The Importance of Storytelling within Marketing Strategy

Story telling. When you think about it, stories have been the main way in which human knowledge has transferred, essentially, for the majority of what has been our brief existence in the history of the World. Australian Aborigines continue to use it, to this day, approximately 40,000 after their landfall, as do other cultures. Futhermore, people engage with the stories in the histories of their peers, many escape into the fantastical worlds presented to them in books, movies or even through the sometimes quite inventive social media lives of some.

The story is such an integral aspect of human history. But these days, the story has become far more than knowledge, but expression. They can be a mirror to our own experiences, our aspirations, or they can present perspectives that we previously wouldn’t have considered, making them hard to ignore. I personally love the story of the struggle of good vs evil in the Star Wars films, the intriguing and vivid worlds created by author Robin Hobb and I also find myself rooting for the fundamentally evil, yet addictively ruthless Frank Underwood in House of Cards. It’s also why my favourite song is the Traveling Wilburys’ Tweeter and the Monkeyman! A good story grabs you by the collar and forces you to reassess your own viewpoint, or, at the very least to give it attention and to hear its message.

That is why, with Marketing, the value of the story has become something of a critical aspect of the strategic basis for many campaigns.

Connecting in a Disconnected World

We’re currently more connected to information than we ever have been, it’s a fact of life today, when it was still only science fiction a mere 15 years ago. The problem with increased accessibility, though, is decreased sensitivity. We’ve become desensitised to the level of information that is available to us, so we’ve become less empathetic to it and while we are more accessible through “social” media, we’ve compartmentalised and even automated the social element of our lives, which needs our full involvement, leading to a greater sense of isolation.

The increased desensitisation towards information also creates a greater problem. More noise. While people may have more information presented to them at any time than they have previously, there’s not enough time to process it all. So it either becomes a forgotten footnote, or only vaguely memorable. While content might not be seen as noise by its creator(s), it definitely needs to compete amongst a wider field of other, equally “loud”opponents. Consider this ad from the 1980’s, also reflective of ads from the decades prior to it…

“What!? How is this possibly oversharing?”

These days, Apple can make an ad with just an image and make a ridiculous amount of ROI. Back in 1983, however, people didn’t necessarily have the information on hand, so they had to tell them… They had to tell them EVERYTHING! It simply wasn’t possible to reach people at every moment of every day, like today. Now, though, there’s conferences, live streaming, events, print, digital (especially digital) where people are essentially buried in information, but very often don’t remember much of it…

There have been countless volumes of research showing how people process stories better than they process fact and it’s something that marketers have clued on to in certain cases in recent years. There are a couple of good examples which I particularly like.

“I am Mumbai!” – The Mumbai Mirror (India)

I personally love this ad. Many people can watch the news, or read it, and only see it as an end: The reporting of the story that has been. I used this ad in a number of university presentations and, each time, the people watching would say “wow!” There is a simple reason for this. It’s easy to see the end of the story and make assumptions for the events and context… But the key to this ad is to show you the stories behind the news and, like a good story, it grabs you by the collar and forces you to consider your own assumptions and look at alternative perspectives. The ad successfully achieved what was the aim of the Mumbai Mirror, to be seen as a mirror to the corruption, abuse and scandal affecting Mumbai politically at the time by showing the stories behind the headlines… It’s also a lesson of how click-bait will always be outdone by strong content.

Rhonda and Ketut – AAMI Insurance (Australia)

A couple of years ago, Australian insurance company AAMI created what became, almost confusingly with hindsight, a very, very successful series of 6 ads focusing around “Rhonda”, a middle-aged, middle-class, average Australian woman who needs car insurance. Urgh that’s so boring…

It begins boringly enough, but, about half-way through, Rhonda meets Ketut, a Balinese barman… It was at this point where the story of Rhonda and her safe driver rewards benefits became “The sexual tension between Rhonda and Ketut“. All of a sudden, what was an insurance ad, became almost the 30 second equivalent of a Soap Opera. The series evolved from informative to entertaining, there were now characters with character development and story arcs. The key lesson from this was to take a very boring, uninteresting product and make it interesting through relatable events, focus on a story behind the product and create a positive association with characters as proxies, representative of the brand.

Creating Stories

I might be wrong in my conclusion, but the holy grail of Marketing, to me, is to be able to reach, persuade and illicit action from consumers without them realising that they are being advertised to. It’s like all good product placement, it works best when you don’t notice it. Front of mind, but not attention grabbing. It might seem like a contradictory statement, but it happens any time you say you’re going to “Google” (rather than search) something or use your “iPhone” (rather than mobile/cell).

While all the data and technology available to marketers today might make it easier to convey a message, the fundamental element which needs to be executed flawlessly is the story which frames that message. Here are some simple tips which should be considered when creating a story-based campaign, which are self-explanatory:

  1. Be believable
  2. Be relatable
  3. Create likable characters
  4. Create a desire for more information
  5. Involve the consumer

Evolving the Story from “the Ad”, into “the Product”

I currently work in Magazines and the fact that content has become so readily available gives publishers a harder job in selling magazines. The current theme of the big magazines is brand extension, not only engaging consumers in the traditional “ad cycle”, but allowing consumers to become active in the creation of content, participating in events related to the content or buying the products within the content at a branded outlet/digitally through augmented reality. Or in other words, interacting seamlessly with consumers before, during and after purchase of the magazine.

To close, there is one item of branded content, now in its second phase, which I am currently enjoying on a weekly basis, entertaining me in the context of topical, politically charged issues, presented in a fantastical setting as a journal, while establishing the precursor events for an upcoming game, which I WILL be buying: 343 Industries’ “Hunt the Truth” campaign on SoundCloud, Twitter and online.

343 Industries, for those who don’t know, are the game development studio who succeeded Bungie to take ownership of the Halo game franchise on Xbox. Halo has always been about the depth of its story but much of it has come through the playing of the games themselves. With their upcoming game, they’ve created a campaign which not only adds to the “extended universe” of the main story, but creates a foundation for the game’s plot, creates questions in the lead-up and causes the consumer to seek answers to those questions which, ultimately, can only be answered by buying the game…

Or, to put it more bluntly, they’re playing the long game in advertising, creating suspense in one story arc, ultimately to leave you disappointed and without closure, so you buy the game to attain that closure… It’s almost as sick as it is impressive. But hopefully you get used to it…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s