The storytelling myth

The storytelling myth and how brands get it so wrong

In Ideas by Peter Gearin

Companies need to tell yarns that put their customers first, not themselves.

In a fat paragraph published just before Christmas, US advertising and marketing mainstay AdAge outed the “worst buzzword” of 2017. Reporter Megan Graham cleared her throat and declared that brands need to control-alt-delete certain terms from their communications …

“Brands, unless you’ve got John Cena reading “Ferdinand the Bull” to adorable children at the Library of Congress, let’s cut the word “storytelling” from our collective vocabulary in 2018. Here’s the thing: No matter how “authentic” and “snackable” your content, no matter how many Insta followers your influencers have, and no matter how robust your “learnings,” it’s not a story. It’s an ad.”

Apart from everything in AdAge’s world needing to walk, talk and squawk like an “ad”, Graham makes a fair point. The idea that everything we produce in the corporate communications realm needs to be a piece of “storytelling” is wrong and misleading. Frankly, in most cases – whether it’s a YouTube video, an Instagram, Facebook or blog post, or a 30-second ad – many brands struggle to make a point, let alone tell a “story”.

It’s no one’s fault that “storytelling” has become such a loaded term. As AdAge’s post suggests, the word signifies stories and legends passed down generations and fairytales told before bedtime. When writers engage in “storytelling”, it suggests they’re operating at a higher level, following in the grand traditions of Homer, Rowling and Spielberg.

Eminent advertising and marketing people speak reverently at conferences about how successful teams follow the “seven basic plots” – the overly simplistic theory that there are only a set number of storylines: overcoming a monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth. It’s as if the essence of successful communications is choosing the right plot to sell the right product at the right time. All modern communicators need to do, they suggest, is follow the story tablets laid down millennia past for how people engage with ideas.

Those in content and PR agencies love selling their clients on the idea of “storytelling” – the importance of telling “their story”. (And, yes, I do it myself.) It’s true that if what we’re doing is “telling stories”, then we are engaging in, umm, storytelling. And there are certain creatives who have every right to claim they are, especially novelists, poets and moviemakers.

It’s hard to see corporate comms people or their freelancers fitting this category. Even top-class journalists who tell great stories would never see themselves (or their peers) as “storytellers”. It’s just too pretentious.

The issue here for creatives and agencies is not in the act of telling stories. There’s no doubt that stories have a role in how brands communicate. It’s the way storytelling is used as a way to justify self-serving branded content or content marketing.

Unfortunately, when brands think about “telling stories” they feel the need to talk about themselves – how we began, what we make, why we do what we do, the story behind the people behind the brand … Yes, these stories can be nicely told and lovingly produced, but they often make the brand look self-obsessed. Worse than that, they’re often incredibly boring.

US author Mark Schaefer wrote about the best piece of branded content he has seen recently. It was a promotional piece by outdoor goods retailer North Face with almost 8 million views on YouTube.

Schaefer says that what makes the North Face video so powerful is its focus on the passions and trials faced by people who love adventure sports. The North Face logo appears occasionally but the film is not about the brand. It’s part of a consistent and concerted strategy to portray North Face in a certain light.

“One of my biggest frustrations with content marketing is the inward focus of the effort – how we tell a story about us,” Schaefer writes. “Guru after guru is out there teaching about classic storytelling and how we cleverly reveal the arc of our company tale.

“For the most part, people don’t give a crap … People really only care about themselves and what makes them happy today. This tale from North Face is not a story about the company. It’s a story about the customers and that makes all the difference, doesn’t it?”

What makes the video especially powerful, he says, is it gives credence to those who live the “North Face” way. “This content creates an incredible emotional link by redefining obsessed as devoted, crazy as calculated, and madness as pioneering,” he writes. “It justifies a lifestyle. This is a group of people who may regarded as strange outsiders and North Face is telling them ‘it’s OK, you belong’.”

It would be great if more corporate storytelling came from a place where businesses were more interesting, useful, relevant, entertaining or just plain helpful – not introspective and self-promotional. This is often not the brand’s fault. Agency people who should know better often tell their clients that businesses in the digital age need to “tell their stories” to “explain who you are and what you do”. It’s no surprise that executives who stumped up the budget for such branded content wonder later why it didn’t go “viral” or attract more interest on social media.

I prefer the approach taken by Australian property portal and media business Domain. It recently produced The Circle, a comedy series by Felix Williamson about couples from Sydney and Melbourne who have moved to Hibiscus Circle in Noosa, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

Like Williamson’s earlier series, Avalon Now, which was also a hit for Domain, it covers topics that play well for the aspirational people who come to the real-estate website looking for their dream properties.

So, assuming the term survives into 2018 and beyond, what is the secret to successful brand storytelling? Talk about the things that matter to your intended audience.

Links & references

Brand Tales’ story on Avalon Now

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