Once upon a time…
You could have predicted the progression from a mile away. The online marketing world has been slowly plodding its way along a natural timeline, from the early days spent invested in loopholes and “whatever works” (read: cheap, scalable spam), to starting to think about audiences (contextual keyword targeting), to placing intense importance on content (create things people want to consume instead of vying for their click).
And now, here we are, the era of “Brand storytelling.”
It’s an ancient concept, but a relatively new buzzword—at least in a digital marketing context. If you poke around the web, the basic argument in favor of brand storytelling goes a little bit like this (some liberties taken):
“Storytelling is the most powerful force in our communication. From the moment we were hairy, hideous cavemen, we’ve used stories to pass on information, share values, evoke emotions and entertain one another around the campfire cooking woolly mammoth (before the advent of the vegan diet, apparently). Stories are the emotional glue that connect you with your adoring audience. They help frame your brand in a memorable and favorable light, aligning you with the shared values of your customer.”
And for as cynical as that sounds, it’s (mostly) true. Numerous studies show that stories are more persuasive to the human mind than cold, hard facts—mostly because they allow us to suspend expectations of reality.
Stories are also far easier to remember than content without context or narrative; we grow up listening to stories and know the ol’ story arc very well (from introduction to climax to resolution, and everything in between).
We all know a good story when we hear one.
How is it, then, that something we grow up surrounded by and accustomed to hearing turns into a sloppy mess when we apply it to branding? I’ve used this example before, but in my mind, there is no more awkward a failure at using storytelling as a medium:
Oof. Always just as painful to watch as the first time. In this piece, I’m going to tear through three of the most common reasons that attempts at brand storytelling fail, so that you can avoid ever putting out something this horrendous.
1. The Brand is Not the Hero
Every story shares some elements of plot—and every story has some sort of hero or protagonist at the center. Below is the “Hero’s Journey,” a well-known chart that marks the common stages of storytelling:
When it comes to brand storytelling, your brand is not the hero. The story does not go, “And the Corn Niblets bravely fought off the dangers of heart disease with fervor and grace. Buy Green Giant!”
Here’s the thing: Brand storytelling is not really about you. It’s about what you help your customers accomplish and the values that underpin your existence.
Corn niblets are not a hero your audience cares about or can relate to. Even though YOU want to throw your brand front and center, storytelling is about the customer and what you can do for them. You are the “Mentor:” the person or thing that makes achieving a goal and rising above challenges (the original refusal to a call/tests and enemies/central ordeal) possible.
When you tell the story of the customer, you’re really telling your own. Like the previous Samsung ad, I’ve shared this piece before, but I think it’s one of the best examples of this, so I’m not afraid to do it again:
Everything about this embodies the values of Patagonia: Go outside. Make products built to last. Enjoy the adventure. And yet, all of that is communicated in the narratives of the people who share those values. It’s more effective as a result.
One more great example: Duracell’s story of Seahawk’s Derrick Coleman:
Here we have a hero worth rooting for, a cause to believe in, a struggle we can understand and a mentor/tool (Duracell) we can get behind. Duracell doesn’t make this story about them—they play a bit part, a tiny role. And yet, because they get out of their own way, it’s emotionally gripping. We love seeing the hero win, and we take away the idea that Duracell does, too.
2. Appealing to Foreign or inconsistent values
Every brand has a story—that “story” is the sum of the brand’s values, promises and attitudes. While we talk about storytelling as a format for content, there is also a greater narrative outside of the content: the real-world perceptions of who you are and what you stand for. Those values need to remain consistent over time, because they’re what attracted your audience in the first place.
I want to show you another horrible attempt at brand storytelling that completely trashed a brand image’s image—solely because they forgot who their customers were. Oldsmobile was facing stiff competition, and wanted to reinvent themselves as a younger, hipper brand. Their attempt to pivot looked a bit like this:
The problem is that “Not your father’s Oldsmobile” wasn’t just a message that the market for Oldsmobile buyers didn’t want to hear, it was downright insulting. It made existing buyers feel old, outdated and outclassed while failing to convince new buyers it was the new hot ticket item. Oldsmobile had formerly stood for familiarity, safety, reliability—now it stood for nothing.
Remember that telling a story is about wrapping your audience up in the narrative. The moment you stomp on their values or create a world they don’t want to live in, you’ve lost them.
The Lego movie is an example of appealing to values done very well:
What I love about this is that Lego recognized that two narratives are actually at play—the story you tell to draw people in, and the story behind it. In the movie, the first is the story of Emmet and his quest to save the universe (we all relate to a struggle against evil). The second narrative is a story about creativity, the enjoyment of breaking the rules and the joy that comes from exploring endless outside-the-box possibilities. These are values and ideas Lego builders have held for years; Lego only reinforces them with slick, entertaining packaging.
(Far more entertaining than Lego’s attempt at telling their company history; though admittedly, that’s not too bad, either):
3. Displaying Unrelatable Characters
Watch this Apple ad. Chances are, you’ve found yourself in at least one of the situations depicted:
While not strictly a story, that ad works because we relate to the people we see. We recognize them; they are found in contexts and situations each and every one of us understand. Now watch this ad from my favorite whipping boy, Samsung (if you can make it all the way through):
It’s clear Samsung had three characters they wanted people to connect with: the mom, the businessman and the gamer. And yet, their reactions and dialogue are so unbelievable that any connection we might have to the stories of these people is obliterated. It’s scripted to the point of being inauthentic. Not only that, but the people depicted in the ad are unlikely to be the actual folks buying the product Samsung is selling—wrapping it up in a narrative for nobody at all.
Compare that to this bit of storytelling from Proctor & Gamble, perfectly targeted at Moms (the ones who tend to do the shopping):
It works because most any mother can relate to the selfless highs and lows of raising a kid and cheering them on. They can see themselves in the story, and so it is believable. It helps, too, that mothers are depicted as the true heroes, and that the emotions being displayed fall neatly in line with real life.
tell a better story.
These examples all reflect a failure to carefully account for the values, desires and imagination of the customer. By trying to be the hero or wrestle away the imagination of an audience that wasn’t ready to believe in what they were selling, they tripped over themselves.
The stories that come out of your brand need to be consistent with what your customers stand for. You need heroes they can believe in or see themselves as. You need problems that really exist and narratives that could actually take place and appeal to emotions and challenges we all know and understand.
I’ll leave you with one last bit of laughter: another failed Samsung ad. Personal favorite moment? How the screen at the end says “A Special Day with Daddy,” just what every teenage boy wants to see:
Don’t succumb to those three fatal flaws. You can do better.