For Brands, 2012 Is The Year Of The Story. So Who's Telling It Best?

Storytelling is the ultimate branding technique du jour—but it's not just a one-way dialogue. A look at some companies that are keeping customers engaged.

The power of stories has become a part of our cultural dialogue. From articles in Fast Company to The New York Times, and applied across different topics from sports to business to marketing, story is the genre of choice for 2012. In fact, Direct Marketing News forecasted this to be "the year of the story," and London-based agency BergHind Joseph identified it as a trend among the Global Fortune 500, even dubbing its 2012 Global Players study, "The Power of Storytelling." We also find companies such as Nike, Google, Kimberly-Clark, and 3M, among others, using storytelling as a means of communication and leadership.

When it comes to brands and marketing, the application of story now needs to go beyond the traditional and ubiquitous tool of brand story; rather, it’s about engaging consumers in a brand’s stories and using the construct of stories and storytelling to create powerful connections. While the transition to digital media drove a focus toward content, today with ever more social tools and communication media, there’s a need for cohesive and meaningful connections in a marketing world that is now labeled "always on," demanding more of brand communication. This is where story comes into play.

Why stories? It seems we’re all catching on to their effectiveness in connecting with people. When information is communicated in story form, we seem to remember it better and be affected by it more deeply. Brands are telling these stories across a number of different mediums—from packaging to video to visual and verbal content.

Take, for instance, Paper Passion, a new perfume born out of the collaboration of a fragrance house, Wallpaper* magazine, a book publisher, and Karl Lagerfeld. Starting with the name to the packaging, this product story is told in a luxurious way, romanticizing the written word in this day of everything digital. As Karl Lagerfeld himself said, "The smell of a freshly printed book is the best smell in the world." The perfume has been formulated to have the smell of freshly printed books, and the packaging as a book itself further enhances the storyline. Packaging is a tangible, powerful medium to tell a brand and product story while it literally rests in the consumer’s hands.

Videos have been a key storytelling vehicle since the advent of the Internet and YouTube. One that’s getting accolades this year is Lego's video, "The Lego Story," which celebrates its 80th anniversary. The beautifully designed video tells the story of the company’s inventor, the family’s legacy, values, and commitment to product quality and children’s education, in a series of vignettes. GE and Boeing are two companies that are known to have websites full of videos and communication, such as GE Reports and Boeing’s product videos, that tell powerful stories of the companies’ histories and products.

Beyond verbal storytelling, the written word is the most common form stories have taken. With regard to brands, these stories often get created in the form of content. Given the approach, such efforts are starting to be defined as brand journalism and brand narratives. One way to storytell is through the curation of content. For example, HSBC, given its focus on global companies, curates information that is intended for companies that plan on international expansion, creating content that builds a storyline consistent with its mission. American Express’s Open Forum is another such branded content site that provides significant value to small business owners, while telling a story of how the company is a trusted, reliable business partner to these entities.

Some advocate that telling stories through visuals is that much more impactful than other mediums. The growth and interest in Pinterest over the last two years is one such proofpoint. Tumblr is another, with its addition of Storyboard earlier this year, which combines stories told through a combination of visuals and other media. While turned into a video, Canon created a project wholly consistent with its brand and product line called Project Imagin8ion. Starting with eight photos (visuals) taken by Canon users, the company enlisted Ron Howard to create a short film inspired by these selections. The project itself is a story, telling about the winners and the photos themselves, the selection process, the making of the video, and even its premiere. Project Imagin8ion is an example of visual storytelling that engages its consumer base through an engaging medium and supports Canon’s desire to associate the brand with creativity and imagination.

Some tips on storytelling can be found from research consultancy Latitude, which recently released part one of its study, "The Future of Storytelling," which identifies trends and audience attitudes about content. The tips Latitude provides on telling stories are the following:

1. IMMERSION—Create an immersive experience through content that is delivered in multi-media and that is multi-sensory;
2. INTERACTIVITY—Allow the consumer to become a part of it;
3. INTEGRATION—Ensure there is coherence across the many touchpoints; and
4. IMPACT—Make it lead to action

Again, the difference today for marketers is twofold—storytelling is not an internal exercise alone; rather, it is an exercise that should engage the consumer. Brand stories need to now live day to day with the engagement of consumers to create strong, long-lasting bonds across all touchpoints, from packaging to video to visual and verbal content. Such a requirement transforms how marketers need to think about their role. It becomes less about directing and more about curating a brand and consumer journey.

For this reason, some even say that the MFA is the new MBA; having a creative bent and understanding how to craft story is an important 21st-century marketing skill, enabling the weaving together of a brand story across consumer touchpoints to have an indelible impact.

—Kathy Oneto is vice president of brand strategy at Anthem Worldwide.

[Image: Flickr user Photo Giddy]

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13 Comments

  • Tracy Lloyd

    To me, the medium of storytelling is less important than finding what stories to tell the people that matter to you in meaningful ways. I think when you are able to do that, people/consumers behave in the ways you want them to. When things matter to people, they will share them. I think its really that simple.

  • Chad Story

    While I wholeheartedly agree that a good story leads to interesting content, there are two critical elements missing from this equation: utility and format http://bit.ly/Pi6uEy. Content that's worth creating better do more than tell a good story; it has to allow me to achieve something and it better be accessible in a format of my choosing. We're really in the era of mobile content (not as in mobile phone), but in a way that the content takes the shape of the container it is being consumed in. This piece by Karen McGrane helps explains this...http://www.slideshare.net/KMcGrane/ad...

  • Tom van Laer

    I agree with Kathy that stories have implications for not only persuasion but consumer practices overall—as demonstrated by the growing popularity of social media that dramatically influence the way consumers process and share information and make decisions. As members of society increasingly experience narrative transportation (i.e., immersion) by dealing with stories, it becomes ever more important—ethically, managerially, and theoretically—to understand the process of narrative persuasion. However, I agree with the other (non-abusive) commenters that Kathy does not identify any paths that people who work with narrative transportation have not yet trod and thus she does not provide any avenues for inquiry. I hope future posts instead will enable us to see the way forward as well.

  • Karen

    What a worthless article and way behind the times. I agree with the other comments posted here. Anyone who truly is keyed into the dynamics of storytelling already knows this stuff.

    Stories are already immersive and traditional storytelling has always been represented in different medium. Interactivity has always been part of the game -- it is just expanding now. Integration is common sense -- today the tough nut to crack is always the integration of the story between the corp culture and marketing/branding. And impact? Please -- if your biz stories are not being told to inspire people to take action, then you are stuck in the Hollywood/entertainment model of storytelling. And that awareness has been around for over a decade.

    So no news here.

  • Mikey

    The article begins saying stories have to go 'beyond the traditional' and then we're told that we can use techniques like 'video'. Wow, video! Or Print. Good lord, print! 
    I agree one of the best way to tell stories is through video. You mean the way all the 'old school' people did it?So there's actually nothing new here. The difference these days is that the video has a share button and the facility to comment or 'have a conversation' as you guys would say.Most conversations consist of "LOL".The overhype around social is unbelievable but at least- despite being patronisied with information about how to tell stories - this article at least is a (unacknowledged) recognition that some of the techniques used by communication experts for the previous 4 or 5 decades are still useful tools. 

  • Breean

     Mikey,

    I think that when they mention "beyond the traditional," they aren't specifically talking about the medium or platform itself, but the way the platforms are being leveraged.

    Basically, we can no longer use "messaging" and seek & destroy strategies.

  • Ric Dragon

    I agree that storytelling IS the story of the year - not because it is new, but because so much emphasis has been placed on it this year.  Jonathan Mildenhall's Liquid and Linked presentation (search for it on YouTube) lays out how the Coca-cola Company is setting out to double its revenues by 2020, primarily through the use of storytelling.  When one of the world's leading brands is making this kind of statement, it's time to take note.

    Here is a list of over ten books or videos talking about storytelling in marketing today: http://list.ly/list/1Tx-books-...

    One element I feel is critical in storytelling is the notion of narrative arc. If I'm using Pinterest boards to tell a story, Facebook, or even a blog post, there should be elements of the challenge, overcoming the challenge, and destination. There should be underlying theme. Perhaps the customer is the hero of the story. Using these elements, even a Twitter stream can convey story. 

  • CauseMktgGirl

    a) Please, don't say anything at all if you don't have anything intelligent to say: Who doesn't like stories, and "dickheads" - really, are we adolescents??b) If it isn't the year of the story, how do you explain companies like: GetStoried.com & Latitude, which the author mentions? They wouldn't be as successful as they are if stories didn't matter or work. 

  • Amber King

    What I like about storytelling is its capability to connect with the people. However this only works with certain industries. There are those companies who cannot use storytelling because of the product/service they offer.

  • Karen

    Amber, I'm curious about your statement. Which companies cannot use storytelling? Can you give an example?

  • Paul Pierce

    "Why stories? It seems we’re all catching on to their effectiveness in connecting with people." ... Maybe you're just catching on to this. But the rest of us have been aware of their effectiveness, as they relate to brands, for decades.

    "Videos have been a key storytelling vehicle since the advent of the Internet and YouTube." ... Videos and motion pictures have been a key storytelling vehicle long before the advent of the Internet and YouTube. Sure, both have increased how many people see them and made their distribution easier. But implying that they weren't a key storytelling vehicle for brands before the Internet and YouTube is misleading and untrue.

  • Guest

    Stories have always been important for brands. Throwing words like 'immersion', 'interactivity' and 'integration' into the mix doesn't make this a, erm, story.

    Recycled gumph.