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.
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.