It's the old story. We simply cannot close our ears to it. We just need to know where the story is going. Who’s the murderer? Will she get him? And will the two ride off into the sunset together at the end? Of course they will. Why can’t we free ourselves of this never-ending predictability involving a journey, an adventure and a happy ending? That’s because we don’t want it at all. Storytelling is part of our genetic code.
Storytelling enables people to empathise, to share in another’s suffering and to sympathise. Storytelling fascinates us, it inspires us and it carries us away. But to where? To destinations we didn’t even know would one day become known to us. But what is storytelling exactly? What makes someone a storyteller? Is there a method to storytelling? And what does that mean for brand communication? It’s the stories that make brands – and vice versa.
Sometime in the 16th century. There was this glassmaker. In the forest, and down by the stream. There’s sand here. And also because that’s exactly what a glassworks needs: Wood, water, sand – and an impoverished local population. These are the key components for good examples of storytelling. This is the very essence of storytelling – not a fairy tale, but rather a good story. And – didn’t you notice? – 400 years have already whistled past.
Over time, the smelter has become one of the largest bottle manufacturers in the world and one of the key employers in its region. 13 generations in, and the company is still family-owned. Just over 30 years ago, the wall still led directly past the factory gates. Now, the company has a global presence with locations in twelve countries. Tangible history.
It takes more than passion. You really have to be addicted to glass for that. Let that sink in: addicted to glass. And this brings us nicely to the Luxepack Monaco where things are perceived in a completely different way: namely emotionally. From the Cotys, Estée Lauders and Diors of this world. It sounds like Dallas, but it’s actually Kleintettau. It’s just an example.
The following example is a story from Germany’s Swabia region. There’s this man who completed an apprenticeship as a watchmaker. Ticktock ticktock. At the beginning of the 20th century. The time is shortly after the First World War. Presumably, at some point in the evening, he’s standing in the stairwell of one of those large apartment buildings that we’re familiar with from series such as “Babylon Berlin”. Everyone turns on the light, but no one turns it off again. What a waste of energy. You can imagine him standing there – and how incensed he is by the idea. What is it that’s driving him? The infamous Swabian thrift or visionary foresight? Probably both.
He probably said to himself: “Then I’ll just have to turn it off myself.” Or: “I always have to turn it off myself”. In the end, what probably remained of this episode were simply the fragments “turn it off myself”, “turn off”, “turn off by itself”. The thoughts bubble away. Presumably, this is where the idea came from: What if it actually turned off by itself? Automatically.
His idea goes on to carry the company he founds through an entire century. It’s the beginning of what we now call building automation: Smart Building. On top of that, it’s a good story on the topic of sustainability, realised and lived out at a time when no one knew exactly what it actually meant to be: sustainable. Sounds like Edison and a light bulb, but it’s Haigerloch and the time switch. No more.
However, very few companies tell these stories from their past. Many of these stories can be found, for example, in the company claims (“Family owned since ...”). The entire 400-year history packaged into one, neat line. So it’s hardly surprising that marketing has discovered storytelling for itself. But what exactly does it mean for a company to tell stories? A way to align its corporate communication efforts? What form should the stories take? Surely this is no longer about literature? Or about journalism? Or PR? For sure. But not just that.
All our communicative behaviour is based on this. From coffee chats to conferences. And, of course, this also applies to ourselves, who simply communicate complex things: from elevator pitches to podcasts, from concepts to campaigns: be it in a B2C or B2B environment. We tell stories for consumers, or we tell stories from company to company – epic tales from industry. See above.
But why tell stories at all? Is there a definition of storytelling? There are thousands. Probably as many as there are storytelling examples. Storytelling is less about the past and more about the present, if not the future. What does history do to you? And what are you doing with it? Storytelling is without doubt an art form. It’s also a strategy that companies use to communicate information and content in a way that gives brands exactly what makes them that – brands – in the first place. They give them an identity that we can relate to. A character that has prevailed. A personality that has an origin, which is unmistakable and which will ultimately prevail.
Let’s come back to the story of identity that enables identification. The image of the brand that is developed in the process states: “You can do that too, if you use the brand.” The story that is told states: “That’s you.” – “This is who you can be.” Red Bull provides a good storytelling example of this. Whether you’re racing down a slope on a narrow ridge, taking up the challenge of Formula 1, flying in a wingsuit or just playing lawn sports – we all know what the power drink can do by now. Even if you really just want to turn night into day with a little can of goodness. The message is clear.
Storytelling sets the stage for the hero’s journey. Storytelling is based on values. Storytelling focuses on goals. The hero we follow – and the one we emulate – operates within such structures. He moves out to resolve a conflict. He successfully completes his mission with his magic sword (the brand), then returns home to celebration and cheer.
Hero? Magic sword? So, is storytelling just a macho thing? No, it works the other way round with the heroine. Whether she’s running a small, well-functioning family business or sitting on the executive board of a bank. It also works with grandpa and grandma and the love they bestow. Kids really go for it. Everyone really goes for it. After all, we’re all the protagonist of our own story. Whether “we’re worth it”, whether we’re replacing the sink, whether we’re taking out a building society loan or managing a drinks bottling plant. Sometimes, it’s the hue, sometimes it’s the DIY store, sometimes it’s the building society advisor, and sometimes it’s the low-maintenance printer. Everything and nothing becomes our Excalibur, our magical sword, which we draw from the stone and with which we ultimately conquer the crown.
Storytelling is all about tips and tricks. Storytelling is about beating the odds in tricky situations, because we succeed in doing what we never have otherwise done. Solve a problem. And one thing almost more beautiful than solving the problem is talking about what happened: “You should’ve been there.” – “Here’s what I do.” – “My recipe is ...”. Or even better: “My secret recipe is...” Yeah, go on?
The answer is always provided by the product itself, the brand, the system, the solution: the “open sesame” effect. The story is told on all media. In a classified. In an article. In a blog. In advertising. In videos. On social media. In a newsletter. In the table of contents of this newsletter. In a podcast. In short: everywhere. And it always stumbles on listeners, listeners, listeners. Given that storytelling is all about Content, Content, Content. It’s not to be seen as rocket science.
The form varies, of course. A Facebook post differs fundamentally from a LinkedIn post. As teasers, both posts link to the text with the detailed information on the website. Sometimes, the story is delivered in short and sweet fashion, or sometimes its delivery is long and broad. Sometimes, the information and content are presented at great lengths, while sometimes everything has to be brought to the point in one line.
The goal is always to hook into your listeners’ minds. To convey a concept that sticks. Examples? Indestructible! It was a good story. A good story behind the PET bottle (or plastic bottle), back when good stories of unbreakable PET bottles were still allowed to be told. Today, those glass bottles that have since become icons are once again increasingly available in well-stocked beverage stores. And yet: The story is still remembered by many. You don’t even have to tell it, the word alone is enough to evoke it. Storytelling, right.
Want more storytelling examples? The menthol lozenge Fisherman’s Friend: “Sind sie zu stark, bist du zu schwach”. The dairy product manufacturer Ehrmann: “Keiner macht mich mehr an”. The supermarket chain Edeka: “Wir lieben Lebensmittel”. It’s behind these and other slogans, which have since become part of everyday language, that entire volumes and archives of stories (both good or bad) hover before our mind’s eye. Only which are good, which are bad? What matters is that we remember them. The best ones evoke positive associations and emotions in us. That’s because they lift us up exactly at that point where we’ve already experienced the same or similar things ourselves, because they find apt images for feelings that we could not have described better ourselves. And sometimes these stories are just funny, so that we’d either want to or be willing to spontaneously share them again with others. And that’s the next aspect.
That’s why marketing relies on storytelling. Great stories sell like hot cakes. And a good story sells itself. That’s why stories from the past are nice and sometimes fit brilliantly into a company’s corporate communication efforts (Jack Daniels, Tennessee, wooden barrels, craftsmanship, the good old days), but they can also simply be skilfully invented: What world do the people who use, enjoy and deploy our products live in? What world is truly rendered better and more beautiful by our solutions, by our achievements and services? Let’s tell stories about it. And not just one, but many. Again and again, and always from a different angle.
Another story and, at the same time, a storytelling example: the Doris Day film: “What is this woman up to?” In it, Doris becomes an advertising icon who always appears in 1950s living rooms during the commercial break. And the gag behind the film: All the films interrupted by Doris’ commercial breaks are always the same. They always depict the same situation. A dirty old man trying it on with a beautiful, young woman, at the bar, at the saloon, in the restaurant. She throws a glass of water, wine or whiskey in his face. He jumps up, she jumps back. Some young hero jumps in and rescues the beautiful damsel. Cut, advert break: Enter Doris Day. Lines: Television was invented to influence the masses. By way of political information, on the one hand, and through advertising, on the other.
The shows and series that are supposed to entertain are really only there to frame the commercial breaks. There is one every three minutes in the USA and an increasing number in this country, too. A longer story (lasting 45 minutes) is interrupted by approximately 10-15 short stories (10-30 seconds each). What the long story teaches us: He gets her and she gets him. What the short stories teach us: We’ll get you (if we haven’t done so already) – with our delicious ice cream, with our ultra-fine detergent, with our wonderful package tour (coming soon and complete with hygiene concept to a place near you).
To ensure that everyone also watches the series that tells the long story – into which the commercials with the short stories are integrated – these long stories are still converted into a short story and then broadcast as a trailer on the same channel. And on social media. And in large-scale format in front of fast food restaurants. Let’s not forget: the “visual” is food for the soul. And a great story tastes fantastic. No one shuts off. And everyone has a nose for something good. In short: Stories stimulate all the senses. They rely on emotions, emotions, emotions. They are sensual. That is precisely why they are able to seduce us. And no one in the audience can escape its allure.
The sitcom is an example of storytelling par excellence. We watch from our couch, nestled within the circle of our family, as another family sat on another couch tell us the experiences of their day. This shows us entertainingly how we could have made our day more stress-free, more humorous, more intelligent. We laugh at what we discover to be a common experience, and what we really got upset about in real life. We welcome tips from actors that we would have been reluctant to take on board from our wife or husband, sister or brother, mother or father, daughter or son.
Storytelling – and the possibilities it harbours for identification – turn us otherwise distant bystanders into involved listeners. Then comes the commercial break and shows us – just one example – two families, one of which gets everything. Do we get it, too? Of course, with a tongue-in-cheek eagerness. This is storytelling (with the ad imitating the sitcom) in storytelling (of the sitcom itself), which, if not replaces our own storytelling (of the evening of family entertainment, of everyday life, of everything that happened), at least complements it. The theme underpinning the episode is the theme underpinning the commercial.
Ideas are key. That’s how communication works, that’s how business works. Given that is what appeals to the audience: when the audience experiences itself as an audience. And when both speak the same language. The screen between them is transformed into a mirror, so to speak.
TV today is yesterday’s news? Today, it’s only the internet that counts? It’s the videos? It’s new media? It’s content marketing? The networking of all information and content? That’s all true. And marketing knows it too. Entrepreneurs rely on it just as much as their employees and the self-employed across all sectors. And, of course, the customers, customers, customers. They’re not simply looking for products. Their goals are all about finding content that appeals to them, values that excite them and that show them they are understood.
And the better the way in which the story is told, and the more personal it is to the individual, the more reading time customers are willing to give to entrepreneurs. Until they ultimately click on the Call to Action, get in touch with an email or even subscribe to the newsletter. And with that, more products end up in the shopping basket. After all, that was the point of all storytelling, wasn’t it: Collect data, boost business, increase the company’s success.
Ain’t that a bitter pill to swallow? Is that why customers have now stopped being the heroes of their own story? Everyone has to find the answer to that for themselves. But the experiences we all find ourselves confronted with are different: We look for answers – and when we reach our goal, we’re happy. Be it in an ad, be it in a blog, be it in a story. If a company is then successful, if the path we followed was steered by the company’s marketing – does that bother us?
Typically, no: We got what we wanted, and the company has what it wanted, and from an economic perspective, the whole of society is also well-served: We have driven up GDP. If business as usual is the current order of the day, then every entrepreneur who doesn’t yet use storytelling, and whose marketing does not yet tell a good story, should strive to implement just these things. With good, thoughtful storytelling, companies reach their customers – and that is their goal after all. In other words: a win-win situation for everyone involved.
Ah yes, the storytelling method. Tell your story. Tell the story that your customers associate with your products. How they live with their products. What they benefit from. That is what touches people the most. If they know and realise just what they themselves get out of it. Of course, this also applies to the self-employed and entrepreneurs who are now asking themselves just how they would tell their own story. “Once upon a time” is by no means a bad start. For your story, perhaps. Maybe, it starts right here.
More information is available from:
Creative Consulting / Group Head Text