Storytelling – an interview

Threepigs

I was recently invited to answer some questions on storytelling by Martin Lee of Acacia Avenue, an agency that has specialised in writing and storytelling for many years. He’s kindly allowed me to reproduce the interview here. It’s inspired in part by the tongue-in-cheek brand stories I wrote last year, including The Brand Story of the Three Little Pigs, pictured above. 

ML: Why do you think storytelling has become such a source of fascination in business?

NA: Stories have always been there in advertising and branding, but have only recently been given a label. I think the reason it caught on was because it played into a wider trend to seek out ‘authenticity’. Compared to the old terminology of marketing – full of military terms like ‘targets’ and ‘strategies’ and ‘campaigns’ – the idea of ‘storytelling’ feels very down-at-home and uncommercial.

You could also relate it to the trend for ‘infantilisation’ in recent years – that habit brands have of talking to customers as a parent would to a small child. When a brand says it’s going to tell us a ‘story’, it’s subliminally tapping into that childlike, uncritical part of our brains, which is prone to suspending disbelief and accepting the narrative on its own terms.

ML: What are the mistakes brands make when they try to harness storytelling?

NA: The main mistake is to gesture towards storytelling without having the courage or creativity to do it properly. True to their marketing instincts, many practitioners are simply taking old approaches and rebranding them as ‘stories’ in order to fit with the trend. So we get the surreal sight of things being called ‘stories’ that possess no discernable narrative or any of the accepted characteristics of a story.

This isn’t about policing what stories are and are not – there are no rules dictating what storytellers can or can’t do. But if we’re convincing clients of the archetypal power of storytelling, it’s strange to ignore all the elements that give it that power.

ML: What should they be doing?

NA: Politicians talk about ‘framing the narrative’ and I think it’s a useful idea for brands. For example, it helps for a company like Apple to remember its overarching narrative about being a plucky adventurer exploring new frontiers. If that narrative is locked in people’s minds, then any bad news becomes a setback on that bigger mission, rather than a sign of terminal decline. By framing the narrative, you change the way people see events unfolding – I think Apple has lost sight of that lately.

That said, I think brands get hung up on having one ‘brand story’, when sometimes it’s useful to have many. Taking Apple as an example, I’d think about developing a bank of stories, ‘tagged’ with different themes. So if someone wanted to demonstrate values like ‘pride’ or ‘innovation’ they could look up all the stories that bring those values to life. Under ‘pride’ you might tell the story of how Apple engineers used to etch their own names onto circuit boards as a hidden ‘signature’ that would only ever be seen by other engineers. A bank of stories like that is an endlessly useful resource.

I’d also get a professional on the case. Every organisation has great stories inside it, but it takes a storyteller to spot them and frame them effectively. I’d pay a writer to immerse themselves in the company and become a roving story-gatherer and archivist. Tell them to go and find 50 more stories like the circuit board one.

ML: Who is doing it well?

NA: One brand that has been doing it consistently is Jack Daniels. Their whole approach is based on brand lore and legend and they were doing it long before the storytelling trend started.

A typical ad tells a micro-story about the product – the barrels it comes in, the water they use – and relates it back to the bigger brand. In some ways it’s classic old-school advertising – take a feature and turn it into a benefit by spinning a nice yarn – but it’s done with such charm and consistency that it always works. And they carry it through to the rest of the brand. I remember them getting a lot of praise on Twitter for sending a brilliantly laid-back and respectful cease-and-desist letter to someone who had infringed their trademark.

But different factions will fight over this – brand strategists could claim Jack Daniels as a strategic insight; storytellers would claim it as a triumph of storytelling; advertisers would say it’s just good old- fashioned salesmanship. There’s lots of commercial territory at stake in all these arguments.

ML: What is the prize – if a brand gets it right, what do they stand to gain?

NA: A few years ago, I took part in a US-based project called Significant Objects, where the idea was to take a near-worthless junk store object and write a story about it. The object and its story were then posted on eBay. Once the objects had a story attached, they multiplied in value – one object bought for $3 ended up selling for $193. It was a playful project, but it makes a good point about the way we value things for the stories attached to them.

This is really what branding is about – taking a non-descript product or service and investing it with a bigger narrative. There are huge benefits in a storytelling approach to branding and it’s something writers in particular should welcome. In some ways, the proliferation of pseudo-stories and bandwagon- jumpers is an inevitable by-product of a successful movement. But the good thing about stories is they will always be more than a trend – they were around long before this period in the commercial spotlight and they’ll no doubt survive long afterwards.

Links:

Acacia Avenue

Jack Daniels cease-and-desist letter

Significant Objects

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

The strange story of story

 

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.

I’m not 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. 

As inevitably happens, a valid insight quickly turned into a bandwagon, and the definition of ‘story’ has subsequently become so broad as to become meaningless.

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.

What I 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 overcome poverty.

And so he did something revolutionary.

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 forever.

 But they hadn’t gone.

 They’d always been here, just waiting to be found.

Imagine 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’.

It’s not 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).

But look 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.

It would 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 level.

Of course, 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.

Henry Duncan 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 branches.

All of 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.

I’ve 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