The custom of telling stories goes back as far as human history. From ancient Greek and Roman tales about the escapades of mythical figures, to a San painting telling the story of a hunt, or an all-American Marvel movie, there isn’t a culture on earth in which storytelling is not a central pillar of society. Without a doubt, storytelling is the way to the heart.
Over the years, the best marketers in the world have caught onto this principle. Storytelling – as opposed to communication designed simply to convey facts, figures and information – is now recognised as an unrivalled marketing tool. And the best stories seem to come from brands that embrace certain practices as a habit. These are the 7 habits of highly effective storytellers.
1. Being afraid, and doing it anyway
Bravery is key when it comes to great storytelling. If you always play it safe and aren’t taking any risks, you may keep your current audience happy (for now!) but you’re unlikely to attract new fans or become a talking point. Eva Stories is one great example of such bravery. Created by 56-year-old billionaire Mati Kochavi and his daughter Maya (founder of tween platform StelloGirls), the Holocaust education programme began with giant billboards that read: “What if a girl in the Holocaust had Instagram?” and depicted a hand holding a smartphone behind barbed wire. Aiming to educate a new generation, Eva Stories generated a lot of controversy prior to launching on Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day, with critics claiming it was in bad taste. Sharing moments from the life and imprisonment of a character called Eva – recreated from the real diary accounts of Eva Heyman – and generating amazing engagement through the questions feature, the campaign was an international phenomenon overnight, receiving more than 300 million views in less than 48 hours across 70 Instagram Stories chapters.
2. Not expecting perfection in the first draft
This one goes without saying. The first version is unlikely to be the best version. After all, the best stories are in the retelling. Make a start, and finish, even. And then go back and, as the famous piece of writing advice goes, be prepared to “murder your darlings”.
When a couple tells “their story”, there’s nothing better than hearing it from both sides – each person brings a unique perspective, sharing the details through their own lens. This is the joy of collaboration in storytelling. When it comes to telling the story of a brand, the principle remains unchanged. Take the Dr. Martens x Cartoon Network collab: Dr. Martens is a trusty, classic go-to footwear brand, and Adventure Time is a hit TV show on the network loved by both children and adults. Bring them together and you get a collection of adorable, hugely popular boots, produced in a limited quality and selling out in no time. With similar audiences, the product appealed to a consistent fan base. This is a key consideration when collaborating: always take into account who your audience is and whether your joint venture will appeal to this original fan base, or split your customers. Get it right and your collab is bound to have your brand breaking through glass ceilings. Or even, as in the case of the much-hyped McDonald’s x Hello Kitty collab, have your crazed fans breaking through glass doors…
4. Being flexible
When Andrew Cullis, marketing director at Hyundai UK, hired Red Bee (the BBC's in-house agency, with a heritage steeped in broadcast media) he knew that storytelling required a very different approach from traditional advertising – and that flexibility was key. For instance, while shooting the Feel like a man short film, which aimed to reveal Hyundai's Sante Fe car model and its product specifications in a comedic way, the main actor went completely off script at one point. But in the end, his ad libbing was the “icing on the cake”, says Cullis, and gave the film its all-important attention-grabbing first line: “I stand naked in front of my wife, and I feel like a small child.” Cullis shares that he learnt a lot about not being too rigid: “You should let the creative process and talent add something,” he says.
5. Being consistent
But didn’t we just say “Be flexible”? Yes… but always within the framework of consistency, staying true to who you are. Think about your favourite movie directors. If you’ve watched a Wes Anderson film before, you’ll know what you’re signing up for the next time. And it will be a completely different experience to sitting down to the latest Quentin Tarantino flick. The best storytellers know who they are and tell stories that align with that. Be bold about who you are, know your voice and your message inside out, and then take risks within that established space.
6. Choosing your moment
Imagine sharing the story of the hilarious thing that happened to your neighbour’s dog when a friend has just shared some tragic news with you. Unthinkable. We instinctively know that every story has a time and place, and it’s no different with telling the story of a product or service. When you say it is just as important as what you say and how. Guinness picked the moment perfectly with a continuation of its long-running Made of More campaign (which promotes inclusivity within rugby), when sharing the amazing true story of a Japanese women’s rugby team. The story begins in Tokyo in 1989, depicting gender expectations for women at the time, and goes on to show how the Liberty Fields RFC players defied those social conventions to represent their country at the Women’s World Cup. Launched alongside a five-minute documentary, the TV ad featured first-hand insights from the rugby team. Talking about the campaign, Niall Mckee, the head of Guinness Stout Europe said: “It was really relevant for what’s going on in the world at the moment, especially in light of this year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan. It felt like a really natural, authentic story for Guinness to be able to tell in that context.”
No great novelist sets out to write the world’s next bestseller by simply sitting down and tapping out whatever first comes to mind. Planning is essential. Every good story has, for example, a beginning, a middle and an end, plus well-rounded characters who’ve been carefully crafted and vividly painted to evoke a particular response from the reader or viewer. It’s no different when telling your brand story. Understand – really understand – who the brand is and its reason for being; figure out the “why”; plan the execution, and you’re halfway there...
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