“Storytelling” is a copywriting buzzword that’s been doing the rounds lately, but what exactly does it mean? How can modern marketers harness its power? And just why is it such a huge concept? Let’s dive right in!
Firstly let’s start with a little context. The sheer impact that stories have had on our history and development as a species is mind-blowing. Storytelling has been an integral part of culture the world over; think of great ancient tales such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Poetic Eddas, and the Bible. All kinds of stories and lessons have been passed down from generation to generation because stories are fundamentally memorable, entertaining and educational. They’ve allowed concepts and cultures to be passed down through families and clan groups even before people had a method of writing to immortalise their words.
But if you’re like me (and I know I am), this is all very well and good; but what does it have to do with modern marketing? What do our human storytelling roots have to do with me flogging my wares?
It’s a great question; and one with a multifaceted answer.
Why is Storytelling Such a Huge Marketing Tactic?
For the first part of the answer, we need to acknowledge the sheer importance that psychology plays in marketing (which we’ve discussed before on this blog). We all have a rock-solid, subconscious self-preservation instinct that always sets us up to subconsciously ask “what’s in it for me?” about most situations. This worked well when we were still in our hunter-gatherer stages, but nowadays most noticeably rears its head when we’re being marketed to.
When we’re presented with a hard sell and a “buy, buy, buy” attitude from someone pushing a product on us, we tend to become quite cynical about that product’s actual value – wondering “what’s the catch?” It’s come to a point where we tend to tune out this kind of pushy marketing, hence why more helpful methods like content marketing are on the rise.
Additionally, when we’re told a story or presented with a relatable scenario, our natural ability to empathise and to quickly assess the personal benefits and drawbacks within a situation allows us to fundamentally feel for a likeable character, and really put ourselves in their shoes. It’s also why nasty characters can get under our skin so much.
Focus & Physicality
Great stories resonate with us in a very unique way. Interesting tales draw our focus, cut out distraction and can even keep us physically on the edge of our seat. How many of us have hidden behind our hands whilst watching a horror flick, got goosebumps from a particularly emotional scene in the latest Netflix series, or finished a book and just had to have a moment to take it all in? This kind of focus is understandably invaluable to marketers.
Emotional reactions are always more powerful than logical and rational thinking. Stories have a natural ability to stick in our heads, and memory is very emotional too, so a soulful story often helps to reinforce your marketing efforts even further.
It’s also why gossip magazines and conspiracy theories are so popular – juicy stories are far more enthralling and resound with us far more than basic reality.
Our brains are naturally attuned to resolving things and leaving no loose ends untied. We love completion. This leads to a determination to see how a story concludes and resolves itself.
This is why TV series and movies that end on cliffhangers are so delightfully infuriating. If you’ve enjoyed the story, the producers know you’ll tune in to the next instalment to see how things pan out.
Why Does Storytelling Work?
So to recap, the most important tenets of storytelling in marketing are as follows:
- Storytelling is a way to get around the innate, human “what’s in it for me?” cynicism associated with traditional marketing.
- We empathise easily and subconsciously relate stories and hypothetical scenarios to ourselves.
- Stories can more easily keep us focused and on the edge of our seats compared to nakedly stating the facts.
- Due to the emotional and engaging nature of stories, they tend to stick in our minds.
- We are programmed to want to see stories conclude.
Let’s take a look at a few good examples of advertisements that use stories well.
Big Brand Examples
Here are three of my favourite examples of storytelling in marketing from big brands.
Hornbach “Say it With Your Project”
Agency Credit: HEIMAT, Berlin [Please Note That Clicking Play Sends Usage Data to YouTube]
One of my favourite examples comes from German DIY chain Hornbach. As a former goth, I totally empathise with this girl. Her hardship catches our attention almost immediately, and instils sympathy. As her persecution continues, we wonder how this tale is going to resolve itself. When we are shown that her dad has painted the house black in solidarity with her, it’s affirmational without being over the top. It all ties into the great tagline “Sag es mit deinem Projekt” – “Say it with your project.” A great ad, nicely done.
Allegro “English for Beginners” (Some NSFW Language)
This charming Polish Christmas tale advertising online auction site Allegro went viral. We join a chap who’s enthusiastic about learning English. As he buys more things online to help his learning journey and he finds himself in more amusing situations, we become more invested in his story and wonder what’s next. As the ad comes to a close, we see the heartwarming reason for the huge effort. It all started with his “English for Beginners” book, and snowballed from there in part thanks to Allegro purchases.
Agency Credit: Specsavers Creative [Please Note That Clicking Play Sends Usage Data to YouTube]
This ad is a continuation of the famous “should have gone to Specsavers’ tagline which features a number of excellent, well-told short stories which are always comedically on point. This example is in keeping with their tongue-in-cheek worst case scenarios. We can empathise with the first chap because we have all had pesky plumbing problems before – and we also feel extra sorry when his huge investment gets drained away! Specsavers are great at producing ads that don’t feel like ads.
How to Use Storytelling in Your Marketing Efforts
But these are big name companies, how can your average small to medium business use storytelling?
- Don’t be afraid to market around a scenario where your product or service would be sorely needed or appreciated.
- Understand where you fit into client’s story and wrap your narrative around that, even if you take it to a slightly wacky conclusion.
- Frame everything from your customer’s perspective, and not your own. Remember this awesome Ann Handley quote “Make the customer the hero of your story.”
- Never fear letting your guard down, just be real and relatable.
- If you start a story, always resolve it. People don’t like to be left hanging!
- Don’t be afraid to start a piece of copy with “Picture the scene,” or “Imagine this,” and follow with a worst case scenario that your service or product solves.