The Role Of Storytelling In Marketing
16 May, 2022
I wrote this paper in May 2022, for my Master of Media in Strategic Communication. The paper interprets and integrates a large amount of the literature concerned with storytelling in marketing.
If I am assisting you to present your ideas in the most engaging way possible, or helping you to tell your story in a tailored manner for a particular, predefined audience, then this paper will provide you with foundations to understand where I am coming from and what I am trying to achieve.
The Role Of Storytelling In Marketing:
Why, How, And When Is Storytelling A Valuable Approach
David James Olney
13 May, 2022
Between marketers’ desire to create more persuasive content, and audiences’ desire to consume engaging and rewarding content, there is an ongoing tension around gaining and maintaining attention. Even though media and technology continue to change, people’s attention to stories remains constant. Telling stories is an ancient and vital characteristic of our species, and how to utilise storytelling is a current major theme in marketing research. This paper defines storytelling, discusses its role, analyses its development, and reflects on how storytelling can be employed to create engaging and persuasive marketing content. Storytelling is authentically human, and this paper demonstrates the importance of authenticity to storytelling in marketing.
What Is A Story?
The literature concerned with storytelling is diverse, but there are themes that authors consistently discuss in relation to what makes a story, and what makes a story memorable. “Cognitive psychologists describe how the human mind, in its attempt to understand and remember, assembles the bits and pieces of experience into a story, beginning with a personal desire, a life objective, and then portraying the struggle against the forces that block that desire.” (McKee and Fryer 2003, p. 51) Storytelling can be defined as, “the sharing and combining of knowledge and experiences through narrative and anecdotes in order to communicate complex ideas, concepts, and causal connections and build connections and associations.” (Keskin et al. 2016, p. 32)
In addition, storytelling has been defined as, “the art in which a teller conveys a message, truths, information, knowledge, or wisdom to an audience – often subliminally – in an entertaining way, using whatever skill, or props he chooses, to enhance the audience’s enjoyment, retention and understanding of the message conveyed.” (Vu and Medina 2014, pp. 11-12) In relation to marketing, “storytelling generates positive feelings in customers and is perceived as more convincing than facts, increasing brand trust, raising awareness and making the brand unique.” (Lundqvist et al. 2013, p. 6) Significantly, people know a memorable story when they hear/see one, even if they struggle to define why it is memorable, because the central themes that people value have remained constant across time and location (Campbell 2015).
Rather than integrating the previous definitions, which provide a comprehensive cross-section of how storytelling is understood, this paper will utilise a summary of Will Storr’s arguments from his book, The Science of Storytelling (Storr 2019), to define storytelling. Storr’s book is particularly valuable for any researcher analysing storytelling, because it combines current insights from psychological and neurological research with professional storytelling knowledge from writers and screen-writers. Storr’s arguments are comprehensive and cohesive, and he has seamlessly linked all of the major themes in storytelling research. According to Storr, audiences are far more interested in characters than events, and a memorable story involves some event causing unexpected change in a character’s life. This event thwarts the character’s aims and exceeds their current understanding of how to proceed. In order to overcome the setback, the character has to struggle to understand what is going on, and work toward gaining the understanding and skills necessary to overcome the unexpected change, so that they can achieve their preferred outcome. The character will be changed by the experience, and by the growth they undertake as a consequence of the unexpected event. An audience will only think about and remember the story if they perceive personal value in making sense of the unexpected change and the character’s struggle. People are innately interested in learning from stories, as long as stories include the above characteristics.
Human’s Cannot Help Telling Stories
In his book, The Righteous Mind, psychologist Jonathan Haidt succinctly states that, “the human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” (Haidt 2012, p. 328) Even though Haidt’s book is primarily concerned with why good people are divided by politics and religion, the nature and significance of storytelling in decision making and creating values is a recurring theme throughout the book. Haidt presents and analyses a variety of examples of how people make decisions about circumstances in order to maintain their preferred moral story (concerning how the world should be), rather than reasoning their way through circumstances as they experience them. People remember their stories and the moral values they have created to give them meaning, and, as expert storytelling instructor and screenwriter Robert McKee says, “Stories are how we remember; we tend to forget lists and bullet points.” (McKee and Fryer 2003, p. 51)
In accordance with this perspective, Woodside writes: “Information is indexed, stored, and retrieved in the form of stories. A story is useful because it comes with many indices (i.e., touch points to the lives of listeners/viewers or to others that cause implicit and/or explicit awareness and emotional connection/understanding in the minds of listeners/ viewers).” (Woodside 2010, p. 531) Consequently, as people contextualise new events into their own story, or compare their story with stories they encounter during the day-to-day events of their lives, their story becomes a foundation through which they can quickly decide the value and rightness of things that they encounter. By default, people look for chronology and causality in the events and stories they experience (Woodside et al 2008, p. 101), in order to put the pieces together to create a cohesive and self-reinforcing story. If the pieces aren’t in a comprehensible order, or causality is not clear, or there are inexplicable gaps in the chain of events, then people can become even more curious to resolve events into a cohesive story.
Whether storytelling increases people’s curiosity, or whether curiosity contributes to the ubiquity of storytelling, has not been resolved in the literature. However, what is clear is that an information gap and/or the need for sense-making motivates people to find out what they need to complete a cohesive story. “The curious individual is motivated to obtain the missing information to reduce or eliminate the feeling of deprivation.” (Loewenstein 1994) A story is most persuasive when something about the central character, or that happens to the central character, is unexpected and/or inexplicable at that moment, peaking the audience’s curiosity. If a story is too predictable and there is nothing for the audience to work out, then the audience are likely to stop paying attention, and to forget what they were temporarily focused on. There are different ways to tell stories, but the story should encourage curiosity and engage the audience in processes of integration and interpretation as part of sense-making.
In the late 1990s, film-makers and television producers began to make use of their audience’s predisposition to want to fill gaps and make sense of events. They began to spread different parts of a story across multiple media, so that the audience could take on the active role of integrating and interpreting the broader story. The audience became storytellers as they assembled the pieces and described how they fit together, and defined what the overall story meant. This process came to be known as transmedia storytelling (Jenkins 2006).
The term transmedia storytelling “was first used in 1999 with the release and success of The Blair Witch Project. Whilst this is corroborated by a number of sources, it is still unclear where the term originated. The small budget independent film created an immense fan following online more than a year before the film’s release in theatres, offering fans the opportunity to immerse themselves in an extended universe related to the film’s core mythology.” (Beddows 2012, p. 5) Since the release of The Blair Witch Project, professionals from across the media have become progressively more interested in creating ways to actively immerse audiences in their stories through transmedia storytelling. Unsurprisingly, “going from linear storytelling to forms of interactive storytelling requires a re-conception of how to present and develop the story.” (Delmas et al. 2007)
As a consequence of the proliferation of hand-held digital devices, social media, low cost band-width, and online gaming “we live in a transmedia world, meaning that we now seamlessly move from mobile phone to computer to television—often all at the same time! Transmedia storytelling takes advantage of this fluidity by spreading different parts of a story across multiple media and allowing the audience to become participants in integrating the pieces.” (Fogel 2012, p.2) As audiences have become accustomed to active immersion in the stories they choose to engage with, they have become increasingly uninterested in static, unrelated, and impersonal content, particularly marketing content.
Consequently, traditional feature focused advertising that is aimed at everyone now fails to resonate with most consumers, who are far more likely to respond positively to content tailored to their interests and presented in story form. Marketers are definitely aware of the importance of storytelling in general, and of transmedia storytelling as a particular instance, but marketers are still working toward a consensus regarding how they should employ storytelling to engage today’s active and immersed audiences.
Why Marketers Should Employ Storytelling
Highly regarded marketer, Dan Kennedy (2019), who has spent decades writing some of the most successful sales material of the recent past, as well as teaching thousands of people how to write more persuasive content, wrote the foreword for Matthew Dicks’ book Storyworthy in 2018 (Dicks 2018). Even though Dicks’ book is about storytelling across multiple genres, Kennedy believes that the entire book is relevant for marketers, because storytelling has become a necessity in our over-saturated and distracted world. Supporting Kennedy’s belief in the importance of storytelling for marketing, McKee stated, “I know that the storytelling method works, because after I consulted with a dozen corporations whose principals told exciting stories to Wall Street, they all got their money.” (McKee and Fryer 2003, p. 52)
Marketers have concluded that there are several persuasive reasons why they should use storytelling to engage active audiences. “Google recently released their research project, Zero Moment of Truth, that found consumers are engaging in twice the amount of content online year-over-year leading up to a buying decision.” (Pulizzi 2012, p. 118) This ever-increasing rate of consuming content has two major implications for marketers. First, it indicates that audiences will very quickly move on from uninteresting and irrelevant content. Second, it indicates that more interesting and/or relevant information is only ever one search away, so marketing material has to be memorable. Consequently, marketers should employ storytelling, because, when it is done well, it increases the chances of active audiences continuing to engage and to find material memorable.
According to Ågren and Ölund, “it is no longer enough to simply offer a product or a service. There is a need for added value, and an increased interest for unique concepts is evident. From a marketing perspective, one can say that the customer wishes to create a feeling of affinity to the brand, the style, and the design. The customer chooses a company that matches his/her lifestyle.” (Ågren and Ölund 2007, p. 15) With so many products to choose between, prospective customers are interested in finding the one that aligns with their values and identity. Benefits to the prospective customer cannot just be understood in terms of how features of the product fit their lives, but, instead, have to be understood in terms of what choosing the product signifies socially, politically, and economically. Feeling affinity with a product, or brand, depends on knowing why the brand exists and what it is trying to achieve, both of which are most effectively transmitted via stories.
Storytelling provides “inspiration for aspiration” (Williams 2019, p. 524) that is very important in a saturated market, in which brand identity is more impactful than product feature differentiation. “Consumers seek experiences appealing to their emotions and dreams, and stories help to create such experiences.” (Lundqvist et al. 2013, p. 5) Marketers should aim to tell stories that are relevant to specific, narrowly defined audiences, so that prospective customers feel like the message has been created specifically for them. This requires a concerted effort to develop buyer personas for key prospective customers (Andrews 2021), so that marketers can write persuasively for particular customers, because they know their stories, and can tailor story content to connect with them.
Successful Examples Of Marketing That Employs Storytelling
There are a variety of successful examples of marketing that employs storytelling, and of comprehensive analysis of such examples. Significant studies include: Ågren and Ölund’s study of storytelling in the hotel industry in Sweden (2007); Keskin et al.’s study of branding cities through storytelling (2016); Lee and Shin’s study of a traditional sake brewery (2015); Pan and Chen’s study of storytelling in ecotourism (2019); Romo et al.’s study of marketing luxury fashion brands (2017); Wang’s paper on increasing the patronage of an art museum (2018); and Williams et al.’s study of craft distillery marketing in the Chicago area (2020). All of these studies have confirmed the value of storytelling as a marketing tool, and (by considering all of them) a common set of effective storytelling characteristics for marketing can be confirmed.
Themes Of Effective Storytelling For Marketing
Williams et al. provide the most concise and representative list of themes that contribute to effective storytelling in marketing. “the authors identified the following seven categories of storytelling themes: craft, innovation, origins, myth, celebrity, provenance and collectability. These categories comprise both functional and emotional components which are strongly associated with the concept of authenticity.” (Williams et al. 2020) Authenticity sits apart from Williams et al.’s seven characteristics of storytelling, because it provides the standard against which each of the seven themes should be assessed.
Craft is an important aspect of storytelling, because it tends to represent something valuable that has been lost in our world of mass-manufacturing, which is worth significant effort to regain. Alternatively, a producer might want to take their craft to new heights, in order to provide a more refined product than anyone has ever made. In either case, craft is persuasive, because prospective customers like to identify with quality, rarity, and a commitment to learning to produce an even better product.
Innovation is often related to craft, and is most persuasive when it is contextualised in relation to making something that is already good even better. Innovation is persuasive when it validates what people already value and then offers something new and fascinating (Warren 2022).
People like to know the origin story of brands and products, so that they can determine whether it aligns with their values, as well as whether the brand has been consistent over time. New things provide consumers with novelty, but new things from a trusted long-term brand are even more persuasive
Myth provides a brand with the opportunity to be creative in a way that supports the core values of the brand. A myth (by its very nature) is not true, but the story that makes up the myth can reinforce what a brand or product is about, as well as reinforcing why it exists. “If the story catches the interest of customers, it does not matter if what is communicated has actually happened or not.” (Ågren and Ölund 2007, p. 50) Myth is most persuasive when it parallels the values that are central to an authentic brand/product story.
Celebrity endorsement can be very useful for a brand, or product, and is most persuasive when the celebrity actually feels passionate about a particular product, or the product category in general. If a celebrity shares the brand’s values and has a credible story related to their passion for the product, the authenticity of shared values and a related story can be very persuasive.
If a brand is young and/or relatively unknown, telling the stories of the provenance of its constituent parts/ingredients can help to embed the brand in a web of established and already authentic stories. Provenance provides a brand with a way to present its partnerships with other brands, or valued themes, in a collective and co-operative way, which can increase customers willingness to take a chance on something new and unfamiliar.
A story about the collectability of a product can be persuasive, if the focus is on the cost, length, or complexity of production. In contrast, if the scarcity and/or collectability of a product appear to be artificial and inflated, customers are likely to value the brand less for being manipulative. Authentic collectability tends to be an accident, rather than a result of marketing. For example, 1959 Gibson Les Paul guitars are rare and collectable, because they weren’t popular in the year they were made, so very few were made. Despite this, they are beautiful and very well made. Consequently, they are now the most valuable and collectable electric guitars.
All seven of these themes are more persuasive when they have a ring of authenticity about them. Active and immersed audiences are highly sceptical of marketing material that does not fit into a cohesive narrative, or align with a clear set of values. “To achieve positive consequences, the brand and the story must be perceived as authentic, because many consumers are critical of what they perceive as manipulative marketing.” (Lundqvist et al. 2013, p. 7) In our highly competitive world, in which customers can almost always find a number of alternative products to meet their needs and desires, authenticity is a vital contributor to building long-term relationships between customers and brands.
What Are The Limitations Of Storytelling In Marketing?
Not all companies know their origin story, or can quickly and convincingly tell a story about why they created a product. Even though storytelling is natural for people, it is not natural in corporate settings-where financial constraints and production processes can occupy executives’ attention. If a company does not know its story, or marketers cannot uncover the story through research and interviews, then there is a risk that an inauthentic story will be created to fill the gap. Inauthentic stories are often too smooth, too positive, and too incredible for active and immersed audiences to take seriously. It is better to not tell a story than for the audience to assume that an inauthentic story is being told to cover up an inconvenient truth.
If a brand or product’s story is too long or convoluted to be told in an engaging way, it is better to only present aspects of the story that show potential alignment between customer values and the company. Customers will do more research if they are interested, so it is important that storytelling in marketing is not burdensome or overwhelming.
If a marketer is asked to promote a product, and the themes of craft, innovation, origins, myth, celebrity, provenance, and collectability do not provide an obvious and engaging way into telling a story, then another marketing approach is likely to be more appropriate. If a story about a brand or product has to rely on a gimmick, which is more memorable than anything authentic that the marketer has been able to present, then it is better to use another marketing approach. Gimmicks can be memorable, so marketers should be careful that a story device is not more memorable than the story itself.
Telling stories, and making sense of the world through stories, is a central aspect of people’s lives. Nonetheless, marketers have not yet established as clear an appreciation of storytelling as people have through their day-to-day lives. Storytelling can be a very effective marketing tool, but only if the story being told sounds authentic and includes the characteristics of a memorable story. Authenticity should be a central aspect of storytelling, and marketers should remember that active and immersed audiences are highly experienced at discerning whether content is credible or not.
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