Storytelling – an interview


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.


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 Literary Platform


The Literary Platform is an interesting and timely new site showcasing projects that experiment with literature and technology. I've just written an article for them about Significant Objects (the project that put the power of story-telling to the test on eBay).

There's plenty more good stuff on the site, like 26 Exchanges, Phaidon Design Classics, Songs of Imagination and Digitisation and The New Goodbye. Well worth following and supporting.

My National Disgrace Clown Auction Shame


A few weeks back, I took part in a project called Significant Objects, designed to test the commercial power of story-telling. 100 writers were each given a near-worthless item from a junk shop and asked to write a story about it, thereby investing it with a newfound 'significance'. The object and its story went up on eBay, with a disclaimer explaining the nature of the project. My object was an upside-down ceramic clown.

It's a US-based project and has won widespread support and acclaim over there, so I was both pleased and intimidated to be the only UK writer taking part. For the first time in my life, I was representing Queen and country. And, reader, I failed.

Or at least, I didn't exactly set the world alight. Despite my carefully crafted poem, Kenny came in 87th out of 100, selling for $11.61 compared to an original price of $2.

It gets worse.

During the course of the bidding, I watched as Kenny rose rapidly to $11.11, then stalled for days on end. It was late, we'd had a few drinks, one thing led to another. My wife put in a bid. $11.61. No one else beat it. We won Kenny.

(On arrival at our place, Kenny headed straight for a colour-coordinated Alan Kitching screenprint, demonstrating that he is a clown of great taste.)

So Kenny came 87th and we were the winning bidders.

I apologise to everyone.

Kenny himself is surprisingly upbeat about it. Seeing the world upside-down has its advantages – he thinks we came just outside the top ten.

NB: Despite my inadvertent attempts at sabotage, Significant Objects as a whole has been a resounding success and is now moving on to a new stage: a charity auction with new writers and new objects. Well worth keeping track of developments. There's also some amusing data nerdiness over here.

Tears of a clown


Not sure, but I think that might be a tear I can see running down (up?) Kenny's face. Bidding on eBay ends in a matter of hours and so far he's not made quite the fortune he was hoping for.

Still time, of course. Yes, still time. Someone's bound to realise what a lovely addition he would make to any household. There are probably hundreds of people out there waiting for the right moment. There'll be a few zeroes after that price before you know it! Of course, there will! Chin up, Kenny!

Bid on Kenny here (quick!)

Read the background here

UPDATE: Bidding has now closed... at $11.61. Concluding thoughts and details of Kenny's new home will follow after a decent interval.

Significant developments


A couple more developments on Significant Objects to share (background in last couple of posts) – first of all, this article on the Eye Magazine blog; and also an interview I did with Rob Walker, co-curator of the project, which is now up on the 26 website.

An initial flurry of bidding has brought Kenny up to $11.11. Bidding remains open until 6pm this Friday 16 October, so it’s all to play for.

Finally, they're running an open contest if you fancy writing a story yourself – details here.

Say hello to Kenny


My Significant Object has gone up on eBay. He's called Kenny and he’s a funny clown. Please bid – it’ll make him happy.

Bid for Kenny

More on Significant Objects

Bidding closes Friday 16 October (around 6pm). UK postage is included in the quoted shipping cost.

The story behind the clown


Time to explain what that picture of a clown was all about (see below).

I'm taking part in Significant Objects, a US-based project designed to test the commercial power of a good story.

The idea is that 100 creative writers are each assigned a near-worthless object and asked to write a story about it. Invested with new significance by this fiction, the object should — according to the project’s hypothesis — acquire not only subjective but objective value. How to test the theory? Via eBay.

You can read the full details here. So far, the project has raised $2,023.96 for 64 items purchased for a total of $84.48 – a ‘Significance Premium’ of 2,295%.

As far as I can make out, I’m the only UK writer taking part, so I'm representing my country on this one. I’ve been assigned the cheeky ceramic clown pictured below (and, more fuzzily, above). It’ll go up on eBay in the next few days, with my accompanying story. Then the bidding will commence. Feel free to join in, or at least spread the word. International shipping is available.

For the sake of transparency, I should say that any profit made on the object goes to me. The thinking is that, if it went to charity, it would skew the results. This is all about ruthless commercial gain.

Further updates soon.

Clowning around


About to do something interesting involving this little fella. More news shortly.