role in understanding the meaning behind the words. Good storytelling – optimally executed – invites contemplation, reflection, and discussion. Obfuscation, blind alleys, and multi-dimensional characters keep us guessing as to the outcome. If we can see how the story’s ending is going to play out from far away, we lose interest.
Light The Touchpaper, Then Stand Well Back
Such thinking doesn’t sit well a typical corporate environment of micro- and macro-management and cost-center fiscal responsibility, not to mention shareholder value creation. The required ‘hands-off’ approach is probably the biggest hurdle preventing companies to become real storytellers.
But the concept of putting faith in the nurturing process, for stories to evolve and take on a life of their own, can be likened to today’s post-internet customer/vendor relationship. As I’ve said before, companies don’t control their brand – customers do.
The balance of power – and influence – in the buyer relationship has shifted in favor of the customer. Brand storylines are no different.
A well developed and executed story should not be considered as little more than neatly-packaged delivery channel for a brand message. The best stories are much more than that, taking on the role of advocates of brand potential that’s still to be properly explored.