Todd Wolfenbarger

Storymaking vs. Storytelling: Learn from Mary Poppins

By: Todd Wolfenbarger | May 19, 2015 | 
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StorymakingBy Todd Wolfenbarger

A few nights ago, I watched “Mary Poppins” with Lily, my 8-year-old daughter.

About halfway through the movie, Mary Poppins and the children met Burt, a chimney sweep, as he was drawing with chalk on the sidewalk. In a surrealistic moment, they jumped through his pictures into the scenes he’d drawn. They visited a fair, took a carousel ride, danced with penguins, and joined a fox hunt.

It makes one wonder what kind of brownies Mary was feeding those children.

Putting Mary’s possibly questionable child-rearing capabilities to the side, it becomes apparent that Burt, in that moment, successfully moved beyond effective storytelling and went straight into superior storymaking.

The scenes became real, the children became participants, and a powerful effect was unleashed.

That kind of participatory storymaking is exactly what brands need to engage customers in today’s marketing world.

In the age of authenticity, social media and the transparency of the Internet have made customers wary of artificial storytelling.

They crave interactive communication.

Like Mary Poppins’ charges, they want to jump right in and help shape their favorite brands’ stories.

Storymaking vs. Storytelling

Storytelling is one-way communication.

It’s a tool—an important one—but it’s only a means to an end.

A good story might connect you to your audience, but it doesn’t invite them to join you.

In contrast, storymaking is a two-way participatory process.

It involves building your brand’s story through consumer feedback and an ongoing discovery process.

It’s a connection in and of itself, and it powerfully bonds consumers to your brand.

Here’s how to draw consumers in through storymaking.

Chalk Your Scene

Burt started the process of storymaking before the children happened upon his drawings. He had carefully crafted scenes so delightful that little Jane asked Mary Poppins if they could visit the drawings instead of the park.

Creating a compelling story that your audience wants to jump into is the magic of marketing, and it involves the intentional process of sketching your brand’s story based on what it offers that customers will pay for.

For example, Walmart’s story is that it delivers the best value on everyday items, and Nike’s story is that it empowers every consumer to be an athlete.

Your story will resonate better if you sacrifice some of its elements to focus on only a few attributes.

If you try to cram 11 brand benefits into one message, your audience will become confused, skeptical, and eventually indifferent.

Encourage Jumping In

After sketching your scene, invite your audience to join you in the collaborative process of storymaking.

Burt didn’t cast a vision and force the children to stick to it. Instead, he allowed them to participate and create alongside him.

Seek feedback and input as your brand evolves.

Social media offers a variety of platforms for achieving this. Its real-time feedback allows consumers to jump into and interact with your brand’s story.

Whether you’re mining your social platforms for organic discussions or asking your audience for their thoughts, listen attentively and seek to understand their feelings about your brand.

Avoid the Twin Traps of Storytaking and Storyfaking

Telling a story that’s authentic to your brand is key to successful storymaking.

Burt put it well when he explained that his work was “all me own scenes from me own memory.”

Unfortunately, too many brands try to substitute storyfaking (creating a clever but inauthentic brand persona) or storytaking (stealing another brand’s authentic messaging).

For example, Dunkin’ Donuts’ recent tactic is mimicking Starbucks.

Starbucks succeeded in engaging customers, in large part, by crafting a story about the people and places behind its high-quality coffees.

Dunkin’ Donuts has now copied the brand by claiming, “We sell the best beans in the world.”

This message is forced, and it’s a mistake.

It’s likely people won’t engage with this message because they’ll struggle to believe it’s real.

Consumers can sniff out these faux pas from a mile away.

As you shape your story, make sure it aligns with your company’s values and brand persona.

Seek feedback, and make the process participatory.

Then, just as the children in “Mary Poppins” jumped into Burt’s chalk drawings, consumers will want to jump into your brand’s story.

image credit: The Disney blog

About Todd Wolfenbarger


Todd Wolfenbarger has more than 25 years of senior marketing experience with Fortune 50 companies in various industries and with his own marketing consultancy. He currently serves as president and partner of The Summit Group, an award-winning marketing communications firm at West Temple in Salt Lake City that specializes in the healthcare, franchise marketing, and consumer retail sectors.

  • This sentence: “If you try to cram 11 brand benefits into one message, your audience will become confused, skeptical, and eventually indifferent” is so true for a client I am involved with. The client knows they need to refine who they are perceived as, but gets anxious when focusing on the chosen target areas eliminates “opportunities” in other “shiny things” areas. // I really enjoyed this post.

  • This is fantastic! I want to go watch Mary Poppins again right now.

    Also: The Dunkin Donuts example is a good one. I think too many brands get so worked up in their own cheerleading they forget how they’re really perceived from the outside. Did not one person at the donut company think, “You know, this best beans thing … it’s kind of eyeroll-inducing, isn’t it?”

  • I love the emphasis on being collaborative. Pull your audience in and encourage them to make the story their own! 

    And I must watch Mary Poppins this weekend.

  • danielschiller

    DD has actually sponsored some innovative programs in recent memory. I concur that the Fair Trade Certified™ messaging is lacking context. In trying to say too much, you say nothing at all and forgo the participatory aspect.

  • Great example of Dunkin Donuts where storytaking amounts to no more than a hill of beans and being from the Dunkin Donuts capital (Boston) I know my beans 😉

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