Mike Connell

The Big Question: The Secrets of Good Storytelling

By: Mike Connell | July 27, 2018 | 
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What Makes Good StorytellingWe discuss storytelling all the time, but the term seems to have become a buzzword in our industry, and the practice is losing itself a bit in the throng of micro-moments on social media.

Begging the question: what does it really mean to tell stories on behalf of a brand, product, and/or service?

The definition of “story” itself is, admittedly, somewhat flexible.

An account. A narrative.

However you describe it, storytelling is an age-old craft ever evolving.

But when marketers say they’re experts in brand storytelling, what do they mean?

If the content and its application help communicate what the brand in question is all about and how it can fit into your life, perhaps that’s a brand story well told.

But then there are examples of brands (and their marketers) telling ACTUAL stories, such as the Airbnb short “Wall and Chain.”

What do you think?

What are the secrets of good storytelling?

In addition (or, in some cases, alternatively) how do you define brand storytelling, and what are your favorite examples?

Because I’m writing this, I get to start!

While I won’t say that Coca-Cola is a favorite brand of mine, I do love some of their content endeavors.

For instance, they’ve recently launched a docu-series called “One Last Summer.”

The series follows friends in Plainfield, Illinois, as they share their last few months together before heading off to college.

Product placement isn’t forced but is plentiful.

That said, it’s the story and the emotions it elicits which gives me a warm fuzzy for the fizzy drink.

What Makes Good Storytelling: Emotion

I think we can all agree that content that elicits an emotional response can be very effective.

From Joe Rutland:

For me, telling a good story involves getting people’s attention through giving them an emotional buy-in.

A great example, storytelling example, advertising-wise, is Budweiser’s yearly Christmas ads with the Clydesdales and dogs.

It’s done in a way to stir memories of sweet holiday times, winter, and leaves a viewer having warm fuzzies. People are left remembering both the story and the product.

We’re with you, Joe.

The conundrum, when it comes to emotional storytelling, is a combination of authenticity and consistency.

Budweiser nails their emotional message year-after-year.

That said, their success engenders a swath of copy-cat style stories.

Our discussion around petfluence last week addressed a similar issue.

How many brands and marketers do you see incorporating cute puppies or like-minded awww-inducing tactics?

Are they doing it to truly tell their story, or to get their audience (any audience?) following along?

In Joe’s example, Budweiser’s story has been ongoing and evergreen.

And while they’re definitely pulling (tactically) at our heartstrings, they do it in a way that has consistently reflected who they are as a brand.

Tori Hebert is on the same page (and gets a little emotional herself!):

Across social media, spotlights during RAW and Smack Down, I think the WWE has really capitalized on their Diversity and Hope values.

Sharing the background of an athlete, showing an Olympian “train” while a Superstar is with them, meet and greets.

I’m getting tears typing this because the messages they have shared touch my heart and makes me see WWE as more than “low” culture and entertainment.

Good Storytelling Makes an Impression

Similarly, Valerie Turgeon agrees that effective storytelling elicits an emotional response, but a broader goal should include making a lasting impression.

This is the very first piece of content when I think about brand storytelling.

Letters to Dad from Paper & Packaging (warning: it’s a tear-jerker):

I love this example for so many reasons:

  1. Only 1-min long so people are more likely to watch it in full.
  2. It tells a clear story without any dialogue.
  3. Features the brand’s products front and center without it disrupting the story or the message.
  4. It appeals to emotion.

I would define brand storytelling as a method of marketing to show consumers how a brand plays a meaningful part in someone’s life.

By making the story front-and-center and incorporating the brand as more of a static character rather than the protagonist, it feels less like an ad and more like a genuine message.

Branded stories are also focused on emotion—from sadness to joy to laughter to inspiration.

Most importantly, branded stories are meant to entice emotion and action.

Some brand stories don’t even mention or focus on the product. Rather, the stories are related to the industry.

REI is one of the best at this. They tell stories to inspire people to go on outdoor adventures.

It’s all about the character in the story. My coworker cites this REI video as one of her biggest inspirations for beginning to compete in ultra-bike races:

And of course, REI’s #GetOutside campaign encouraged others to get outside and make their own stories. No branding is even in the hashtag.

Stories are SO powerful. Plain and simple.

Good Storytelling: The Bigger Picture

Storytelling grants us a reprieve from pop-ups, sponsored posts, and requests to “buy now.”

While that isn’t always its goal, Adria Greenhauff points out that content shouldn’t be about hitting an audience over the head with your conversion goals.

As a copywriter and content strategist, I often use the term ‘brand storytelling’ or brand journalism to describe what I do.

To me, this means having an ability to sell a product or service without hitting people over the head with calls-to-action like BUY NOW!

For instance, I work a lot with farm-to-table restaurants, so I help my clients illustrate ways they are providing delicious, healthy, sustainable foods without having to say, We provide delicious healthy and sustainable food, please eat here.

A way I might do this is to create a blog series highlighting the different local farmers my client works with, or by posting a mini photo essay on Instagram highlighting a super fresh ingredient that’s currently on their menu.

Brand storytelling is crucial and it can be pivotal for your business if done in a smart way.

Companies like Airbnb, Dove, Burt’s Bees and, of course, Nike, are all masters of good brand storytelling.

Why? Because everything from their commercials to social media accounts to the colors and materials used on their packaging evokes a certain feeling.

It communicates a bigger mission, purpose and makes you want to be a part of it.

The coolest part is they can achieve this without ever saying, Please buy from us!

A Brand Storytelling Twist

Typically, we’ve been discussing storytelling as it pertains to engaging an external audience.

Using it as a means of introducing them to your brand, and inviting them to participate in the experience.

Trevor Longino has been using storytelling a little differently:

Brand storytelling, in general, is about giving someone the understanding that he or she has the chance to participate in a broader story, a bandwagon of people who are making some kind of change.

We use brand storytelling a little bit differently than most brands do: we use it to communicate clearly with our team internally.

We explicitly organize our company’s story into seasons and episodes of our company story.

Basically, we establish a high-level objective and key result (OKR) for every season (where we define “season” as landmark events in the company’s history—so far they’re funding events, but in the future that may change as funding rounds come more slowly).

Seasons are ~18 months. Each season is broken down into Episodes which are 3 or 4 months in length.

Each Episode has its own OKR, and we break out month to month work from there and team leads create action items from that point.

By organizing our company around the story it tells—here’s where we came from, here’s our path we’ve traveled, and here’s the road ahead of us—it’s remarkable how much easier it is to get every team member in the company aligned with the top level goals and excited to play their part in the larger company story.

Good Storytelling Needs Consistency

From Kylie McMullan:

Brand storytelling is the art of finding or creating relevant information or content to share that provides insight to a broader audience around what the brand is about.

Brand storytelling isn’t just about one piece of content, it’s also about consistency of materials and the entire package that’s being shared.

I think an example of a company that is exceptional at this is Nature’s Path Organic Foods.

Every piece of content they put out, from their website, videos, social media content, and sponsorships, reinforces who they are: organic, family-owned and operated, and socially conscious.

In order to be good at brand storytelling, brands need to decide which key messages they want to communicate that are core and authentic to their brand, and then find interesting and creative ways to share those messages.

Good Storytelling Should Be Easy

Imogen Hitchcock dispels the mystery:

Simply put, people like to hear about people.

If you have a personal, emotional element to anything you’re communicating, then it will hit closer to home.

A story doesn’t have to be “once upon a time”—you can build stories out of corporate messages quite easily.

However, you need to position those corporate messages in a way that there is a clear common quest, a hero, a villain, a magic weapon, etc.

Good Storytelling Goes Beyond Data

Story over data?!? As shocked as we were to hear this from Katie Robbert, she makes a lot of sense:

As important as the data is, you still need the storytelling aspect to it.

We’re working on multiple forms of storytelling because we know people prefer different formats.

This includes (but isn’t limited to) podcasts, videos, blogs, whitepapers, case studies, speaking.

All supported by data.

Length and medium depend on the story and the audience.

There is a call for short form (social for example) but there is also a need for longer-form.

We’ve always found blogs to be a great way to do brand storytelling and to get your brand out there when you’re just starting.

What Makes Good Storytelling?

There were too many answers to include them all (you should join the free Spin Sucks Community to see them unfold in all their glory.

It’s really quite impressive!), but the so-called moral of this story isn’t difficult to discern.

Authenticity, emotion, consistency, and a commitment to go beyond your sales goals are tantamount to any tale.

We all have a story to tell, even the brands we work with and use day-in, and day-out.

How we tell those stories is evolving, but the heart of that story shouldn’t change.

Up Next: Video

I love video content.

Let me rephrase that.

I love consuming video content, but I despise making it.

Let me rephrase again: I love video content, but I hate being IN it…

That’s not a huge impediment to what I do because, well, #writing, but ultimately I do recognize the value of video… as long as I’m not in it.

Still, that got us thinking.

How important is video to our content mix?

It’s important, to be sure, but how important?

If it’s absent from your content strategy, do you absolutely need to add it? How much should you layer in?

So, the next Big Question focuses on video:

How important is video marketing in your content strategy? Is there such a thing as too much? Too little?

Does it depend?

You can answer here, in our free Spin Sucks Community, or on the socials (use #SpinSucksQuestion so we can find you).

About Mike Connell


Mike Connell is the director of client services at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. He is also a contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks, the leading source for modern PR training, trends, and insights. Find more of Mike's musings on his blog, Communative. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

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