Once upon a brand

Discover the seven uses of storytelling in marketing, as told by Giles Lury

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Storytelling has long been used in marketing, and in recent years it has become almost ubiquitous. Just about any brand worth its salt now talks about its stories and its narrative.

The two issues arising with this ubiquity is that, firstly, things that aren’t stories are called stories. Product claims, case histories, research debriefs are all badged as stories, even though they don’t tell a tale. Marketers just love to jump on a bandwagon or, should I say, a brand wagon. The second issue comes from the fact that just as there are many types of stories in the world, so the use of storytelling in marketing varies enormously.

Having looked across the industry, I would suggest that there are seven different ways of storytelling that can be usefully employed and rightly labelled as brand stories:

The brand narrative

This is a means of presenting the organization/brand as a character and its role as a story. Virgin, for example, has positioned itself as the ‘white knight’ riding to save the damsel (consumer) in distress.

Did you know…

This is when brands build emotional engagement by telling the little (true) stories about themselves – how the brand started, the origin of its name. These can be used to build emotional engagement. If you look closely at the back of a packet of Bassetts Liquorice Allsorts you’ll find the story of their accidental creation: “In 1899, when accident-prone Bassetts salesman Charlie Thompson tripped up, he mixed up all the different sweets he was carrying, creating the weird and wonderful mix of sweets that we know and love today as Bassetts Liquorice Allsorts.”

Inspiring and cautionary tales

The use of stories about brands as a training tool, to provide inspiration and/or instruction for the marketing team or broader organization. They can be used to show how employees should act, as a means of helping your organization consider how it might perform better, or to encourage people to think in different ways. The inclusion of a moral as used by fable tellers like Aesop adds to the effectiveness of getting the desired message across.

Up close and personal

The telling of personal stories is another means of gaining emotional engagement. The parallels between the personal and the business situation are then highlighted to make a specific point – a technique used by chief executives and politicians worldwide. Nike, among other brands, encourages its senior management to learn how to tell these types of stories.

Going metaphorical

Here a (fictional) story is created that can act as a metaphor for what has happened, needs to happen, or as an entertaining expression of what your brand is doing. The 2013 film ‘The Scarecrow’ by Mexican fast-food chain Chipotle is a good example of this.

Meet your customer

Stories, fictional, but based on a true customer, are being used more frequently to personalize target segments, their beliefs and behaviours. They are a powerful way to bring to life target segments and touchpoints along any customer journey, and tend to be richer than the simple description of people used in pen portraits.

The ‘story-tation’

When did a PowerPoint slide last make you cry? Writing a presentation as a story is one way to try to avoid ‘death by PowerPoint’. It is, however, not always that easy and, as mentioned earlier, can lead to many presentations being called stories when they are far from it. Yet the identification of the story you want to tell, and the use of storytelling techniques like creating a narrative arc which allows speakers to communicate points in a more engaging and memorable way, can make your
points powerfully.

— Ben Walker is editor of Dialogue

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