Lately it seems like everyone is talking about storytelling when it comes to brand marketing. It might be tempting to dismiss this as the latest marketing buzzword. After all, the whole idea of storytelling seems to run counter to the current marketing landscape, where digital is in and short-form content reigns. Is storytelling simply a passing fad in an industry already overrun with “next big things”? I don’t think so. In fact, I think storytelling is actually the oldest sales tool in the world and a veritable ground zero for marketing success.

To illustrate my point, let me tell you a story.

It all started back in 1794. Guinness had already been in the business of selling its trademark stout for 83 years when it posted its very first ad. This ad had a tagline that would embed itself in the beer-drinker’s vernacular for decades to come: Guinness is good for you. The fact that the very essence of the Guinness story (that beer is healthy) proved to be wrong should, in theory, have destroyed consumer loyalty for the brand. Far from it! Over the coming years, Guinness would continue to evolve as a brand, weaving itself into the fabric of Western culture and leaving behind some of the best-known advertising campaigns in history.


Photo Credit: Brookston Beer Bulletin

At the heart of Guinness’s marketing success—and its global brand ubiquity—is a mastery over capturing, selling, and reinventing its unique value proposition over and over again. Drawing on popular culture, local tradition and, occasionally, the absurd, Guinness has remained a top beer brand around the world for more than 200 years.

Next came the 1960’s, an era now synonymous with advertising thanks to the popular TV show Mad Men. Storytelling really started to take shape as a marketing tool during this time.  Unlike today, there were fewer companies and channels inundating consumers with messages at this time, so advertisers had a captive audience to work with. Ads took on an “aspirational” tone, where advertisers would use long-form content to tell a story that described the product’s key benefits and its intended use, while subtly drawing the reader into a world of elevated status.

A great example is the American Airlines ad with the tagline: Should an airline give a passenger the shirt off its back? This ad tells the story of a businessman who needs to meet an important prospective client with no clean shirt to wear after a long trip to New York. An American Airlines employee comes to the rescue, giving the businessman the shirt off his back (so to speak—he locates a clean one in the passenger’s size). This ad illustrates the superior service one can expect from the airline, but it also paints a picture of the elite, white collar clientele associated with the American Airlines brand.


Photo Credit: Fast Co Design

Fast forward to 2015, and the marketing landscape has shifted away from the captive audiences of the 1960’s. Now marketers have to cut through the noise and find a way to connect with discerning customers through a multitude of always-on channels that favour brevity and immediacy. Can storytelling possibly work in this environment?

I would argue that storytelling matters more now than ever. Competition is stiff and brands are selling an experience. There are so many channels through which to market to customers that it’s become easier for them to ignore your message, but also harder for them to feel a sense of loyalty to any particular brand. Brand loyalty nowadays has to do not only with whether your product or service meets the needs and budget of your target consumer, but also with the character of your company, overall. Do you support your community? Are you eco-friendly? Are you operating in an industry that has controversial affiliations or is perceived as somehow threatening to certain groups? Today’s consumers care about the ethics and character of the companies whose products and services they consume. The best way to build brand loyalty in this environment is through telling your story.

Google Chrome’s “Dear Sophie” video shows how good storytelling can still make a major impact on consumers, even in today’s market. The short video shows a family using Google’s various online services to document their daughter Sophie’s entire childhood, through the emails her father writes her, the photos he attaches and the videos he shares. With more than 10 million views, it’s clear that people still connect with a great story, even if the way in which we share it changes over time.

Next month I’ll share five tips on how to identify your unique brand story, and how to build storytelling into your marketing strategy. In the meantime, check out a few great examples of storytelling from some iconic brands:

Ikea

Coke

Old Spice

Burberry

Written By: Kristin Knapp, Content Copywriter, Futurpreneur Canada

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