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.