When storytelling goes bad: the misappropriation of stories by marketers

Marketers have been told repeatedly that we love listening to people tell stories. But have marketers been using storytelling effectively?

Marketers have been told repeatedly (yes, repeatedly) that we love to tell stories, that we love listening to people tell stories. As a result, “storytelling” has been one of the top marketing buzzwords of 2013, leading us to wrestle numerous times on this blog with the concept of how to tell engaging stories in content marketing.

What is a story?

But what do we mean by “story”? Screenwriting guru Robert McKee once said in an interview that stories are formed from:

“[An] event that throws life out of balance, the need and desire to restore the balance, and the Object of Desire the character conceives of consciously or unconsciously that they can pursue against the forces of antagonism from all of the levels of their life that they may or may not achieve.”

At its most basic level: a story follows a character/s through a series of events and it is shown how and why these events and the choices made by character/s in response to them affect the character/s and their world.

A story can play with the elements listed above, but at a minimum it needs to include a character and an inciting event. So you can try to call the B2B social media campaigns in this article “visual storytelling”, but a series of photos on Instagram or Pinterest without these elements does not a story make.

The rise of brand storytelling

Then there have been organisations who interpret “storytelling” as “brand storytelling” – defined by the Content Marketing Institute as:

“A story made up of all that you are and all that you do. From the company’s history, mission, inspiration, goals, audience, and raison d’être, it’s why you exist. Your story is the people, places, and ideas that your company thrives on. It’s the foundation that keeps a brand going and growing.”

Sure, organisations can tell stories about themselves, but do existing and potential customers really want to engage with these sorts of brand stories on a repeated and frequent basis?

Fiona Campbell-Howes, Radix’s lead copywriter and MD, thinks not, since people are unlikely to become emotionally invested in a B2B brand – especially a technology one:

“There was a famous saying: ‘Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM’, but that brand loyalty wasn’t born out of people feeling an emotional bond with IBM, it was because IBM was reliable, you knew the technology would work, even if it wasn’t always the best available, it was a safe choice. The point about B2B brands is that they don’t fulfil an emotional need, they solve a business problem.”

Tech brands may be tempted to tell stories that attempt to get customers to feel warm and fuzzy towards them, but as Fiona points out, this is not necessarily the “most productive thing to be doing”. A better approach, she says, is “telling stories about how you can make customers’ lives better.”

That’s not to say that brand storytelling doesn’t have its place. Lots of companies are keen to do business with brands that are ethical and have a viable long-term future, so it makes sense to do some brand storytelling that addresses these concerns.” But, Fiona suggests, it should ideally be people from outside the organisation who tell these kinds of stories, because that external validation carries more weight.

Thinking about the customer

But in terms of how storytelling should be used by businesses overall, Fiona believes that “customer-oriented storytelling” is the way to go. And I agree. For me, brand storytelling gets in the way of people recognising themselves in stories.

In his seminal book on screenwriting, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, McKee identified two things that help maintain an audience’s “emotional involvement” in a story. One of these is “empathy”, which means, “identification with the protagonist that draws us into the story, vicariously rooting for our own desires in life.” (p. 186)

When you look at some of the brand storytelling done by Apple earlier this year, you probably would find it difficult to identify with how the company is relevant to you. As the author of that Creative Review piece, Nick Asbury, observes:

“They start the ad by saying they think about everything from the user’s point of view, then spend the rest talking relentlessly about themselves.”

It’s not hard to make characters that are identifiable. As Susan Gunelius, President & CEO of KeySplash Creative, notes, “you can use your audience’s buyer personas as characters to drive an even deeper relationship with your brand.”

People need to hear/see how brands can make their lives better while seeing themselves in the content.

The good and the bad

In short, it all needs to be a bit more like GE’s Datalandia campaign, which combines representations of real people (even though they’re less than two inches tall) involved with real technological applications that just happen to be underpinned by GE:


And a bit less like these Waitrose ads, where, as copywriting agency True & Good rightly point out, “calling it a story doesn’t mean it is one”:

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