(Author)ity: The Importance of Storytelling

Stories define us. Since early cave dwellers left their graffiti in Lascaux, listening to and telling stories have moved people. Stories are powerful: They give meaning and context to what would otherwise be a collection of easily forgettable facts. Stories invoke the imagination so that listeners begin to own them almost as much as the teller. In fact, there’s a growing body of research that points to the power of narrative not just as a way to engage people, but as the only way to change deeply entrenched views.

The implications of this are enormous for CMOs, who are trying to figure out how to engage the hearts and minds of an increasingly demanding and fickle audience. I may not be introducing a new idea here, but in today’s post-advertising world, where interruption is dead, the only way brands can connect with consumers is through useful, relevant and entertaining content — in other words, storytelling. Marketers and advertisers are beginning to get this; the problem is they’re not practicing what they preach.

Avenue A’s recently published “Digital Outlook Report” had this to say about the subject:

“Narrative is the experience. As the Web becomes the preferred destination for brand exploration, digital experiences must become richer, deeper, and more able to tell compelling stories. If your brand experience depends entirely on pages and clicks, it’s time to wonder, ‘What is my story?'”

Good question. Most brands can’t tell you, but some are getting close.

Brands no longer need to rent time and space on someone else’s channel (whether print, online or broadcast), but can and must create their own.

Last year, Garmin, a maker of car satellite navigation systems, experimented with a live skit on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Apparently awareness levels were much higher than for their average 30-second spot. Obviously, right? While this was certainly a step in the right direction, simply providing entertaining content is still not enough. It perpetuates the old model of renting property — in this case, Leno’s stage. A fleeting spike in awareness hardly compares to the enduring level of engagement that storytelling allows. Garmin squandered an opportunity to build on that initial awareness by creating its own channel, through which it could have created more skits, curated user-generated content and filtered it using Digg-style voting. Now that, I wager, would create more than just a fleeting buzz.

This new era presents both an opportunity and a challenge for post-advertising brands, which can now morph into media channels, engage with consumers directly and cut out the middleman. When Radiohead opted to bypass the recording industry by connecting directly with fans, the band set in motion a profound shift in the music business. The music industry shunned the idea of empowering consumers; with one quick motion, Radiohead taught them to embrace it. Now it’s time for all brands to follow this lead and connect with consumers directly: A golden age of brand networking and collaboration is dawning.

Examples of content marketing initiatives that capitalize on this interactive model abound. Every day there are more than you can throw a stick at, so how do you separate the good from the bad? Every time I come across one of these new initiatives, I try to measure its “authority to publish.”  In other words, what is the connection between the brand and its content and its credibility with its target audience?

I’ve been putting this theory into practice, and a few sites have really caught my attention. A couple of months ago Directdaniella.com from Taco Bell grabbed me for four very engaged minutes, then I got bored. Why? A failure to completely engage, limited interaction with the consumer and, most importantly, a stretched authority to publish. What possible connection does a taco have with a male fantasy of directing a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model? Think outside the bum, Taco Bell.

On the other hand, around the same time, I was drawn to petcharts.com, Purina’s brilliant new content play. Purina hits the ground running with a great story platform — connecting pets and their owners. This site goes a long way to showcasing some of the best features of a post-advertising site — from curating user content to filtering out the best and worst via Digg-style voting. Similarly, AgentProvocateur.com has brilliantly used erotic narratives to establish its brand from inception, and it clearly has an authority to publish steamy stories. (Full disclosure: It’s a client.)  Eroticism sits at the very heart of the brand and sets it apart from Victoria’s Secret, which announced it was moving away from ads that might be deemed “too sexy” — a move, for a lingerie brand, that strikes me as being a bit ironic.

Clearly, if marketers want to engage consumers repeatedly and for any length of time, they have to give them reasons to come back. Toyota has done that brilliantly with its new serial based on a fictional assistant fashion designer, Bianca Turner (www.iflookscouldkill.com/journal.htm). The serial fiction approach to storytelling is something that Spraychel, Unilever’s personification of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, has been doing for years with great success, the latest iteration of which launched last week (www.votespraychel.com/president).

So back to “What’s your story?” and why CMOs need to be rethinking their brands from a narrative approach, rather than rearranging logos, taglines and color palettes — which is akin to arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic in beautifully orchestrated reds, greens and aquamarines. Using narratives in branding isn’t that difficult: Start by becoming skillful at story listening so you get to understand your story as it lives in the hearts and minds of your consumers. Then identify niche content areas that your brand can own.

Now you have your authority to publish, you can tell your story through channels you own and turn your brand messages into great media.

Simon Kelly is COO of Story Worldwide