Storytelling Isn’t Enough

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Now that marketers in practically every sector prioritize content marketing, storytelling is heralded as a brand’s most effective approach to developing content.  It makes sense — people are emotional beings, so we respond to stories because they engage us on an emotional level.  And, as Nicholas Ind and Oriol Iglesias write in Brand Desire, “Brands and storytelling come out of the same building blocks:  meaning and emotions.”  But take a closer look at what storytelling actually entails and you’ll see that it works best as a marketing tactic when used as part of a story system.  Storytelling isn’t enough — you must also engage in story-doing, story-sharing, and ultimately story-building.

The problem with storytelling in isolation is best explained by Leslie Ghize, EVP at The TOBE Report.  When I interviewed Leslie for this Forbes article, Fresh Advice for Retailers from Trend Forecasting Firm TOBE, she said that storytelling sounds fake, “like you’re making it up.”  Although the craft of telling the story of a brand should endure, she believes the language and stance of “storytelling” are outmoded.  She advocates replacing the term, which refers to recounting what happened in the past, with the notion of “narrative.”  The difference is more than semantics — it’s a change in stance.  Narrative suggests forward-moving, real, and active expression.

Which brings me to story-doing.  In addition to thinking about telling stories, marketers should ensure their brands are doing things that are story-worthy.  When REI decided to close its doors on Black Friday and encourage its employees and others to get outside, it was doing something remarkable.   Not only did the move generate buzz for being so contrary to the industry norm, but it also allowed REI to tell the story of its values and the other ways it supports the outdoors.  You don’t have to do something as extraordinary as REI did, but you do have to differentiate your brand and connect with customers through the things you do, not just the things you say.  Delivering a really great customer experience is a sure-fire way to get others to tell your story — and when others are doing your storytelling for you, it makes your stories that much more credible and compelling.

Speaking of other people, story-sharing is another important complement to storytelling.  Marketers should share other people’s stories — employees, customers, other noteworthy individuals, and even entire communities — to demonstrate their authentic engagement with others.  Importantly, I’m not only talking about sharing other people’s stories about your brand.  It’s fine to pass along customer compliments every once in awhile to provide social proof for your brand, but you will endear your brand to your audience if you share stories about them and the topics they care about.  Blue Apron shares a range of stories on its blog — charming stories about their vendors, deep dives into ingredients and nature, and inspiring posts about its customers.  Story-sharing is one of the ways the brand has attracted nearly 1 million customers and over 1.7 million Facebook followers in just a few short years.

Finally, all your story efforts should be integrated into a story-building strategy.  I was introduced to the concept of story-building in Brand Desire and it seems to be the thing that’s missing from the disjointed, topical way most marketers go about storytelling today.  Ind and Iglesias write, “The role of story-building…is to inspire and align all the storytelling activities.”  It unites all the different stories and aligns the experience with the brand meta-narrative — the “unique and singular grand narrative” of the brand.  As such, story-building requires marketers to determine what the overarching narrative of their brand is and then ensure that all the individual stories ladder up to it.

Your brand meta-narrative should not only influence outsiders’ perceptions of your brand, but it should also align and inspire employees so they think and behave on-brand.  Ind and Iglesias describe how Nike has used story-building to train and develop its people and reinforce its corporate culture.  Nelson Farris serves as the company’s chief storyteller and senior executives devote a large part of their time to relaying stories to employees.  “In many cases [the stories] are about the past, and these are used to remind the members of the organization about the pillars on which the company rests and also to inspire the brand’s future,” Ind and Iglesias explain.

Storytelling remains an effective way for companies to connect with people inside their organization and out, but storytelling is not enough.  You also need story-doing to ensure that you are building your brand identity authentically through actions and not superficially through words.  You need story-sharing to meaningfully and deeply engage people.  And all three, storytelling, story-doing, and story-sharing, need to be aligned and unified with your brand meta-narrative through story-building.  This systematic approach to storytelling will make your stories work harder.

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