Deconstructing the art and science of storytelling

This sentence, the one you're reading right now, is the most important one in this entire feature. I have to draw you in - fast - or I'll lose you, perhaps to another article in this magazine, or Facebook, or a cat on a skateboard on YouTube.

Stories are coming to the fore because brands today have to grab the attention of consumers.
Stories are coming to the fore because brands today have to grab the attention of consumers.

"Brand storytelling" is currently the biggest buzz trend in marketing. Stories are coming to the fore because brands today have to grab the attention of consumers.

Since time immemorial, storytellers have been honing the art of creating compelling content that immediately hooks people in. Neuroscience now confirms what prophets, minstrels and jesters knew instinctively: if you relay information through narrative, people are more likely to emotionally connect with it and remember the details.

We're all storytellers now. Social networks have become the virtual campfires we sit around to tell our tales. Some of us, however, are better than others at spinning yarns and holding an audience's attention, and it's the same with brands. Brands can become more adept at telling stories, but not many can be bothered to put in the hard graft necessary to excel, experts believe.

To tell a good story and involve your community takes a lot of groundwork.

"Storytelling is in vogue, and there are a lot of people saying, 'We have to tell stories and be on all platforms,'" says John Sadowsky, author of Email, Social Marketing and the Art of Storytelling. "Few brands are doing it well or authentically. Good storytelling is more about listening than people think. To tell a good story and involve your community takes a lot of groundwork, which many brands aren't willing to do. They just throw things out there. That is dangerous."

One marketer who has worked hard to master the craft is Giles Lury, executive chairman of strategic brand consultancy The Value Engineers and author of The Prisoner & the Penguin, a study of the art of storytelling in marketing.

Lury and Sadowsky advocate that brands should go through a rigorous process to identify why and how they want to use storytelling. What they describe sounds more akin to an exercise in soul-searching than marketing, involving questions such as: who are you? Where have you come from? What do you stand for? Why do you want to tell your story? How? Will anyone care? Sadowsky cites IKEA as a brand that is sure of its story; Lury points to Virgin Atlantic.

If you haven't nailed these questions before you start telling your story, it may not make sense or resonate, or it will be boringly "beige". "As brands take up storytelling, there are lots of little stories about families and people appearing on TV that are quite engaging," says Lury. "The danger is that so many of them are not distinctive. They haven't found the grit in the oyster. There are thousands of stories behind every brand. The art is finding the right one, the one that isn't just a 'nice' story, but makes a point about a value you rate highly, or a principle you hold dear."

It's not about shoehorning a story into a multimillion-pound TV ad, either. Small stories can be very powerful communication tools. Lury gives the example of Bassett's using its packaging to explain how, in 1899, a company sales representative, Charlie Thompson, dropped a tray of samples, inspiring the idea for Liquorice Allsorts.

Greater flexibility

When Andrew Cullis, marketing director at Hyundai UK, decided he was serious about storytelling, he looked for an agency to deliver his vision.

"What was interesting," he says, "is that, although there is a lot of talk, lots of marketing agencies don't always get what storytelling really is." For that reason, he hired Red Bee, formerly the BBC's in-house agency, which has a heritage steeped in broadcast media.

The collaboration has taught him that storytelling requires a very different approach from traditional advertising. Most importantly, the client needs to be more flexible.

You should never be too rigid. You should let the creative process and talent add something.

For instance, during the shoot for the short film "Feel like a man", which aims to convey the product specifications of Hyundai's Sante Fe car model in a comedic way, the main actor went completely off script at one point. But this ad lib turned out to be the "icing on the cake", says Cullis, and gave the film the all-important attention-grabbing first line: "I stand naked in front of my wife, and I feel like a small child."

"We learnt that you should never be too rigid. You should let the creative process and talent add something," explains Cullis. "We don't stand over their shoulders saying, 'That's too risky.' We push the boundaries and show it to our president. If he says it's gone too far, we can bring it back."

Hyundai's approach also demonstrates that brand storytellers must take account of the art and science of the discipline. Marketers ultimately want emotional engagement to translate into profit, so the story needs to be told commercially as well as creatively.

In Hyundai's case, Cullis gave Red Bee free rein to follow its artistic instincts and make the script "as engaging as possible". The science was applied later when the client team considered the details, such as whether the main character should clearly say that he wanted the car. (Hyundai concluded that he should, the only line that the client changed.) This freer approach is going to become more important, says Cullis, as it gets harder for brands to grab audiences' attention.

Audience focus

The fact that Cullis talks about audiences rather than consumers shows, according to Red Bee's business development director, Michael Reeves, that he has already made the vital psychological shift essential for good brand storytelling. "It requires a new way of thinking," says Reeves. "Clients must treat the people they're talking to as an audience, not consumers. People don't choose to spend time with brands. They choose to spend time with content that moves, entertains or compels them to do something."

Understandably, this scares many marketers, who crave reassurance and numbers to back up their creativity. That's why Millward Brown's neuromarketing practice, led by global director Sarah Walker, is doing more testing on stories using facial coding to read consumers' raw, real, emotional response.

Marketers use stories because of their emotional resonance. If you overdo the emotion, however, you may turn your audiences off.

"Stories are very good at capturing attention," says Walker. "Stories have a protagonist, and we care about characters. That's inherently human. Because we care, we are more likely to remember. So stories require a lot less thinking to process information and facts. Stories also have cues, such as a setting, which help us remember this information. The more 'hooks', the more likely it is that you will recall it. So brands can think of stories as vehicles for delivering messages. They can be really personal and relevant in a way brand information often isn't."

David Brennan, founder of consultancy Media Native, who has carried out in-depth research on the use of storytelling in advertising, adds: "The power of storytelling can be clearly inferred from brain mapping. Many experts believe the brain architecture is such that we experience life via the medium of storytelling and subconsciously see our own lives and experiences as one big, unfolding story."

Walker emphasises the delicate balance between art and science. Marketers use stories because of their emotional resonance. If you overdo the emotion, however, you may turn your audiences off. She cites "Dove onslaught", a short film about the damaging effects of the beauty industry on young girls, as an example. "It was a great ad, but often when a story is so hard-hitting, people look away from the screen. Even if they don't, there's often an 'attentional blink', which shows they are having difficulty processing the tough content."

"Dove onslaught" breaks another rule of neuroscience. The company is credited only at the end of the film, leaving the viewer to make the link between the story and the brand. "That takes a bit of effort," says Walker. "If you can describe what happens in your story without mentioning your brand, the brand isn't well enough integrated."

Truth at the heart

In his book Hegarty on Creativity, BBH co-founder Sir John Hegarty asserts that there are no rules in the art of storytelling. The best creative work, he says, is often born of "practitioners putting a little bit of themselves into their work".

Both these "Hegartyisms" are demonstrated by the film "The kiss", made for Vodafone by the creative agency Grey London. The brief for this global ad was to tell a story about a product benefit - unlimited texts - without using spoken words.

"Rather than write a beautiful story, then yank in this deal, we started off thinking about what goes on forever," says Grey London's executive creative director, Nils Leonard. "We got to that truth, which is love. Then we asked: how are we going to tell this story in an interesting way? Where is the tinder? It's not enough to write a story you think is good. Write one you can imagine people remarking on. We call that tinder."

The "tinder" in "The kiss" is a scene where an old couple, still madly in love, kiss passionately on a bed. Only after this is Vodafone credited. To date, "The kiss" has been shared more than 144,725 times, making it the world's most-shared romantic ad.

Would it have been as effective if Vodafone had been guided more by the science and less by Grey London's artistic passion for telling an uninterrupted story? Leonard certainly doesn't think so.

Legacy media can create these massive storytelling arcs that provoke much more emotion than special offers or the announcement of a new store opening.

Indeed, Brennan believes that marketers take "too much of a scientific approach to marketing effectiveness, in terms of digital accountability, big data, auditing and procurement. (This) can't easily account for the impact of long-term branding benefits, which the best storytelling creates". He contends that brands should be brave and back one strong story that builds over years rather than "going from one campaign to another". "Legacy media can create these massive storytelling arcs that provoke much more emotion than special offers or the announcement of a new store opening," adds Brennan. He points to Comparethemarket.com, Virgin Atlantic and John Lewis as doing this well.

Walker agrees, welcoming the fact that clients now demand insight into the best way to tell one consistent story, looking at options from an ongoing saga to having the same plot played out in different situations.

"Take the meerkats," she says. "The minute you see them, you know what they're advertising. The story does a great job of minimising the emotional and mental effort you have to put in. It's like Daz in the 90s, the Nescafe romance or the BT family story. The repeated characters give instant meaning and an emotional connection. But, in general, brand strategies get changed before they wear out as stories. It's a lot to do with ego and a desire for something new, rather than a desire to continue stories that might be beneficial for brands, because there's much to be said for regularity and repetition."

Brave not beige

One reason that so many brand stories fall into the "beige" rather than "brave" camp is that marketers are terrified the tale will end in a flop rather than a kiss. The best-case scenario - a marriage of art and science - is credibly integrating a universal human truth with a product truth.

Google does this well. For example, in its "Dear Hollie" execution, it touchingly showed a father using its products and the web to share memories with his daughter as she grows up.

Indy Saha, EMEA director of strategy at Google Creative Lab, is rolling out "Google stories", continuing this idea that people are heroes and Google is making a difference to their lives. For example, production company B-Reel created a film about a photographer rising from obscurity to the world stage.

Saha has a growing interest in telling non-linear stories, where he provides the components and encourages the consumer to fill in the gaps. His "Web Lab" campaign, created with B-Reel, comprised a year-long exhibition at the Science Museum, a website and YouTube videos. It told the story of how the web works and what Google does.

"When you're talking to people whose digital behaviours are split across lots of different platforms, the linear story is not the only answer," says Saha. "With 'Web Lab', we want people to get together around the components we've put out there and create a movement or community."

Working for a brand that was born in the digital age, Saha isn't worried about handing control to the consumer. "You define where you'd like to go, " he says. "You do your best to help communicate that to the audience by putting the right platforms out there and remaining consistent to your core mission." Most brands, by contrast, are terrified of the risk of misinterpretation, negative parodying or creating a story that polarises.

They shouldn't be, argues agency RPM's managing director, Dom Robertson. "As long as your true north is there, it's brilliant if people misinterpret your story, because that story becomes a conversation," he says. "You can reinterpret it yourselves and together."

So, if this feature were a story, what would the moral be? Perhaps to not lose your head in numbers, but be brave, not beige. If you want to excel in storytelling, you have to boldly go where no brand has gone before. If you need inspiration, look no further than Lego, fresh from making its own movie about an ordinary mini-figure trying to save the universe.


The brand narrative

This is a means of presenting the organisation/brand as a character and its role as a story. Virgin, for example, has positioned itself as the "white knight" riding to save the damsel (consumer) in distress. There are overlaps with brand as archetypes.

Did you know ...

This is when brands build emotional engagement by telling the little (true) stories about themselves - how the brand started, the origin of its name. These can be used to build emotional engagement.

Inspiring and cautionary tales

The use of stories about brands as a training tool, to provide inspiration and/or instruction for the marketing team or broader organisation. They can be used to show how employees should act, as a means of helping your organisation consider how it might perform better, or to encourage people to think in different ways.

Up close and personal

The telling of personal stories is another means of gaining emotional engagement. The parallels between the personal and the business situation is then highlighted to make a specific point - a technique used by CEOs and politicians worldwide.

Going metaphorical

Here a (fictional) story is created that can act as a metaphor for what has happened, or needs to happen, or as an entertaining expression of what your brand is doing. The recent Chipotle "Scarecrow" film is a good example of this.

Meet your customer

Stories, fictional, but based on a true customer, are being used more frequently to personalise target segments and their beliefs and behaviours. They are a powerful way to bring to life target segments and touchpoints along any customer journey.

The "story-tation"

When did a PowerPoint slide last make you cry? Writing a presentation as a story is one way to try to avoid "death by PowerPoint". Using a narrative arc allows speakers to communicate points in a more engaging and memorable way.

By Giles Lury, The Value Engineers