The Beginning of the End of Storytelling

Brands Need to Be Story Makers, Not Story Tellers

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Once upon a time, an industry became obsessed with storytelling. Everywhere these industry people went, they said storytelling was the most important thing they all had to do. Then a mean dragon of a columnist said storytelling was evil, and the industry people slew him so they could go back to enjoying their jobs. The end.

Or consider a different version of this story.

Once upon a time, an industry became obsessed with storytelling. But it gradually came around to the idea that no one listening to those stories could remember anything about them, so the industry people found a more meaningful way to connect with their audiences. And they all lived happily ever after. The end.

These stories are mutually exclusive. One will be fiction and the other nonfiction. In this unofficial edition of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series, which path do you want to take? That path can have profound consequences for all of our jobs.

How many conferences have you been to about storytelling? How many articles have you read on how marketers can tell better stories? Given the obsession we have with storytelling, it seems like few people appreciate the dark side of it. I didn't appreciate the drawbacks myself until a conversation with my wife shifted my worldview. Here's the story of what happened.

One day, my wife and I were venting about a few insufferable people we know. They didn't seem to take an interest in us or anyone but themselves. Exasperated, my wife lamented, "All they do is tell stories!"

It was one of those lines I'll never forget. Given that our industry is all about storytelling, I'm used to storytellers being the heroes. Yet here she was revealing the negative aspect of the craft. Stories are often used as crutches that cast light on some trait or moment, rather than opening up a path to understand people more deeply. It's the story that gets in the way of the relationship. Tell the story with its beginning, middle and end, and your work is done.

To make matters worse, do you think people really get brands' stories? Think of a brand you love: Apple, Tide, Gucci, Hyundai, or any brand that you identify with. Do you know what its story is? I just paid way too much money to get the new iPhone, but I can't tell you Apple's story.

I asked my wife about this, too. Cara loves Diet Coke, so I asked her, "What's Coke's story?" The next thing I knew, I was living in a real-world version of the "carousel" moment from "Mad Men." She started telling me about when Coke came out with cans with red tabs, and all her friends used to collect them. And then she told me about the games she played with her friends in sleepaway camp, where they'd break off tabs from Coke cans as a way to reveal which boys they liked. Thanks to this brand, I was learning more about the person in my life I have been the closest to for nearly a decade.

Interestingly, Coca-Cola is currently running one of the most radical campaigns that pushes back against storytelling and addresses the future of marketing. The "Share a Coke" campaign with names and relationship descriptors on cans and bottle labels empowers people to create their own stories. I see these moments happen all the time with colleagues and friends, where the brand is the catalyst for the stories they are making about themselves.

One small but striking moment I witnessed was when my teammate Kate wound up with a bottle labeled "Adam," and she saved the bottle for my colleague Adam, who was all too happy to have it. Before the campaign, they wouldn't have even valued the empty bottle for the recycling refund. Instead, what would have been a piece of trash wound up strengthening their relationship in some small way. And that story of Kate saving the empty bottle for Adam is a story all three of us remember. Perhaps you will remember it, too.

The future of storytelling isn't about telling anyone anything. It's about storymaking, where the brand facilitates and taps into the stories people are creating and sharing with each other. Storytelling is the epitome of the old one-way, broadcast mindset that so many of us in marketing are trying to leave behind. Storymaking, by contrast, is far more fulfilling, and exactly what will matter to the people all of our brands are trying to reach.

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