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Who cares what your story is...

Don't get too caught up writing your own narrative when you should be helping people create theirs. But don't worry: brands still have an important part to play

Robinson...“Strong brands are never the hero of the story. What strong brands do is facilitate good stories for people”
Robinson...“Strong brands are never the hero of the story. What strong brands do is facilitate good stories for people”

Do you have a favourite brand? If you work in marketing, then you probably do. Ask someone outside the advertising industry that question, though, and they’ll probably struggle to name a single brand they love (at least, not without giving it a lot of thought). However, ask someone to tell you a story about something they’ve done recently and it’s likely that brands will feature heavily. 

So I asked my team what brands they love and why. Land Rover was the first car one person had dreamed of driving, Nespresso made another feel like they were part of an exclusive high-end coffee club, and Adidas clothes and football boots were apparently worn by all the cool kids at school.

Although the responses were varied, a pattern was clear. In none of the anecdotes I heard was the brand the protagonist – it just made "something" more possible. It appears that strong brands are never the hero of the story. Moreover, what strong brands do is facilitate good stories for people. So the aim of every storyteller is surely to create some kind of contagious positivity in the hope that their brand gets caught up in it along the way. 

Storytelling has taken over the marketing world, but are we focusing on the wrong stories? Is our focus on our own brand story a dangerous self-obsession, when what we should be thinking about is how to help people build their own stories?

The answer to both these questions is "yes". As we know, storytelling for brands isn’t a new thing, but what’s interesting is how the approach to it has changed over time. Back when marketing had more of a "one-way-shout-your-message-loudly" strategy, brands still had stories but the founder was often the hero. The best example of this is Richard Branson. He took you on such an inspiring journey with each launch that you bought into it straight away. Branson played the starring role in the Virgin story. 

Nowadays, storytelling has taken over every media channel. For brands that have been born into the connected world of millennials, multiplatform storytelling is second nature. Tom’s Shoes, for example, was founded on the premise of what its impact on the world was going to be.

These brands are "story-doing". But it’s harder for older, more established brands, as they can’t just change their company and invent a story for marketing purposes. People see through that very quickly. Sadly, many try to use social tools to be funnier and more interesting than they actually are. And that doesn’t work, so people don’t care.

Don’t panic, though, brands can still be part of the story – but, these days, it’s usually as a facilitator or mentor, not as the protagonist. By carefully selecting what stories to be part of, brands enhance the consumer experience. You may not walk away with the Oscar, but you’ll get a mention in the thank-you speech.

For example, Nike features in many stories that involve sport, whether you are an elite athlete or a first-time runner. Pinterest has it sorted too and is in prime position to be part of the most important life stories people star in and experience.

It’s important to remember that "storytelling" is made up of two words – story and telling. Everyone has their own stories and lots of these involve brands. The telling is the important bit. Only if that contagious positivity has been added will the story be told involving the brand. When it is their story, they will care.

What story inspires you? The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared. It shows you it’s never too late to really live.
What’s your favourite storytelling medium? Letters. One of the many casualties of the digital age.
Best storyline you’ve seen in recent years? Crash. I will never forget the invisible cloak storyline.
What story makes you cry? The sure thing for uncontrollable tears is my annual date with It’s A Wonderful Life. A happy and sad cry.
Which fictional character would you hire? Nanny McPhee. I love the chaos that is my life, but a little more order wouldn’t go amiss.
What’s your nemesis? I’ve never been a fan of rules.

by Sophie Robinson, Creative director, Metro

Sophie recently set up Metro Story – an internal creative division that brings together planning, production, insight and design functions to deliver winning creative solutions for clients