The myth in question and my provocation here, is that not only is the term ‘story’ overused in the world of communications, it is also widely misused. 

The root of storytelling, at least in the occidental tradition, connects back to the classical period, when stories were initially passed on by word of mouth. The best known examples of this genre are the stories of the Greek oral tradition ascribed to Homer – The Iliad and The Odyssey.  These stories were always changing as they were told and re-told, influenced by audience response and reaction. 

So, what of the current state of storytelling in the advertising industry? There was plenty of talk on this topic at Cannes earlier this year, and Campaign provided a perspective with this video titled ‘What’s the secret to great commercial storytelling?’, including a sequence of interviews with brands and companies such as Burger King, Microsoft, Direct Line, McCann and WCRS.

Some of this is rather less than inspiring, with plenty of buzzwords being thrown around, but here are some of the highlights:

  • Ogilvy One: Emotional content that is timely, relevant, useful and/or entertaining.
  • Airbnb: Figure out why consumers should care.
  • Microsoft: Authenticity. Real stories about real people.
  • WCRS: The brand has got to stand for something before you can tell a story.
  • Havas Creative US: Make really awesome stuff!

The use of the story concept in communications parlance allows marketeers to connect with a rich emotional tapestry and heritage. But are the stories being told in the world of marketing really stories at all?

At this point, it’s worth listening to the always enlightening Martin Weigel’s perspective on storytelling: ‘The hubris, the delusion, the philistine rhetoric masquerading as depth, the pomposity parading as wisdom, and the narrowing of our industry’s ambition is too much to bear. For if advertising’s stories are among the best our civilisation has to offer then please, shoot me.’

Weigel quotes Aristotle as defining the essence of a story as being ‘a change from bad fortune to good or from good fortune to bad.’ Essentially there is no point if the story ends in the same place that it started. He has issues with the nature of commercial storytelling in the following areas:

  • There is limited appetite for conflict: ‘Stories that succeed in shining a light into the crevices of the human soul. Stories that illuminate our place in the state things.’
  • There is no interest in deep exploration: ‘When did an insight unearthed and authored by a planner ever hold a candle to the examination of the human condition offered up say, by Chaucer or Dickens?’
  • There is little appetite for genuine human truth: ‘One struggles to think of any advertising that has expanded and educated our capacity for moral judgment. But then why should it? It has another agenda. For in the final analysis, and however it achieves it, advertising is always about the brand.’
  • Most of what is made just isn’t a story: ’..reducing story to “somebody wants something and something gets in the way” is merely the stuff of plotting and structure. Stories – good, lasting ones – are so more than just structure, plot and momentum. Pattern does not a story make.’ 

The final provocation is whether marketeers should aspire to be storytellers at all – ‘And herein lies the truest, most clear and present danger for marketers in falling for the storytelling rhetoric. Convincing ourselves that we are storytellers might make us feel important (but) ..we need not tell a story for the consumer to tell a story. And indeed, sometimes just making something useful, or beautiful is enough.’

No surprise then that the consumer, increasingly the arbiter of brand value, is key to the successful telling of a commercial story. Content needs to be powerful enough to have an impact and engaging enough to share. And this makes sense of course. Marketeers should be experts with regards to consumer understanding, but can hardly be expected to be expert storytellers. This is best left to Shakespeare, Milton et al.

As touched on above, the most interesting observation of all (and one that goes all the way back to the classical oral storytelling tradition) is that great stories were never set in stone, but forever changing as they were told, influenced by audience reaction and then re-told; being passed on from one generation of storytellers to another. While the digital environment offers new channels and accelerated interactivity, it still echoes the ancient tradition of storytelling by mirroring the importance of the audience in the process. In both instances and across the centuries, the audience and consumers are there to listen, to develop and to share. 

Powerful stories are increasingly told in video form, and in short, episodes. A disappointing downside for this, is that this has put increased pressure on journalism and jobs in this sector. A more positive development for the written word, has been the rise of ebooks, which are increasingly using a short episodic approach, in a fashion not since the days of Charles Dickens.

And if the audience is key to successful storytelling, how can we encourage consumers to tell brand stories?

A perspective here, with some research from Mailmunch, which identified the top content distribution strategies as follows:

  • Influencer marketing: 26%
  • Email marketing: 18%
  • Social media: 18%
  • Guest blogging: 16%
  • Paid distribution: 14%
  • Internal employees: 4%
  • Distribution platforms: 4%

Interesting to see the continued growth of influencer marketing in this list and the value of effective and authoritative sharing of commercial stories via this method.

This is the real challenge and opportunity for marketeers. Of course, it is about creating ‘stuff’ that is of real interest to consumers, but it is also about having a strategy that encourages an audience to engage with each other around the stories that are being told. 

Some examples of brands that have successfully created ‘storysharing’ environments include Airbnb, with its Stories content, John Deere and its farming community The Furrow, and of course the Nike+ Run Club.

All of these brands created a subject and an environment that allowed their customers to tell stories to each other, whether that be around travelling and discovery, farming advice or sharing experiences around exercise and wellbeing. The Furrow’s content (with stuff about mushrooms, grain producing and Tennessee beef) is particularly interesting, as it shows that a powerful community can work in any vertical as long as there is a good enough ‘subject’ and an appropriate ‘environment’.

Philip Pullman said – ‘writing is despotism, but reading is democracy.’ It is by harnessing the power of democracy and individuals’ interpretation of stories they have heard; that marketeers can truly develop great stories and enhance the power of their brands.

For more on this topic, check out Econsultancy’s range of content marketing training courses, or subscribers can download our Content Strategy Best Practice Guide.