Stories, snories: right and wrong ways to use storytelling in marketing

It’s important to have believable or humorous stories as part of a mix of content in your marketing, with facts alongside creative.

AdWeek recently published a provocative comment piece about storytelling in advertising. Copywriter Marc Schwerin argues that the concept isn’t particularly helpful as most brands don’t actually have a story to tell and advertising formats aren’t conducive to storytelling because of their brevity. He believes advertising is most effective when it is interactive. By this he means playful: allowing the audience to solve a puzzle and enjoy the satisfaction of doing so.

I share some of Schwerin’s distrust of the term, which can be used to dress things up as more than they are. But I wouldn’t dismiss the use of storytelling in marketing as a whole. There’s plenty of evidence that humans respond to and seek out stories: anyone who is a parent will know that without the need to delve into neuroscience. It can also be helpful for organisations to have a story to explain ‘why’ they exist as long as it isn’t blatantly fictitious or risible.

What is important is to have believable or humorous stories as part of a mix of content in your marketing, with facts alongside creative. Happen doesn’t do the sort of traditional television and print advertising Schwerin is writing about. We work mostly online, providing editorial consultancy and training as well as creating content. But we do make content designed to raise awareness about our clients – what most people call adverts. 

Sometimes these tell a story, other times they don’t. One that did was a short film we made recently for the charity Teach First about how a teacher inspired a troubled teenager to win a place at Oxford. A short Facebook animation we made for Zoopla didn’t, unless you consider ‘man buys dream home but gets stressed out because it’s up a mountain’ a cracking narrative. What matters is choosing the right approach for the client and what they’re trying to achieve.

Marketing needs to give consumers the facts as well as stories, particularly in B2B marketing, where people spend longer researching their purchasing. Thinking about the whole customer journey is key: explain your goods and services when people are examining their options and provide reassurance when they’re on the brink of buying. In an era of ‘fake news’ people want to feel that they’re getting the information they need.

This doesn’t preclude storytelling. Case studies are an effective way to reassure potential customers, and they’re usually better if they tell a story. Rather than merely explaining how the person or company uses your good or service, it is more engaging to explain what motivated them to buy it in the first place and what it has helped them to overcome and achieve. There might even be some emotion there.