Catalytic Thinking / Opinion

Let me tell you a story…


Story telling is the Thing Of The Moment in marketing and branding.

The chance to build customer loyalty by opening up the business with a coherent, purposeful, narrative.

The opportunity to weave a rich tapestry, building emotions, developing consonance.

The problem is, because it’s the Thing Of The Moment, brands are starting to tell about a story.  Not the story itself.

And that won’t work.

Take this press ad from Bulmers as an example.

I’m sure that the brand has a wonderful story to tell.

Something that will make me all warm and fuzzy on the inside, sending me scurrying for the alcohol aisle in my nearest multiple.

But I have questions.

One – do I really care?  As a prospect (I don’t currently drink cider), what difference is this heritage going to make to me?  Why should I buy it over another brand or – gasp – Strongbow which has visibility, brand presence and a track record stretching far back into my youth?

Two – what’s the story going to give me (apart from the aforementioned warm and fuzzy feeling)?  I’m going to have to do something to find out.  Can I be bothered?

Three – what’s the driver here?  I assume that the ad is aimed at current cider drinkers, more specifically at the ones wavering on the fringes of brand loyalty.

Maybe I’m just not the target audience.

The nature of stories

We tell stories to build understanding, context, record events or create parables.

The narrative strands build, interweave, reinforce, communicate meaning, form feeling.

But this takes time.

The best stories aren’t told quickly.

They grow, develop, envelop.

As the prospect or the consumer, would you have the time to spend on such a story?

There are two great ways to deploy storytelling in marketing.

1) Visible Stories

If you’re a cause marketer, then stories are perfect for you.  You’re probably already talking to people in the right mindset, people who will be likely to support you if only they could get just that little bit more information.

You can invite all of these people onto the mat, get them sitting comfortably and tell them a story.

In fact, you can advertise your story.  They’ll like that – and plan their day accordingly.

2) The invisible story

However, if you’re a non-cause brand (that’s most of us then), your storytelling needs to be invisible.

You need to snare the prospect with stunning content, content which leaves them hungry for more.

The prospect must then be taken somewhere – online, instore etc – and infused with the story at every point.

But you mustn’t call it a story.  It must be invisible.

Each narrative strand must weave its way gently through the touchpoints, leaving enough of a tail for the consumer to grab onto, should they so wish, in order to find out more.

Because stories take time, the average prospect won’t be able to devote enough of their day to following yours to its present conclusion.

But if you can entice and beguile, they’ll make time – and they won’t call it a story.

They’ll call it discovery.

That’s a big difference.

Of course, there is one large problem with the whole storytelling ethos.

Stories don’t include the listener.

The Harry Potter series doesn’t include you.

The Never-Ending Story doesn’t include you.

Folk tales and legends don’t include you.

You don’t have a starring role in anyone else’s story.

Now imagine that you are the prospect or the customer.  When  a brand tells you a story, what are they actually doing?

They’re telling you all about them in a way that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

They’re not telling you about you.

Their story might involve you somewhere along the line, but it doesn’t really include you.

After all, why would it?  It’s not your story.

So here are my recommendations.

1) Stop advertising the fact that you’ve got a story – just get on and tell it. Prospects probably don’t have the time to waste seeing if your story is any good or not.

2) If you’re not a cause brand, drop the big story entirely.  Develop a narrative which contains small stories, points of discovery to surprise, delight and beguile.

And finally, the big one:

3) Construct your narrative  in such a way that the customer can use it to tell their own story.

Be a part of their story, and let them become part of yours.

It might sound simple to do, but the execution will be anything but.

Good luck…

Neil Hopkins is a Marketing and Branding Theorist at heart, and a Marketing Communications Manager by day. His blog – interacter – is the primary location he shares insight and information relating to marketing, branding and advertising strategy.
You can follow Neil on Twitter, circle him (like an escaped bull) on Google+ or track him down in any number of other ways.

Hurrah for Squiggle - rights owner for the featured image over on Flickr.

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43 thoughts on “Let me tell you a story…

  1. “Stories don’t include the listener.

    The Harry Potter series doesn’t include you.

    The Never-Ending Story doesn’t include you.

    Folk tales and legends don’t include you.

    You don’t have a starring role in anyone else’s story.”

    You’ve obviously never heard of fanfiction. Just because there’s a velvet rope between the listener and the story doesn’t mean there aren’t hordes of people who’ll happily climb past it, and have been doing so for decades. :-) What a good marketer does is INVITE this behavior, so that people CAN be involved. A great marketer also shapes it so that the end results are beneficial to the product.

    • Great point!

      Fan fiction is precisely the sort of interaction that many marketers dream of.

      I’ve written before about inviting the customer into your brand space (and realising that you don’t actually own the brand) so that they can play with it in precisely this way.

      It’s something that I truly believe marketing needs to be aiming for…

      • Yeah — we live in a very, very participatory age. But it’s worthwhile for marketers to realize that they aren’t inventing something new, and to look to other flourishing instances of this behavior to see how it plays out. No need to reinvent the wheel. :-) I think marketers who have been or are genre fans are probably in the best situation to apply those lessons.

  2. I disagree that the NeverEnding story doesn’t include “us”. At least the movie (I really want to read the book someday) notes that “they” were with Basitan during his trials as Bastian was with Atreau during his trials. We the viewer may be passive but we still matter.

    If you want a starring role in a story, try a video game or Choose Your Own Adventure style book. :) Good article, though.

  3. I tell stories on my blog all the time, no one reads them. What does get play are visuals. Photos, cartoons, etc. Maybe I just can’t tell the story well enough, or maybe no one cares.
    Great post.

    • Like your blog!

      You’re right, visuals are so important, and increasingly so (viz the rise of Pintrest et al). This is something I struggle with – marketing content doesn’t always lend itself to adding images – and there are so many bits of research out there suggesting that images increase readership, it feels like a failing on my part not to be supplying more…

      Are you promoting your work in the “right” places? Putting promotion effort into the “wrong” channels can mean that you miss potential readers out. Certainly from a quick read of several of your posts, it’s not to do with your writing level/style etc. Perhaps looking at how you promote will get the traffic you’re looking for?

  4. I’m trying to apply your good points to good personal blogs that draw some readers. Your invisible story is particularily applicable for such blogs. But there is a paradox for a personal blog which is the personal brand of the author. One of the 3rd top popular pages or posts on my blog is my “About” Page ! It amazes me. I attribute it to my blog’s name and people trying to make the connection with the blog’s “brand, content and who wrote it.

    • Hi Jean

      I think you’re right – many readers like to understand the context of the words that they’re reading, and the authority with which they’re written.

      With regards to the About pages, I see these as evolving narrative, not necessarily story. Yes, they’re the tale of how you got to where you are, but they are, by definition, open ended and evolving (until death).

      I really like your About page, by the way!
      Neil

  5. Pingback: An opportunity missed for John Lewis this Christmas | interacter

  6. I love this. It definitely shows a different approach to marketing. As a future Public Relations professional, I like to read up on many different marketing approaches. I like the examples that you used as well, and the suggestions that you have. Is there anywhere in particular that you leaned this? Kudos!

    • Thank you – really pleased that you enjoyed the post!

      I read huge amounts of news and blog sources, so have absorbed lots of information that way. Being honest, I haven’t read any current marketing texts as I find online stuff refresher and there when I need it!

      What type of PR are you interested in getting into?
      Neil

  7. I like what you have to say here. Your POV reminded me of a commercial from maybe a year ago that spotlights a couple who visit her family where he sees she has a white cat. What I remember was there was a series of commercials that showed him give her a kitten, engagement ring attached, then building a room solely for the cat. What I can’t remember is what product it was advertising. Sucked me in with the story, lost me with the product of focus. But, hey, it certainly made me want a freakin kitty.

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