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Does storytelling have a role in marketing?

8 minute read


“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” 
– Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human

Stories are an imperative part of the different communications we use whether on a one-to-one basis, in groups, nationally, or globally. The brain exists for problem-solving, so human beings seem to have an affinity for narratives which tend to often offer some kind of explanation, or at least context, for social situations and the bigger questions in life. Author Jeffrey Eugenides has gone as far as to say that “stories exist to impose a meaning in a meaningless world or a world we could fear is meaningless.”

Stories are intrinsic to society for reaffirming and clarifying elements of our existence, for strengthening community ties through elucidating shared values and culture, allowing an escape into creative make-believe, and allowing us to vicariously feel and experience scenarios that may never occur in our lives. We are immersed in stories from all angles, particularly due to technological advancements allowing for new channels and platforms to be forged.

Beyond just traditional literature in books, storytelling is now widely recognised as being vital for a plenitude of vehicles for content including those used for marketing and advertising. To give some modern examples of other vessels for stories, Ted Talks, social media, Netflix, and spaces catering to the rising popularity of spoken word poetry amongst young people are clear illustrations of how stories are an enduring, and thriving, force.

We want to share stories, we want to hear stories

At their best, stories additionally allow us to experience a different perspective. Neuroscientist and researcher Emile Bruneau has noted, ‘We’re very focused, especially in the western world on the importance of perspective taking and […] seeing a story or reading a story that moves you is an important part of changing ourselves and incorporating new worlds into our realities, but there’s another really important aspect of the human condition which is being able to give our story and being able to be listened to.’

Bruneau himself has conducted a study about the sharing and receiving of stories between groups who are regarded as hostile to one another in ‘The power of being heard: The benefits of ‘perspective-giving’ in the context of intergroup conflict.’

James Wallis, a video game designer and writer has stated, “Human beings like stories. Our brains have a natural affinity not only for enjoying narratives and learning from them but also for creating them. In the same way that your mind sees an abstract pattern and resolves it into a face, your imagination sees a pattern of events and resolves it into a story.” 

This supports Phil Kaye’s humorous remark that as a spoken word poet, his job is the ‘opposite of a therapist’ wherein he gets to tell other people his problems. Thus, people want to hear/read/watch stories, but also share them. We can even see this in some of the statistics for social media sharing (that’s if we consider social sharing to be stories at all, which I’ll highlight further on): WordPress has reported that ‘Users produce about 82.6 million new posts and 46.1 million new comments each month.’ Every second, around 6,000 tweets are tweeted on Twitter, and 300 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute

When considering the patterns additionally noted by Wallis, this has been proven by psychologists Heider and Simmel when they undertook a study in 1944 about the activation of anthropomorphic attributions by viewers when watching moving geometric shapes. The landmark research showed that most people who watched the shapes move created a narrative. You can see the video here:

What is a story?

A story is defined as ‘an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.’ They can be fiction or nonfiction, including narrative nonfiction. The scope of what constitutes a story is tremendous. Jokes are stories. Video games are stories. Poems, flash fiction, films, religious texts, Tweets, and news articles are all stories.

What makes a story?

There are myriad theories claiming the creators know the correct pattern and structure a story should take, but many of these are debatable. In its most fundamental structure, a story usually has a beginning, middle, and end. However, even excerpts can be immersive, forcing us to question whether the vastly complex and overarching term of ‘story’ can ever just fit one particular structural model.

Who uses stories?

Everyone uses stories in their varying forms, from novelists to people posting social media status updates.

Why are stories used?

Stories are used for a variety of reasons including to provide context, to teach – reflection and experience can improve learning, to learn, and it has been debated as to whether stories can allow for greater empathy.

British television producer John Yorke has said, “The more I look at it the more I feel that empathy is absolutely vital to narrative, and effectively when you read a story as a reader you become the protagonist. You care about the characters, and you love the characters and you become them, and when you start to respond as they do you form a very deep emotional bond with them.”

But as Emile Bruneau has clarified, “we don’t all mean the same thing when we say empathy, one way to think of empathy is imagining yourself in somebody else’s shoes, another way to think of empathy though is not feeling what they’re feeling, but to feel something else entirely, to feel compassion in response to their pain.” Therefore, empathy induced by narrative can be experienced subjectively or objectively.

Keith Oatley has described stories as ‘simulations of the social world that if you engage in them, allow you to get better at understanding the social world.’ This is supported by his research such as the ‘Mind in the Eyes’ test, wherein participants judged images of people’s eyes to determine the mental state of the featured person. He stated, “Our results confirmed that reading fiction is associated with increased social ability” as the fiction readers were more successful at the test than those who read primarily nonfiction. Another test with an item of nonfiction showed similar results in analytical ability of the readers, but with regards to social ability fiction readers did the best.

How are stories used?

Stories are used in myriad ways by marketers, such as through blogs, website pages, sales copy, videos, social media posts, and more. They frequently use stories for their brands themselves, to forge a brand identity and communicate their offerings with customers.

Is marketing actually storytelling?

Marketing and advertising may be considered not to be storytelling at all. Will Self’s recognition of the propensity of audiences to skip ads and his recommendation to “Skip ads and tell stories, entertain, educate, inspire and touch lives. Skip ads and win hearts. Don’t get in the way of what they want. Be what they want” was countered in full force by planner Martin Weigel. Weigel stated that commercialised storytelling does not align with what the real essence of a story should be, due to its evasion of difficulties and conflict, commitment to simplistic patterns, lack of deep exploration, and elusion of the truth.

“The hubris, the delusion, the philistine rhetoric masquerading as depth, the pomposity parading as wisdom, and the narrowing of our industry’s ambition is too much to bear. For if advertising’s stories are amongst the best our civilisation has to offer then please, shoot me.” – Martin Weigel

He continues by recognising that by considering themselves as storytellers, marketers bolster their own egos but may limit creative potential, “And herein lies the truest, most clear and present danger for marketers in falling for the storytelling rhetoric. Convincing ourselves that we are storytellers might make us feel important.  Culturally significant. Belonging to a community and tradition stretching back to the very origins of art and language. Possessed of a cause and purpose far more noble and ethically sound than selling stuff and creating profit. Sought out by people rather than at best tolerated, and at worst blocked from view altogether. But it obscures the endless vistas of creative opportunity that now reach out before us. […] We need not tell a story for the consumer to tell a story. And indeed sometimes just making something useful, or beautiful is enough.”

It is probably safe to conjecture that stories can be told through marketing, but the contents of these stories are usually limited to the brand, service, or product, which is a narrow set of concepts with regards to our wider understanding of stories and what they can convey.

Is using storytelling in marketing emotional manipulation?

Storytelling through marketing has also been criticised for being emotionally manipulative. Like Weigel has noted, advertising and marketing have the brand as its primary concern, usually not an ethical or moral agenda. This does not mean that an ethical or moral narrative is unable to play a part in a piece of marketing, but generally suggests that if the core consideration of the brand is the brand itself and its monetary success, the ‘story’ tends to start with the brand, and end with the brand.

It has been claimed that by Paul Bloom that ‘the defining feature of many stories is that they involve bad things…the core element that they share is trouble.’ So, when this kind of theory is implemented into a marketing strategy, it can end up as a simplified brand-as-solution structural model. Using customers’ problems or fears as the challenge and defining a product or service as the hero and solution to these fears is a practice long held in marketing and advertising. This model should not be considered as wrong, but perhaps not a real ‘story’ if the trajectory leads back to whence it came. Moreover, the premise of much storytelling is ‘show don’t tell’, something that is difficult for marketers not to eschew.

In Stefan Mumaw’s course on storytelling for advertising campaigns, he posits that by utilising audience insights and aligning output with them, storied marketing no longer should be seen as manipulative but empathetic. By effectively targeting storied content to an audience, he claims that it is no longer inauthentic. He also states that rather than the perceived notion that marketers create emotion in an audience, they instead tap into already existing, dormant emotions.

Examples of influential brand storytelling

An example of a widely recognised brand storytelling advertising campaign would be Apple’s ‘Your Verse’ video. The video shows the various scenarios of people worldwide using their advertised product, highlighting its versatility. The fact that the customer is at the forefront of the campaign is also a good angle, and one which the Apple brand has maintained as a priority in its output.

While it has been praised for its entertainment value for enmeshing stunning quality video with a cinematic voiceover by the late actor Robin Williams, the displacing of an unrelated emotive speech from a film (Dead Poet’s Society) might equally appear crude. The speech, along with the cinematic soundtrack playing, evoke emotions in the viewer that were originally intended to arise for very different reasons: reasons perhaps more aligned with storytelling in the context of the original film.

apple your verse storytelling marketing

Another successful advertising campaign by Google India called Reunion, really got the idea of storytelling right. In the ad, two long-lost friends reconnect thanks to one of the gentleman’s granddaughter searching on Google. Despite appearing slightly scripted and artificial, the truth behind the campaign is hard to ignore: that Google’s search services have the power to connect people. The video has been widely praised, proving that storied content can work for brands.

google search reunion storytelling marketing

Stories have the power to create societal change

There needs to be some caution and responsibility for marketers, or anyone creating story-based content for that matter, since it has been proven that certain stories can have profound effects on societal belief over time. The American tv sitcom Will and Grace has been referenced as contributing to the liberalisation of American culture with regards to reducing homophobia in the study ‘Can One TV Show Make a Difference?’. This particular shift in attitude is now known as the ‘Will and Grace effect’. If we know that stories, even in the light-hearted form of a comedy programme, can contribute to altering wider belief systems including prejudices and biases, then those that create stories for mass distribution become even more answerable: and sometimes culpable.

If we deduce that storytelling is a vital part of what makes us human, then storytelling can, and should, also be applied to marketing efforts. However, the modern audience has the capacity like never before to fact-check, to question, and to scrutinise. Unless your storied content contains an element of satire, it is best to remain a source of integrity for the people that you serve by keeping your content truthful, whether that is a depiction of society, a product, or another concept. Yes, even when selling to them.

Approaching your output as a potential story can propel your creative marketing efforts to new heights, or equally sway off-topic into an irrelevant or unreliable campaign. If marketing and advertising ‘stories’ are ultimately about selling, it is important to remember that wider effects can be engendered by storied content, particularly those that might stray beyond the brand, product or service as a concept. By centring on a truthful and valid concept, you will ultimately be perceived as a trustworthy source that cares about the quality and verifiability of its content, and in turn, earn the trust of those whom you want to communicate with.

Rosie is a qualified Journalist, NCTJ certified, and is currently an MSt student in Literature and Arts at Oxford University. Having worked in editing, communications, and brand strategy in agencies in Seoul and London, she is passionate about producing intelligent writing with practical and creative value. Previously a Content Editor and Writer at the UK Domain.

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