You Have All the Tools You Need to Build Better Brand Stories

Why Storytelling Is Essential to Business Success. Just Ask Apple, Google, Chevy, Coke and Pepsi

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We love technology. We're both gadget freaks and gearheads. We are often the first of our friends and colleagues to buy the latest streaming video player, download the newest software and train our teams on the most cutting-edge tools to get our jobs done more efficiently. But we also agree that technology innovations are irrelevant to the future of advertising and marketing unless a more fundamental activity is understood, honored and advanced: the craft of storytelling.

If you're in the media business, marketing business, or agency business, you're in the business of storytelling. Let's take it a step further. If you're a journalist, teacher, athletic coach, political leader, or CEO of any kind of company, you are also a professional storyteller. Moms and dads, little kids playing with dolls and fire engines are all storytellers, too.

From the Stone Age to Socrates, the Bible to our digital age, stories are how we educate ourselves and understand our place in the world. It is how we shape our values and behaviors, remember our past, and make our way into the future.

Stories are also essential to business success. Most prosperous companies have creation myths: Jobs and Wozniak toiling away in a garage; Page and Brin penning plans for Google at Stanford; Coca-Cola's secret formula locked in a vault. These tales not only help forge, but also reinforce company cultures through time. For a business of any size, stories like these become the underpinning of formal training and development, as well as water-cooler talk.

In advertising specifically, the art and craft of storytelling is central to building, maintaining and strengthening the bonds between consumers and brands. Chevrolet has been associated with "baseball," "hot dogs," "apple pie" and the American ethic for almost 100 years. Pepsi has been "the choice of a new generation" in one way, shape or form for more than half a century. These ideas, and the words, sounds, and images that bring them to life, are the products of great advertising.

New technology does not change the human desire for sense-making narrative or the need for us to understand the world through tales well told. But technology does change how we learn stories, how we tell stories, and who hears them.

The "mechanical reproduction of words," as well as cheap paper, literacy, and innovations in transportation united the vast United States into a single, cemented democratic union, as James W. Carey discussed in "Communication as Culture." The ability to rewind and rewatch a TV show, as well as the ability to analyze it with other fans online, has allowed us to understand more complex storylines, argued Steven Johnson in "Everything Bad Is Good for You."

Today we are another leap ahead. Interactive media now allows us to bring once separate mediums together. We're not subject to just reading, just watching or just listening to a story, but we can absorb these communication types in harmony. We as individuals are empowered to tell new stories, as well as participate and build on existing ones no matter what country we're in, our age, or our occupation. In this environment, a narrative is not told and controlled from on high, but begun by the storyteller and then advanced by all those that respond to the story and the storyteller's reactions to these contributions. Consumers get their stories by deftly piecing together a narrative from multiple sources, rather than one authoritative messenger.

These great innovations in storytelling and story-building give marketers the opportunity to form real, meaningful, human connections with consumers, to inspire people to become genuinely involved with their brands, to become authentically responsive to their participative audiences, and to give consumers the powerful, lasting sense that they have a level of ownership over the brand itself.

However, we are not living up to our potential. We worry that the dominant conversation in the industry, focused as it is on using new technologies to form greater efficiencies in the distribution and analysis of advertising unites, misses the point of what goes inside, outside, and around those units. We are concerned the industry is more concentrated on counting likes and clickthroughs than forming deep relationships with people, and that subsequently consumer interaction with brands is largely limited to likes, short comments, and critiques. From this angle, interactive media is in its infancy. We must get better at our jobs.

Randy Rothenberg is president-CEO of the IAB. Mike Hughes is president of the Martin Agency. The IAB's MIXX Conference & Expo Oct. 3-4 will be dedicated to the art of storytelling.
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