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Why storytelling is in pieces.

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

In a recent poll published in Marketing Week, Apple was voted the nation’s favourite storytelling brand. Well not quite. To be precise, the uber cool tech giant was voted best company able to meet eight ‘storytelling elements’. There are no actual stories (unless we count the Steve Jobs backstory) just bits of a story.

In the light of the poll, we can’t help but wonder what a non-storytelling storytelling world would look like…

‘Pleeeeease!’ Jimmy snivelled, wiping his nose on his Richard Branson Once Upon a Logo pyjamas. ‘You promised, you promised’.

‘Oh alright,’ said Dad. ‘Snuggle up under the duvet and I’ll read you a bedtime brand narrative. Now which one would you like?’

Jimmy’s eight-year-old brow creased in thought. ‘I like the one about the company with the mission of making the world’s bestest professional software’.

Dad sighed. How many more times could he read out the list of releases and updates and bring real feeling to the description of a brand essence?

‘Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have the one about the brothers who were really good at searching? You know the ones who promised they would do no evil – and then to everyone’s surprise did exactly that – a-snooping, and a-spying where they shouldn’t?’

But Jimmy was adamant. ‘No, I want the one with all the values!’

Opening the well-thumbed pages of the 372-page brand vision, Dad flicked past the audience segmentation diagram to Jimmy’s favourite page, ‘We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products that we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution…’

‘Don’t stop!’ cried Jimmy, 'the next bit’s really good.’

Dad gritted his teeth, ‘We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups ….’

Pausing to regain his will to live after so many 'beliefs', Dad reflected how much easier things had been in the days of The Gruffalo.

No need for any more though, Jimmy’s head was soundly slumped in blissful repose on his Kim Kardashian wypeclean pillow.

Time then for an evening drink with Mum downstairs, enjoying her own storytelling moment as she rekindled an emotional connection with a bottle of Tanqueray, leavened by the authentically memorable sparkle of some Fever Tree tonic, while assembling some elements of a traditional dinner into something resembling a meal….

Bits of a story are not a story

We’re not the first to comment on the fact that storytelling has been hijacked by a wide range of creative types.

I like this rant by New York designer, Stefan Sagmeister– in particular the tale about the roller coaster designer who sees that as storytelling. As he says, not all the storytellers are storytellers.

But this doesn’t mean that storytelling is dead. Far from it. The reason the creative industries and businesses are performing a smash and grab on storytelling is that it’s a genuinely powerful persuasive technique – if it’s a genuine story.

We’re wired for stories. We prefer to learn through stories than dry presentation of facts. But the stories have to be in recognisable formats. As Lisa Cron says in her excellent book, Wired for Stories, ‘For a story to captivate a reader, it must continually meet his or her hardwired expectations.’

And that’s where Apple, fail the test. Bits of a story do not a story make.

The tragedy of the great brand storytelling heist is that it devalues both storytelling and the art of persuasive copywriting. Apple may not tell stories but they write compelling copy. It’s largely driven by a consistent tone of voice that captures the magic of their products. No storytelling involved.

The sorts of stories we like (and look for when we’re writing) might be categorised under the following:

Founder stories that showcase the founder

While the back story of Steve Jobs is well known by Apple fans, the simple tale of a sociopath driven to innovate iconic hardware through bullying and bad polo necks, isn’t one that features in their marketing.

Jimmy Cregan’s story of the founding of Jimmy’s Iced Coffee ticks all the storytelling boxes. There’s a hero (Jimmy), he has an obstacle to overcome (boredom), so he goes on a journey (to Australia), which is transformative (he discovers iced coffee), he returns to find another obstacle (no iced coffee in the UK), so he embarks on another journey (making his own iced coffee) until there is a happy ending (he’s built a brand).

Jimmy is to the fore all the time. We’re aware of the story ‘cos it’s on the packaging and on the website.

People like us share their stories

Social proof is a powerful persuasive technique. We identify with people who are like us or and are more inclined to do what they do. Linked to storytelling the technique works even harder. So a company like Weight Watchers shares stories form people who face the same challenges as people who visit their site.

Lovely Louise struggled to regain her figure after having kids and troughing on takeaways for several years, but Weight Watchers were able to help her lose a million stone (ok, two). Same pattern as before: challenge, journey, transformation.

A good case for a storytelling structure

Case studies are hugely effective proof points for many brands. But many businesses treat them as a fact file of what we did and what the results were. Which isn’t a story.

What turns a case study into a story is dramatising the problem that the brand solved. By defining the obstacle, the ‘what we did’ section becomes a lot more interesting as the reader knows it’s helping the customer overcome an issue – which again is something they may share.

We’ve just written a series of case studies for the Arts Council. By starting with a problem – often something that the audience readily identify with – we turned what was often mundane funding support into something much more engaging to read.

Stories don’t have to be War and Peace

Stories can be very short. Ernest Hemmingway’s famous six word story is a great example: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. So they’re easy to slip into copy and turn the persuasive screw.

An example here, a journey there, and suddenly your copy has moved from a fact-laden, feature/benefit-driven piece to something that has an age-old, persuasive technique built into it. A snippet that taps into your customer’s subconscious and has them curious for more.

It’s so simple, you wonder why Apple don’t do it.


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