Have we lost the art of storytelling in marketing?

As the buzz about content marketing, social media and all things digital continues to rise, one of the catch phrases that gets a lot of attention is storytelling in marketing.  We afford it incredible lip service but do we actually practice it?

As we give way to our USA Today sound byte style of sharing information, are we losing the emotional tug of telling a great story?  Even in our case studies where we’re trying to help the prospects see themselves in relation to someone we’ve already helped  – are we too focused on the facts and too willing to sacrifice that emotional tug?

I worry that we are so focused on making sure we communicate the facts that we don’t trust your audience enough to find them if they’re wrapped in the emotion of the brand. The danger of that is that buying is an emotional response.  We buy based on our emotions and justify the purchase with the facts offered. But we very rarely buy on facts alone. So it we don’t offer up both sides of the equation — we leave our prospects wanting and our cash registers empty. Storytelling in marketing isn’t just to entertain or be memorable.  It is to drive brand loyalty and increased sales.

What made me ponder this on a Sunday morning is a local phenomenon that put the spotlight on the potency of storytelling for me. A Dunkin’ Donuts opened up in my community (we may be one of the few cities in the country that didn’t already have one) and the line on opening day was literally around the block.  Seriously — who stands in line for an hour for a donut?

Well, they did. And when I thought about the brand…I too had a very warm reaction to it. When I hear “Dunkin’ Donuts” my mind immediately goes back to the wonderful story driven TV spots they did back in the early 80s.

They used a character (Fred the Baker) to tell the audience why Dunkin’ Donuts were better — fresher, more variety and certainly made with more love.  I still crack up when I think of Fred in his dress, covering up his mustache, trying to get some competitive intelligence.

That’s great storytelling.  I not only learn that Dunkin’ Donuts bakes their donuts all day so they’re always fresh, but I learn about the variety (5 kinds of jelly donuts) and their commitment to quality. And it was funny to boot.

On the flip side of the emotional scale, there are few brands that tug at the heartstrings with their TV spots like Hallmark and Folgers.  Very different products but the same link to family and special times.  Check out these spots and see how you react to both the story and the brand.

 

If you look at the dates on these spots — you’ll see that they’re all more than 20 years old.   I’m hard pressed to think of a company today that takes the time to tell the same sort of story (Budweiser may be the exception) today — in any media.

So here are some questions I’m pondering and wonder what you think:

  • Has this sort of storytelling become passé?
  • Are their any brands out there today who do this sort of storytelling in any media?
  • Does social media and content marketing really lend itself to good storytelling?
  • Do we need to go “old school” to really work storytelling into our marketing efforts?
  • Are we equating storytelling to factual case studies rather than emotionally triggering customer stories?
  • Is there a current brand that is really using storytelling to create an emotional connection with their audience?
  • How can we better marry the digital marketing tools with the age old art of telling compelling stories?

Storytelling in marketing is hardly new. But it’s as effective today as it was when David Ogilvy and the other patriarchs of our field wove their compelling tales. The question is — how good are we at marrying the old and the new?

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Comments

  1. says

    Great post! Stories work — even for small companies like ours. My associates are probably tired of hearing about my cheesecake story. But I keep retelling it because it conveys a very basic lesson. It goes something like this– A couple of years ago I got a call from an established oral surgeon who got all the referrals from other dentists. So he figured he didn’t need to market his practice. A new oral surgeon moved to town, hung out her shingle and started to network with area referring dentists including dropping off cheesecakes. It worked for her and the old time established dentist lost a lot of patients. Hence, my cheesecake story!

  2. says

    I think a lot of adverts these days are beyong odious; insipid, arrogant affairs where the makers seem to believe the public just sit their vacuously lapping it all up. “If I use this deodrant women will be falling off of me??! Great!”, and the endless durdgery of those shampoo commercials with everyone grinning like maniacs. Nightmare.

    There’s a half decent one recently with Kevin Bacon; he mocks the movie game Six Degrees of Bacon whilst promoting a mobile phone. Bacon was “horrified” by the game at first but has since made a charity out of it. Which is great!

  3. says

    Excellent post and questions, Drew. I have thought a lot about the importance of emotion in marketing stories. People buy for emotional reasons, even in B2B.

    I agree though, increasingly I see B2B and tech organizations in particular wanting to cut out “fluff” and get straight to the facts. I understand we have short attention spans in a digital world, but stories still engage and sell. Social media sites are great gateways to tease stories that are then told more fully on blogs or company sites. And when you’re pitching to the media, editors have told me they want those emotional, engaging stories above any others.

    • says

      Casey,

      It’s a balancing act, isn’t it? Do you think that social is just to sound byte driven to be a place for good stories? I know, based on your work and your book — you’re a big believer in stories in marketing. How do you help clients see the value of taking the time to truly tell the story?

      Drew

  4. says

    Drew – I love the post. We’ve been focusing a lot of the “story telling” aspects of real estate and how pwerful it can be when marketing a home instead of the typical 4BR, 2 BA descriptions we so often see.

    Why have we stopped seeing these “st0ry” commercials? I think that because we have gone to a social networking/”I need it now” world, it’s hard to tell a story in :30 and not many companies want to spend the entire budget on a :60 spot. I thought the Direct TV spots were cute – (If this happens then this will happen so don’t let this happen and get Direct TV)

    Regardless of whether your story is funny, emotional or fact-driven, it still is important that at the end, the consumer knows the answer to “what’s in it for me?”

    • says

      Sean,

      In Real Estate — it’s all about the story, isn’t it? The story a potential buyer tells themselves as they walk through a house, the stories a seller can share about their neighborhood, home, etc.

      You’re right — you can easily weave the what’s in it for me throughout your story and deliver the benefits of the purchase over and over again.

      Drew

  5. says

    The latest example of storytelling in marketing that comes to mind is the current “eBay Thanks You” campaign. Des Moines’ own Gwen Barker Walker was involved in the production of these videos that tell storied about how eBay has changed users’ lives: link to youtube.com

    The Ed Church story about finding his long lost motorcycle (link to youtu.be) is especially compelling. I surprised myself by sitting through more than 10 minutes of different stories, then writing Gwen a note to congratulate her on a great project.

  6. says

    Hello Drew –

    Nice post. It reminds me that I got into marketing because of my love of storytelling. And while personally, I hate to let the truth get in the way of a good story (a good embellishment when discussing the size of the fish that got away is critical), I believe with regard to business, truth has got to be the foundation of all stories.

    Social media has put transparency front and center for all advertisers, so I think storytelling on the appropriate channels is a natural fit for brands wanting to create a meaningful, emotional connection with the audience.

    As far as brands using story telling to connect – one of my all time favorites is another oldie but goodie. I think Toyota’s “dogs love trucks” campaign was a classic.

    I think I’ll got do a little storytelling of my own now.

  7. says

    Hi Drew – my 2 cents:

    Has this sort of storytelling become passé?
    Not in the real world, no. But in marketing people have come to believe things have to change constantly so others become passe. “What’s new?” interests them more than the basics.

    Are their any brands out there today who do this sort of storytelling in any media?
    I don’t see any.

    Does social media and content marketing really lend itself to good storytelling?
    Not really. There are some ideas that connect but no, they don’t and they can’t really.

    Do we need to go “old school” to really work storytelling into our marketing efforts?
    No, marketers will need a different mind-set if they really want to work storytelling into their marketing efforts.

    Are we equating storytelling to factual case studies rather than emotionally triggering customer stories?
    Not exactly. It’s more you are equating it to “format”.

    Is there a current brand that is really using storytelling to create an emotional connection with their audience?
    There are many brands who say they are…

    How can we better marry the digital marketing tools with the age old art of telling compelling stories?
    Start by listening to what real storytellers have to say. You know, those oral guys from “once upon a time”? :-)

    Cheers, Limor.

  8. says

    One of the core skills in public relations is the power of the narrative. Story telling should sit at the heart of all internal and external communications as a way of engaging with desired audience and customer segments.

    It’s a point made in the book (to be published in Jan 2013) -The Art of Influencing & Selling.

    I think we need to re-wire our thinking about story telling as part of our marketing efforts.

  9. says

    We all KNOW that storytelling is key in marketing and sales, but how many of us actually live by this knowledge? I’m thinking specifically of small businesses who are b2b rather than b2c. How can these businesses capitalize on storytelling when it’s not an obvious emotional tug? The thing is that businesses like Hallmark sort of live in the storytelling, emotional-tug landscape, but a consulting firm — not so much. So how can I — and others in similar professions — give my potential clients stories that will hit home? Certainly, testimonials help, but there’s something cold about them — there must be an extra push for storytelling, for leveling with the customers in a way that makes sense, causes them to go, “Ah-ha!”, and increase your selling power.

  10. says

    The best story teller that I have seen today is from P&G for the Olympics ads. Story telling is not gone, it is still there. Now more than ever, it is easier to spread these ads because of social media.

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