Storytelling is the new watchword in marketing. But what does it really mean?
Once upon a time, stories were the sole domain of writers like The Brother’s Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter and Dr Seuss.
Mostly, they were written around one or two central characters; a girl with a red riding hood, a little mermaid, an orphan who wanted more, a precocious rabbit, or a cat with a penchant for millinery. If we were lucky, they had a moral attached.
Then one day, marketers appeared on the scene and the entire concept of the story acquired a new dimension.
Today, in marketing, the best stories are no longer about the cat, the sat or the mat. They’re not even about what that cat, sat and mat mean to the world as a whole. Instead, they’re about what the cat, sat and mat mean to the each singular reader.
Reader one might take meaning from the cat, while reader two might take meaning from the mat. The best stories are now those that feel like they were written just for you.
Before you write us off as having fallen down the rabbit hole, let’s explain with an example. Let’s take Marks and Spencer. Their newest advertisements consists of no more than a series of shots of ingredients. Yet, using slow motion footage and a classical soundtrack, the advert delivers a personal message to each individual viewer.
The softly peaking crest of meringue might remind one viewer of a dinner party they had, the melt in the middle scotch egg could conjure the idea of a steal-away picnic in another viewer. The crusty bread drizzled with balsamic vinegar might suggest a lazy weekend brunch to another, while the caving-in of a chocolate dessert might imply indulgent me-time to another.
Suddenly the best stories have levels. For Marks and Spencers the levels are…
- We use quality ingredients
- Our food contributes to a more luxurious lifestyle for anyone
- Our food means a perfect dinner party/tete-a-tete picnic/relaxing brunch for you.
We’ve been heading to this brave new storyworld for some time now. The term ‘content marketing’ was officially coined in 1996, but the journey began before that. Companies like Chevrolet have been doing it naturally since the start of the 20th century. Chevy aligned themselves with baseball, hotdogs, apple pie and the American dream, for example.
The proliferation of content marketing as an artform, however, grew out of the advertising overload that consumers began to face with the explosion of social media, text message advertising, and search engine targeted ads. It was solidified by the roll out of media like on-demand, which gave consumers the choice to ignore traditional TV adverts.
Suddenly, brands realised they had to start connecting with customers in order for them to pay attention to their advertising efforts. Countless research studies were done into the effect of emotional connections on consumer loyalty and engagement. Even neuroscientists got in on the act – carrying out studies that showed that people used fewer parts of their brains when processing cold hard facts than reading deeper descriptions. The upshot of this being that it’s easier for people to remember stories than plain data. This led us to where we are today.
So how can small businesses generate their own stories that connect to customers on a personal level?
The first step is to identify what your business does best. Going back to the Marks and Spencer’s example – they use quality ingredients.
Next, you need to work out what benefit your USP has for your customers. If you own a bathroom company, for example, you could think of all the ways your customers get satisfaction from their bathrooms – baby’s first bath? post-marathon soak in the tub? book and a glass of wine after a challenging day at work?
The next stage is to decide what storytelling medium to use to tell your story. In an article for the Content Marketing Institute, Bryan Rhoads from Intel, outlines seven different types of storytelling formats. These include things like The Quest – so, taking the example of the bathroom company above, the ‘quest’ story would focus on the sleepless first night with the baby, the hardship of the marathon, and the bad day at work, before showing how each individual gets their reward in the bath.
Another story style is rags to riches. Continuing with the bathroom example, you could show all the things that go wrong with a bad bathroom – leaky taps, burst pipes, cramped baths – and contrast those to what a quality bathroom feels like after a person saves up for it.
Finally, you need to decide which mediums you’re going to use to tell your story. Most small businesses don’t have the budget for big TV advertisements. However, you can use a photo montage to tell a story and send it out through email or your blog. You can even develop a hashtag to help tell the story through social media. Marks and Spencer, for example, use the hastag #cookstylesnap.
With that said, we’ll leave you with this final thought…