Why Storytelling Truly Matters in Marketing

BUSINESS INSIGHTS

Every audience wants — and perhaps needs — something that requires resolution.

Court Mann
By Court Mann

Are we bringing Stamos some quinoa?”

The Stamos in question was John, of “Full House” fame. And I, a lowly intern at a major national magazine, stood there in the magazine’s Manhattan office thinking to myself, That’s the coolest sentence I’ve ever heard anyone say.

The guy who said it was the magazine’s second in command — a known jedi of journalism storytelling who said absurdly cool stuff like this all the time. He seemed so good at his job, so stylish, so effortlessly in his element, I had no choice but to admire.

Admiration is tricky; it can also make you feel profoundly intimidated. This editor had built a career on polishing every story, no matter how good or bad, into a diamond. I wanted to learn everything I could from him. But I was also an intern. If I sought him out, I had to pick my moment and make it count.

Finally, after a month of building up rapport and courage, I walked into his office and asked his advice on an ambitious story I’d been pursuing. He listened, warmly and graciously, then asked me, “Where’s the tension?”

Interesting moments and memorable characters aren’t quite enough to complete a story, he explained. You also need some tension that requires resolution. If you can locate that tension, and effectively weave it into the narrative, then you may have yourself a good story.

Where the Audience Becomes the Hero

It’s been a long time since that conversation. But the lesson has stuck with me, through every job and career change.

Storytelling and journalism go hand in hand, obviously. Storytelling is also central to good marketing. And tension is just as necessary here, too.

Every audience wants — perhaps needs — something that requires resolution. In marketing, we invite the audience themselves to be part of the resolution — something that’s not always possible in other types of storytelling. In marketing, resolution is ultimately the promise: problem + brand + you = resolution.

Ensure your storytelling gives a resolution that your audience wants and at times needs.

Marie Hattar, a Forbes contributor, put it this way: “Too often, companies fall into the trap of telling great stories that ultimately fail as they focus on what they offer and build a story around that rather than making the customer the hero. 

In fact, messages communicated via stories are more than 20 times as likely to be remembered than those told solely through facts and figures. And why wouldn’t they be? Through both nature and nurture, we become hardwired to care about story — particularly the tension and resolution. Bedtime stories train us to delight in it. Millennia of evolution make us scan our environments for what’s unsafe. Story matters because of course it does. All of us, individually and collectively, are inseparably part of stories that are constantly evolving. Life is story.

And because life is story, marketing usually must fit neatly into each person’s own story to be effective. Does it fit into the story of their lifestyle? Of their triumphs and failures? Of the way they view themselves?

It only makes sense, then, that story itself becomes the best way for marketing to find a foothold. Story recognizes story.

This has meant that brand storytelling occupies a growing space in today’s marketing landscape. Remember that Marie Hattar quote from earlier, about brands failing to make the customer the hero? This is crucial. Because it’s not just about what a product or service can do — it’s about how a customer can wield it to be the source of resolution. 

One example you may have seen: credit card TV commercials that profile small business owners. These owners often explain how their card’s perks, like a generous cashback rate, help them pay for things like their employees’ health insurance. In this example, the customer sits squarely in the hero spot. The product simply helps them be the hero. 

Building Your Brand, Story by Story

Brand storytelling isn’t a silver bullet, of course. If you’re a brand, for example, whose product is known to cause harm, then a heartwarming story probably falls flat. That’s engaging with an audience in bad faith. And it runs the risk of not just being dismissed, but outwardly ridiculed. Social media is a powerful thing — and no, not all publicity is good publicity.

Story is always being built, whether or not the builders intend it. This is true in everyday life, and it’s true in marketing. But brands shouldn’t let this fact paralyze them.

While a single bad marketing story can have a long shelf life, stories are something that brands build gradually. A single story does not win the day. Consistent stories over time do. Audiences need time, repetition, resonance, and often firsthand experience, to be convinced. With every honest, compelling, and well-told story, you nudge them forward.

Now, I know what you’re wondering. Did John Stamos ever get that quinoa? I’m honestly not sure. But the next time you hear about, see, or eat quinoa yourself, chances are you’ll think of “Full House.” A good story is a powerful thing.

Messages communicated via stories are more than 20 times as likely to be remembered than those told solely through facts and figures.

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