This isn’t exactly a new observation, but something weird has happened to the word ‘story’
in the last few years. Watching the recent TSB:
The Story ad brought it home to me.
First, some background.
sure what triggered the trend, but at some point in the last decade,
storytelling was adopted by brands as a technique for connecting with people
and communicating a message – understandably, because stories are one of the
most ancient tools we have for transmitting values encoded in a memorable form.
inevitably happens, a valid insight quickly turned into a bandwagon, and the
definition of ‘story’ has subsequently become so broad as to become
Increasingly, it doesn’t matter if something is a story or not, as
long as you can call it a story and
signal that you’re in tune with that particular trend. Mention ‘story’ in a
pitch or presentation and people will generally nod approvingly. (I’m not
averse to using it myself – I can think of two projects I’ve
worked on in the last four years that feature the word ‘story’ prominently,
although I’d argue it’s a justified use in each case.)
TSB: The Story is the latest example. None of
what follows is a criticism of the ad, which is beautifully made. It’s also
well written from a commercial point of view – it tells a sanitised version of
the TSB story, but that’s what you’d expect from an ad.
find interesting is the strange new sub-genre of ‘stories’ that this trend is
creating. Here’s a transcript of the ad:
In 1810 the Reverend Henry
Duncan, a man who believed deeply in the dignity of ordinary working people,
wanted to do something of real and lasting value to help those struggling to
And so he did something
He built a bank whose sole
purpose was to help hard-working local people.
He believed industry could be
encouraged and a sense of
pride and independence fostered only when a bank served the community
with the people's interests
at its heart.
The groundwork had been laid for
ordinary people to thrive along with their neighbours, to build communities
together secure in the knowledge that their money was safe and working for the
benefit of all.
And then a storm came.
In the turbulent times that
followed, it was easy to think the ideals that Henry Duncan held so dear had been lost
But they hadn’t gone.
They’d always been here, just
waiting to be found.
presenting that story in a non-advertising context – maybe in a creative
writing workshop. After an awkward silence, the response would surely be, ‘Tell
me more about the storm’.
that the ad isn’t a story – it gestures
toward a recognisable story-telling arc, opening with the set-up (hero establishes a bank), then the challenge (the storm), then the resolution (rediscovering hero’s values).
how heavily it’s weighted towards introducing the hero, before skipping through
the storm to arrive at the resolution. It’s all set-up and resolution, with
only the briefest moment of action in between. In any normal form of
story-telling, it’s the in-between bit that matters. The storm is the story.
The turbulent times are the story.
be interesting to apply the same approach to other narratives. Die Hard would presumably open with an hour-long
backstory setting up John McClane as a nice guy, before a 30-second montage
hinting at some vague trouble in a high-rise, followed by half an hour of McClane
with his feet up drinking a beer. It’s story-telling hollowed out to a bizarre
there are good commercial reasons for the TSB approach. The ad uses the storm
as a way of fast-forwarding over a century of complicated history.
did indeed form the first trustee savings bank, before lots of other people did
the same. Those banks gradually almagamated before floating on the Stock
Exchange in 1986 (all sense of localness now notional at best). The TSB Group
then merged with Lloyds in 1995, before hitting the bordering-on-criminal mess
of 2008 and the subsequent government bail-out. Now it’s become a stand-alone
brand after LloydsTSB was ordered by the European Commission to sell off 600
that would be essential information in any standard ‘story’ of TSB, but
it’s compressed here into a vague storm metaphor. (And a questionable one,
because storms are external events over which people have no control – the
victims are by definition innocent. Many would say it’s not the most accurate
comparison with LloydsTSB.)
The result makes
for a good commercial but a bad story. And that seems to be the problem with so many brand stories – the commercial imperative to gloss over
negatives and promote carefully defined ‘values’ inevitably trumps the
narrative imperative to tell a good story. Real stories require tension,
conflict and, most of all, an ending. Brand stories understandably shy away
from all three, existing in a permanent state of riding heroically into the sunset.
TSB is far
from the most extreme example – at least it shows some signs of being a story. Many
brand stories are just a weird series of disembodied values statements, with
only the dimmest sense of a beginning, middle and end – and usually
characterised by a strange insistence on how ‘simple’ the whole thing is.
had some fun with this (this post had to be going somewhere), rewriting various fairy tales as ‘brand stories’. I’m
not sure any of them are an improvement on the originals, but they certainly
have a better chance of being signed off.
The brand story of Little Red Riding Hood
The brand story of Peter Rabbit
The brand story of the Three Little Pigs
Toy Brand Story
The brand story of Chicken Licken