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Once upon a time…It was a dark and stormy night… A man walks into a bar… In the beginning, God created heaven and earth…
Human beings are compulsive storytellers. Stories are how we make sense of the world and give meaning to our existence. They’re also how we connect with each other. That’s why we’ve been telling them for as long as we’ve been around. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors tried to explain the natural phenomena around them through imaginative tale-telling.
The Worora Aboriginal people in Western Australia, for example, maintained that cloud spirits, called the Wandjina, create the rain. Canadian Inuit believed the aurora borealis is their dead ancestors dancing in the sky.
World religions explained and popularised themselves through stories too. The New Testament is a series of narratives – about Jesus feeding thousands of people with a handful of fish, bringing the dead back to life or walking on water. Those stories fired up people’s imaginations in a way a dry statement of Christian beliefs never could.
Folk tales, fairy tales, legends, the myths of national identity, the entire canon of world literature, a joke in the pub, a couple’s shared remembrance of how they first met, a comforting tale whispered to a child at bedtime: stories are intrinsic to who and what we are.
And yet, ad and branding agencies are currently abuzz with the idea of storytelling – as if it’s some marvellous new thing they’ve just discovered, a mystical glitter only they know how to sprinkle. Indeed, brands are now rated annually in terms of their storytelling capabilities.
But using stories to sell really isn’t anything new. Successful brands have always told stories about themselves. Guinness’ famous ads, for example, don’t tell people to drink stout. They tell stories about an American jazz producer defying racial intolerance or a surfer taking on waves as wild as stampeding horses.
What is new is the multiplicity of channels through which brands can tell their stories. The internet and social media mean that even the tiniest micro business now has the opportunity to engage vast audiences with compelling narratives. Effective storytelling on a website, blog, or social media platforms means new customers can be wooed and old ones kept. Here are some tips for getting it right.
Storytelling is all about creating an emotional response and building relationships. Despite our scientific and technological development, we humans remain driven more by our emotions rather than rationality and logic.
Neuroscientists in Southern California have even conducted research that proved this point. In their experiments, neuro-imagery showed that when evaluating brands people primarily use emotions, feelings and experiences rather than information and facts. So think first and foremost how you want people to feel about your brand. Write down those adjectives and use them to underpin all the content you write.
Take Sainsbury’s 2015 online Christmas campaign as a case in point. The supermarket didn’t simply post updates or news stories about seasonal products or deals. Instead, it partnered with Save the Children and asked people to send in films of them reading a book – Mog’s Christmas Calamity by Judith Kerr – to their children.
Other than the book, not one product was mentioned – making it the very opposite of a traditional sales pitch. What it did do, however, was associate Sainsbury’s with lovely warm, nurturing, and cosy feelings about familial love, caring, and sharing. And that was its point.
This is one of the basic rules of any creative writing. It means you need to exemplify values or characteristics, rather than boldly laying claim to them. It’s much better to prove how your brand embodies or upholds values through actions or examples. Bragging seldom works. In the US, whisky brand Chivas set out to communicate its values of success, honour and a sense of brotherhood by creating an entire content programme around a group of real-life friends trying to live by those values.
Your brand is your hero. In fact, your brand is your superhero. And every superhero needs an origin myth. Of course, we’re not suggesting you make up some fantasy about escaping an exploding planet in a spaceship (à la Superman). The story needs to be authentic. It has to be based in truth.
One good example is organic skincare brand Green People, which came into being when its founder couldn’t find pure and gentle skincare products for her eczema-suffering daughter. This is an origin story that many parents can instantly connect with – and that connection is what storytelling is all about.
A superhero needs a mission. What gap in the market does your brand fill? What problem does it overcome? A story is not a story unless there is a problem to be solved or an obstacle to be overcome. New energy company Bulb is a case in point. Its website makes clear that it is setting out to revolutionise the way energy providers in the UK work.
Humans like human stories. Writing about individuals who use a product or service is always going to work better than simply listing that product or service’s features. Cancer charity Macmillan Cancer Support makes great use of personal stories when explaining its array of services and what they mean to individuals. Simply listing those services would have had far less impact – or emotional connection.
Likewise, brands can tell stories about the people involved in a business, including employees and suppliers. Coffee giant Starbucks does this extremely well – not only telling stories about individuals involved in creating the Starbucks experience, but also telling stories about people unrelated to its workforce who embody values – of tolerance, fairness and compassion – with which the brand wants to be associated.
One of the main points of a brand telling a story is to differentiate it from its competitors. Indeed, one of the fundamental aspects of any kind of marketing is communicating what makes a brand unique. So tell stories that no-one else is telling.
Software security company Bitdefender went against the grain to partner with the Wall Street Journal to tell the full story behind its greatest enemy: hackers. This brave and unexpected content not only positioned the company as being at the forefront of its industry – showing it had detailed expertise and knowledge about those trying to infiltrate its systems – it also positioned it honest, open and unafraid.
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