Brand storytelling might seem faddish but it's here to stay

Lidl: reshaping the retail landscape by using a clear narrative
Lidl: reshaping the retail landscape by using a clear narrative

Marketing buzzwords come and go, but the importance of brand storytelling will stand the test of time, says Ed Woodcock, director of narrative, Aesop Agency.

In the last few years, ‘storytelling’ has been an over-used and sometime much maligned marketing buzzword.

Storytelling came to prominence on the back of the bumpy rise of content marketing. With audiences increasingly in control of the media they consume, the idea was that brands would become more like publishers. Brushing up on their storytelling skills would help them produce content that audiences would actually want to engage with. And as with any fashion, there has been the inevitable backlash. Storytelling as a marketing concept has suffered from its association with content marketing.

Brand managers have been right to question content’s merits and effectiveness as opposed to more interruptive forms of marketing, like advertising. It’s more appropriate for some brands and audiences than others. But the idea that storytelling is, by association, a fad is a strange assertion. Stories have been with us since the Stone Age; we share stories on Facebook like our ancestors did round the campfire. Humans are ‘storytelling animals’.

The narrative 

Narrative is a pattern of thought that we recognise easily, and in this way it is useful for marketers hoping to cut through the exponentially noisier world we now live in. Narrative is the deep pattern of a story. It deals with who people are (the hero), what their intentions are (their mission), the challenges they face (antagonisms), their chances of success or failure (comic/tragic resolution), and the conclusion to be drawn from the situation (the moral). In short, narrative is highly strategic information.

Which explains why ‘narrative’ is used so much in politics – it can make or break a campaign or government. Take the US presidential race. Trump has a very strong narrative: the mission is clear (making America great again) and so are the antagonists (the Washington elites and the corrosive effect of foreign influences), but he is deeply flawed as a central character, and this will be his downfall. After all, character is destiny. Yet Hillary’s story is far from clear. What is she actually about? What does she want to achieve? Her campaign feels too reactive and tactical. At best, she spins counter-narratives: "let’s build bridges, not walls". Her failure to find a compelling central story is making the race far closer than it should be.

Clear vision

Good brand storytelling is no different. It relies on a good strategic narrative - one that shines through countless executions across various channels, sometimes over years. Does the brand have a clear vision or mission? Does it have a distinct personality? Important components of a strong narrative and just two of the nine criteria from our annual brand storytelling survey that strives to gauge which brands have all the components of a good brand story.

"Ryanair, once infamous for its ‘fuck off’ school of customer service, has been the surprise success story of this year’s poll"

Some categories do particularly well by the nature of what they are: most charities, for instance, have a clear sense of mission, and social media brands benefit from being a platform for other people’s stories. To me, the stand-out stories are Lidl and Ryanair.

Lidl, ranked 24th overall, is this year’s top scoring supermarket knocking M&S off the No.1 spot it has occupied for the last three years. Alongside Aldi, the "disruptive" budget supermarket is reshaping the retail landscape through a combination of a simple, value-driven offer and a clear and compelling narrative around "surprising quality". Its "LidlSurprises" campaign has dispelled middle-class prejudice against discounters and made it acceptable to go hunting there for little luxuries sold alongside the weekly groceries.

The happy ending

Ryanair, once infamous for its "fuck off" school of customer service, has been the surprise success story of this year’s poll. While Ryanair doesn’t tick every storytelling box, it has scored sufficiently highly across the nine attributes to grab the top spot from the 2015 top airline incumbent – Virgin. Put simply, Ryanair has had a character makeover. The story it now tells is notably friendlier, while staying true to its low-cost offer. This has, in turn, changed perceptions and helped transform its fortunes (66% increase in pre-tax profits). A great exemplar of the "character is destiny" adage.

Ryanair and Lidl are just two examples of brands that have told a good story to make or change their fortunes. There is a good reason we’ve always been fascinated by "success stories" – success and story are intertwined. Success involves having a clear narrative that cuts through the noise and lends a brand a sense of purpose.

Despite its current faddishness, it’s usefulness means storytelling is not going out of fashion any time soon.

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