‘Storytelling!’ It’s up there with ‘big data’ as a phrase that’s kind of annoying but has yet to be improved upon by a better alternative. 

Ultimately shorthand phrases are necessary because they save time. I’ve been guilty in the past of going ludicrously around the block to avoid the phrase ‘big data’. I believe if you look back through my previous articles you will find far more instances of me saying “the massive volume of available data” rather than “big data”.

I realise now that this is stupid. Most digital marketers know what you mean when you use ‘big data’ so therefore just say it. The annoyance comes from when people either use it wrong or use it blindly, this is why buzzwords are so excruciating. 

So how about ‘storytelling’ then? It’s not only a phrase we’ve all heard at conferences and meeting rooms for a number of years now, but it’s also one we’ve grasped from our earliest days. 

It’s a phrase we all understand because it’s one of the fundamental ways we communicate ideas, educate and entertain each other from infancy. We remember information far better when it’s in the form of story rather than as a list of facts.

People tell stories, art tells stories, TV tells stories, ads tell stories… so it seems straightforward enough when a marketer talks about ‘storytelling’, we know what they mean…

We immediately think of the old Nescafe adverts with the ‘will-they-won’t they episodic’ romance or the John Lewis advert where the snowman traverses all manner of hardship just to buy a pair of gloves or the Budweiser advert where the puppy is friends with a horse.

Perfectly linear, narratively driven stories that take the viewer on a journey from beginning to end, which just so happen to advertise a product at the same time (either subtly or very obviously) instead of a blatant ‘buy this now!’ message.

It seems things aren’t quite that simple.

Storytelling in marketing terms isn’t just about telling ‘a story’ (producing an advert where a narrative arc occurs), it’s about telling the story of the ‘brand’ across multiple channels and using various tools and methods.

As one of the commenters underneath my previous article Five brands excelling at storytelling suggested the challenge is in not just using storytelling in video, but also to keep “the narrative weaved into the customer experience”.

Marketing Week has a succinct view on this. Storytelling is about providing consistent and compelling content to build a picture of the company. 

Aesop has a 10-point criteria as to the elements necessary for good brand storytelling. 

These include whether it’s engaging, memorable and authentic. Does it have a unique personality and a clear sense of purpose? Does it create intrigue as to what the brand will do next? Has the brand created its own world?

Which brands have achieved this?

Last week, Matt Owen discussed Jack Daniel’s use of storytelling to personalise its brand. Using a combination of two different perceptions (the warm heritage of its hometown roots and the backstage rock & roll tipple of choice) across multiple channels, Jack Daniels creates timeless content that appeals to a wide range of consumers and will help it stick around for another century.

Cadbury consistently occupies the top end of ‘best storytelling brands’ research. In the Aesop research mentioned above, Cadbury came second overall last year, and this year in Marketing Week’s own study, Cadbury came second again.

According to the research, Cadbury is a constant innovator yet is also disciplined enough to make its marketing campaigns completely consistent with its brand. 

It’s not just the gorilla drumming along to ‘In the Air Tonight’ or the ever evolving ‘How do you eat yours’ Crème Egg campaign, it’s also in its in-store experiences, its website where its lengthy history is the focus and it’s Cadbury World theme park.

Cadbury has also used experiential marketing in its takeover of a digital screen in Waterloo, encouraging passengers to play an augmented reality game where they could win chocolate bars.

The classic Dairy Milk bar itself can also be interacted with and personalised by consumers. Therefore it can be directly engaged with and ‘owned’.

Cadbury uses its heritage and its eye for absurdity to make constantly surprising, innovative and personalised experiences for consumers who completely trust the brand.

Aldi has a fantastic campaign, which again has been running for years, which involves putting genuine people in front of the camera and comparing its own products with bigger brands.

These are consistent, engaging, funny and most of all real. They each reveal hidden eccentricities of the protagonists, who are resolutely proud of who they and in turn are proud to shop in the unbranded, cheaper supermarket.

This commitment to an unfussy, down-to-Earth demographic creates trust and loyalty in the brand, and this is reflected throughout its channels. From social…

…to in-store.

Further reading for beginners...

During my first year at Econsultancy I’ve been making a point of writing beginner’s guides to any new terms or phrases I find particularly baffling, or that I might suspect other people may find baffling too. 

The following related articles should help clear up a few things…

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 23 September, 2014 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

686 more posts from this author

You might be interested in

Comments (3)

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, Founder and Author at Fresh Relevance

Traditional storytelling is an extremely good way for small, artisan brands to give personality and credibility to their products, so a lot of them do it. Here's one of of my favorite examples, which is especially clear, and so self-aware that it's almost parody.

"Kenneth "Cat Daddy" Pogson and Tres Shannon have been friends for awhile. They always wanted to start a business together. Something that would fit into an extraordinary Portland business climate. Something fun, different, and one for the ages. After much searching under rocks, tequilas, and women's blouses, they found what they were looking for... doughnuts!!

Cat Daddy with his stunningly brilliant business sense, and Tres with his seemingly endless supply of connections, set forth to conquer Old Town, Portland, and the world!! After a meeting with some Armenians and drumming masters, they were ready to set up shop in the "crotch" of Portland --- Old Town.

There was only one problem, neither Cat Daddy nor Tres had ever made doughnuts before [...]"

almost 4 years ago


Kevin McIntosh


I would also add that brand storytelling is about giving the audience space to allow your brand's narrative to enter their own inner narrative...

That's the main thing I learned after creating my documentary on brand storytelling..

Here's a video excerpt from the documentary on that concept if interested...


almost 4 years ago


James Trezona

Yup, it's a buzzword, but don't let that fool you - it's critical. For us the most interesting challenge is that it challenges us to go (far) beyond marketing - into the core strategy, substance and impact of a brand. And as such it's about making commitments, that are real, understood through the company and actionable every day.

This shouldn't just be across all channels - but in every area of the business. The reason this is different from traditional branding is that the emphasis is on creating stories that spread - and are about actions as much as words and images. Already people are talking about "Story making" as the next logical step: co-creating actionable brand experiences. We've published 13 stories we feel every brand should have (http://roosterpunk.com/#section-eight) - our story is that we're an agency intent on helping brands do social and environmental good through creating human stories that make a difference.

It's exciting and feels like an enlightened evolution of marketing - away from an outmoded and bankrupt type of brand model that creates short-lived veneers of artificial reality, and replaces it with one looking for authentic and sustainable human truths and positive intentions that create a virtuous upward spiral. The best bit is that there's not a conflict between this and commercial success- the two not only co-exist, but actually great stories drive long-term company success.

almost 4 years ago

Save or Cancel

Enjoying this article?

Get more just like this, delivered to your inbox.

Keep up to date with the latest analysis, inspiration and learning from the Econsultancy blog with our free Digital Pulse newsletter. You will receive a hand-picked digest of the latest and greatest articles, as well as snippets of new market data, best practice guides and trends research.