Have you ever read a novel, or a storybook, or watched a tv show, a story of which was so immersive that you binged it for days? Feels great, doesn’t it? You feel like you’ve become a part of that story. When you finish the novel or the TV show, you feel sad for days. A great story can become a selling point for these mediums.
In the early days of marketing, telling a story was not considered to be one of the primary strategies. For many years it was dismissed as an outdated technique that only worked on children. But you know what they say about assumptions: they are often wrong!
The truth is that storytelling has been around since the dawn of time and it's still one of the most effective ways to communicate with your audience. It can help you make a product more memorable and compelling, which means more people will buy it or use your service in turn.
This article contains:
The History of Storytelling
Benefits of Storytelling in Marketing
Different Styles of Storytelling Marketing
Fundamentals of Designing an Advertising Story
Dos and Don’ts of Storytelling Marketing
Examples of Storytelling Applied in Marketing
As you think about it more, you’ll realize that sometimes advertisements also have a small story behind them, especially on TV and the internet. These stories are used to subconsciously build the interest of the customer towards a certain expectation from the advertisement, bringing the key point towards an expected buying behavior from the customer. That’s how important these stories are; they can convince the masses into buying a product if done right.
In this article, we're going to talk about how you can start incorporating storytelling into your marketing techniques. We will tell you how it began before moving on to teaching you how to tell your own story and how to make a good story as a selling point of your product.
Furthermore, we’ll provide you with some pointers to improve your story design, with some dos and don’ts of storytelling. Finally, we will present you with selected examples to inspire you to take the next step: to do it yourself.
The History of Storytelling Marketing
To introduce you to our topic, you must know some history about it. Storytelling marketing has been around for years; centuries, even. Long ago, in markets around the world, people used to stand on a high platform and tell a story to engage an audience and sell their products, although the audience didn’t realize they were simply being sold to.
If there was a healing tonic, they would tell stories of wounded soldiers, or if it was hair oil, they would tell a story about a maiden who lost all her hair and couldn't get married. Or mixed!
Old times were not so different when it comes to marketing. The first recorded use of storytelling in marketing in the modern media is when John Deere told a story in a marketing campaign called The Furrow Magazine in 1895. While the company is actually selling farming equipment, John Deere’s approach was to tell stories of different farmers around the United States and how they solve their problems in farming and agriculture.
The magazine itself got so popular that out-of-print versions are being sold on eBay for a hefty price! Of course, the company’s sales were largely attributed to the content marketing approach, making it seem to the reader that if someone solved his problem using a piece of equipment sold by John Deere plows, then that same equipment would help him, too.
Though storytelling marketing was once seen as a luxury only available to those with huge marketing budgets, the technique slowly became easier to access with the world of the internet and the competitive nature of marketing agencies.
Very soon it became really easy to market a product however anyone wanted, and storytelling marketing being one of the most effective ways to get customers interested in a product, became a norm.
Benefits of Storytelling in Marketing
Who doesn't love a good story? Even in the hit TV series Game of Thrones, Bran the Broken was made king because Tyrion Lannister said he has the best story, and people love good stories (emphasis on love). They are more likely to believe him and follow his rule because of this.
Can this be applicable to marketing as well? The answer is yes.
Stories are the most powerful way to convey your message. Recent research from Google and Penn State University shows that brands who tell stories receive 55% more shares, reactions, likes, etc than those who don't.
A story is a great medium for empathy - it can make people feel emotions like sympathy or anger which they may not have felt before. It allows for less direct messaging and provides an opportunity to be creative with content while still maintaining brand identity.
Here are some of the direct and indirect benefits of storytelling in marketing:
- Stories help connect with consumers on an emotional level; consumers develop relationships with brands through storytelling because of its ability to create feelings such as sadness or happiness in viewers which then creates loyalty towards the company/organization telling said story.
- Storytelling helps people to remember your brand better; stories are memorable. They can evoke emotions in viewers that make them more likely to buy something from you.
- Storytelling increases brand awareness: a lot of companies use storytelling as one part of their marketing strategy by using social media campaigns on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter where they tell "behind the scenes" moments about products/services being offered.
This allows consumers an inside look into what goes into making your products, your vision, how it affects people, and the difference it makes in their lives.
- Storytelling helps companies make a connection with consumers which can be used to generate more sales because they seem more human; they become approachable.
- Stories create an emotional connection with your customers and potential consumers, which leads them to develop loyalty for your brand.
If you would notice from the benefits above, the key point is “developing a connection”. And in this world where online media reigns supreme, it’s all about establishing that connection.
Have a look at social media platforms today: all of them rely heavily on people sharing their stories. Because of the volume of stories being shared, ads that look a lot like regular ads are ignored, while those that tell a story are gobbled up by the audience.
Convey Complex Ideas Through Storytelling
Some concepts, ideas, and products themselves are so hard to understand that a common infomercial style marketing strategy will not be able to get the message across to the customer. Some products are made to solve a problem and those are easy to explain and sell, but another kind of product is one that doesn’t solve a problem and those products have to create demand for themselves.
An example of products that are made to solve a problem is those you can find in-home TV shopping ads. The ad starts with a story, explaining how doing an activity is hard without the help of any tools or using just traditional tools. Enter their revolutionary product, which can help users finish the task quickly and easily.
On the other hand, there are those products that have actually no demand at all. These are the products that need storytelling so that they can create a demand. The best example is the Hallmark cards company. With their highly emotional adverts -- may they be print, radio, TV, and now digital ads -- they have gathered an audience willing to purchase their cards, even if the only purpose is to deliver a message that people cannot express on their own.
Different Styles of Storytelling Marketing
Anyone can tell a story.
But if you think you can tell a story that can convince someone to behave in a certain way, that story has to have some kind of influential power. It could have a lesson; something that connects the customer to your product.
You might be thinking ‘Yes I can definitely identify my target market and make a story that can relate to my target customer’ but that is only a starting point. In order for a story to have an impact, it needs to be able to do any of the following:
1. Appeal to the Human Emotion
In order to build a story that is capable of shaping human behavior, storytelling must be able to evoke an emotion.
The secret behind this emotional appeal lies within our ability as humans to identify with other people and feel empathy towards them or by experiencing something ourselves.
When it comes to marketing, a story can be a powerful way to make an emotional connection with the target group and get them to identify with your product or service.
The most successful stories usually have an overarching problem, which builds up until it reaches its climax in a climactic scene where the hero of the story solves that problem through some great feat. A world without conflict is not very interesting for us as humans and we want something to happen!
A good example of ad storytelling is Extra Gum's Can't Help Falling in Love commercial. It shows how two high school classmates fall in love and share dozens of moments together. These special moments always include the Extra Gum, like before they kiss, or when studying together, and more.
What happens next? Here's the ad so you can see for yourself:
The ad shows us how we can use our ability as humans to identify with other people by feeling empathy towards them, or by experiencing something similar ourselves.
This ad also appeals more directly than many others by showing the main reason why someone might want this product (being able to experience things vicariously). The Extra Gum is appealing to an emotional side of the viewer, by making you feel like you're "falling in love" again every time you chew this specific gum.
Remember, your customer’s emotions affect their buying decisions.
2. Appeal to their Sense of Community
Similar to emotions, we can say the same about the sense of community: that it is a building block of humanity. It might sound boring but it’s true. The community itself brings a sense of belonging in any person and that can be used by advertisers as a marketing tool.
By associating your product with the sense of community, you can tap into viewers’ emotions in a powerful way and create highly impactful ad campaigns. This kind of storytelling works best when you're promoting a cause side-by-side with your brand.
When you think about a community, you normally think of a town, a race, a city, a state, or a country. Communities can be viewed both in broad and narrow spectrums. From football teams, schools, gender groups, church groups, to even communities based on hobbies such as anime/manga fans, comic-book fans, DC Universe fans, Marvel fans, home-based moms, sports enthusiasts; you can think of anything and there might be a community or a cult following about it.
A community is essentially a group of people with a connection based on similarities in interest, location, age, or whatever demographic.
To find a story that will appeal to a specific community, you can try joining forums and Facebook groups based on the interest or characteristic you are targeting. If you know your target market, or better yet, your target persona, you can easily determine this.
Here’s an example of a storytelling ad that appeals to a group of people:
Can you guess what community they are appealing to? If you say environmentalist or at least environment-conscious people, then you are correct. It shows how the task of caring for the environment and working to help it is a tough and sometimes discouraging task. But knowing that there are other people who are doing their part can make you realize that you are on the right track. In essence, the messages are: (1) don’t give up, you’re on the right path, and (2) you can do your part to help save the planet.
3. Be Culturally Relevant and Respectful
Your target audience doesn’t just have an emotion, neither are they simply a part of a specific community; they also come from a variety of cultures.
Every culture has a story to tell and every person from that culture is different. Your ads need to be able to speak their language, or at least understand what they want out of your product in order for them to buy it. This means you should do research on the specific community before creating an ad campaign specifically designed for them.
You can also try thinking about how other cultures would view your advertisement, especially if they're vastly different than yours. Would another country see this as offensive? What does it say about the company's values when we look at it through these perspectives?
Let's take a look at Coca-Cola's Sunset ad, released in 2018:
4. Use Your Audience's Hunger for Inspiration
Inspirational ads are some of the most memorable ones. Some people even anticipate the appearance of your inspirational ad. How can you inspire your audience?
At first, it may seem like there is no way to do this because we all have different beliefs and values. However, if the message of the ad is clear and authentic, it will stir up emotions. This might be something people know from their own life or a situation they've been in before. If an advertisement has managed to connect with someone that deeply, then what's stopping them from buying the product advertised on screen?
Motivational and inspirational ads work well for a wide range of audiences. For example: "We're not asking you to believe anything," but rather showing tangible proof of why things are worth believing in by showcasing obstacles overcome by someone in the ad with the help of your product (or at least showing your product as part of the journey).
Sportswear brands have the highest frequency of inspiration ads due to the universal message of perseverance associated with exercising and sports.
5. Share Your Brand’s Story
Another approach frequently used by companies to connect to their customers is telling the company's story, how they started, what their vision and mission is, and so on. This story can be personal to the founder or it may have been handed down through generations.
A company's origins are important not only for sentimental reasons but also because they establish its values and set a framework for how its products will evolve over time.
Authenticity is key, though sometimes companies need to make adjustments so that customers don't feel like they're being sold something icky or fake. For example, Whole Foods has found success in telling both parts of the story: How healthy food made them successful (the why) as well as what goes into those foods with photos from farms and kitchens (the how).
Budweiser did the same thing, with this story ad first shown in the 2017 Super Bowl:
Once your customers find the story behind your brand, and the story convinces them that people in your brand have worked hard to bring it to life, it can do miracles for the brand. It doesn’t mean you have to tell a fake story; if your story is not good, you don’t have an obligation to tell it at all, but if you think creatively and empathize with your target audience, you’ll be able to think of the perfect way to tell the story even if it’s initially boring.
6. Focus on Your Audience
When you are marketing your product, you have to always focus on the target persona that you expect to buy your product. Think about it, what is your customer like? What do they wear? Where do they work? What is their income? What do they do in their free time? Do they have any free time? Follow this guide on how to create a target persona to help you narrow it down to your exact customers.
The story itself has to have your target audience in a spotlight position. Make them mentally dive into the story and imagine themselves in the position of the main character. The story has to be very personal to your audience. Remember: when something reaches you on a personal level, it has a special bond with you.
Hallmark is a company that excels in storytelling in marketing -- ever since the company’s inception. Hallmark is an example of a company that excels in storytelling in marketing. They've created stories that are so ingrained in culture and advertising now, that it's hard to mention the company without knowing what their product is.
That means Hallmark knows what messages they want to send out before writing any content; messages that are heartwarming, and at the same time are linked to their products. While this may seem like common sense for marketers, most people who try storytelling through marketing focus on creating good stories rather than considering how it will impact the sales numbers or profits of a business.
See this Hallmark TV ad (get your tissues out, moms!)
Fundamental of Designing an Advertising Story
Here are some of the concepts you must not forget about when creating a storyline for your advertisements:
Every story should have entertainment value. Even if a story has the reader/audience on its toes the whole time, the entertainment in it should hold strong.
The entertainment factor is what makes the customer consciously get indulged in your idea and make a decision to make a purchase. If you have a good story but a rather boring set of events that lead to your climax, your customer might lose interest in your idea before they even arrive there.
Educate the audience
The sole purpose of your story is to inform the audience about how your product solves a problem or brings an idea to the world. Take that to the next level, instead of thinking about informing, think about educating your audience.
Some storytelling marketing campaigns are so good that they educate about something totally unrelated to the product yet they convince people to buy their product.
The universality of the story
Your story can relate to whatever community, culture or group of people you want, but it has to be understood universally. If you make a story thinking ‘only millennials will get this idea’ then it might not be a good story; chances are, not even all the millennials understand the idea you’re bringing forward. Do not intellectually restrict your story, make it simple to follow.
Logic and organization
Your story should be logical and easy to follow for the audience. You’re not writing a script for a Quentin Tarantino movie, it is a story to bring the product to your customer.
Make an impact
Do you remember a TV commercial from your childhood that has left an everlasting imprint on your memory? That is how your story should be. It has to connect to your customer on such a level that they will remember it for a long time, even if the whole purpose of the story was to just sell a small product of everyday use.
Dos and Don’ts of Storytelling Marketing
When telling a story, it is important to remember that just because you like your story doesn’t mean others will. When designing a storytelling campaign, it is important to take the necessary steps to ensure its success.
- Make sure to tell the story, not just show it. The written ad or video ad should be a vehicle for telling your story.
- Keep in mind that you are not only trying to make people interested and intrigued but also appeal specifically to their values, interests, goals etc.
- Stories with comedy work best because they're fun which creates more of an interest from consumers than serious ads/videos.
- Don’t bore your audience out. A story that is too long is easy to lose interest in. If your story lasts more than three minutes, you need to cut it down. Most story-based ads should be just about 30 seconds to a maximum of three minutes long.
If it's a written ad, the length depends on not just the story, but the introduction or incorporation of the product into the ad. There are various factors that affect the length of the ad, which include the platform that you intend to use and the characteristics of your audience. To determine the length of your content, visit our comparison between long-form and short-form content.
- Avoid chaotic and nonsense stories. The events in your story should coerce and reinforce each other. They should be in a logical rhythm that smoothly moves towards the conclusion that is your product.
- Avoid heavy characterization. Too much character detail can make the audience lose interest in the story itself, especially if your character is so unique that your audience can no longer relate. Remember that stories in your ads must be relatable to your target market, else how can you encourage them to make a purchase?
Keep characters simple, but not generic.
- Too much focus on the story will take the product’s appeal away. Never forget that the whole purpose of your story is to inform people about your product. When your story is finished as a script, look at it; does your product look like a key event or just a prop?
Examples of Storytelling Applied in Advertising
A guide can give you everything but to understand it better, examples are always necessary. We brought together some examples that we believe will help you understand storytelling marketing better.
1. Budweiser Whazzup Video Commercial
This ad is by Anheuser-Busch for their popular beer Budweiser. This ad has a very easy, simple-to-understand storyline. If you analyze the story with the knowledge provided in this article, you will notice the following: the ad was made for the Superbowl commercial break; it is the one time of the year in the United States when the highest number of people are watching TV.
Consequently, the ad was such a huge success that it started a ‘whazzup’ trend in the whole country the following year and although all trends decline with time, this specific trend still lives in some places in the United States. The ad was so popular that Budweiser created several more of these ads following the storyline.
2. Tide’s A Coffee Stain on my Shirt Audio Commercial
This is an audio commercial by Tide released in 2019. It was released not just on radio stations, but also on SoundCloud and Pandora. It is an excellent example of a storytelling ad that needs no image or video to work. This specific commercial has an element that we haven’t discussed yet, catchy and appropriate music.
The music has been aptly used to convey something that you can’t get out of your head (the coffee stain). This storytelling campaign is not just that good; it uses the catchy classical music by Beethoven (5th symphony) which oddly enough, frequently sticks in your brain. The ad itself leaves an imprint on your mind, just like a stain.
3. Apple Watch Real Stories
In this example, Apple Watch used a technique called testimonial storytelling. Testimonials are not the norm in storytelling; especially because most storytelling marketing is done for new products, not existing ones.
This ad shows viewers how the product can save lives, not through imaginary situations, but real ones. The video had a good mix of storytelling and advertising. It showed people from all walks of life, who used the watch to save their lives in different dangerous situations- why would someone be opposed to saving themselves or loved ones? The ad also appealed specifically to values: family members are saved by Apple watches because they have them on hand (value for family).
For many people, the Apple Watch has become a literal lifesaver. This product can help people worry less about themselves and their loved ones because they have an item that “watches” over them.
4 Kaya King Jumbo Peanuts
This print ad campaign by Kaya King uses a funny yet expressive image - that of an adult elephant (presumably a mother elephant) doing a Heimlich Manoeuver on a baby elephant- to show just how big their peanuts are. A baby elephant even choked on it!
This ad goes to show how storytelling can also be done via print, and with not a lot of elements nor words.
5. Stories in Digital Promotions
Advertorials and content marketing are some of the best examples where digital marketers incorporate stories in their ads. Let’s enumerate a few of the best landing pages based on spy tools Anstrex and AdPlexity’s research.
An advertorial typically starts with a story of “ordinary people” stumbling upon a discovery. Then they proceed to discuss how this discovery helped solve specific problems, and finally, how the product is now available for sale, for a limited time period, or for a limited number of buyers only.
b. Blog-style Landing Page
This kind of landing page makes it look like an actual person is sharing the story of how the product helped her. This helps establish relatability. It doesn’t matter if the person is virtually unknown, what’s important is that the story contains all the elements of being a “real person” with “real experiences”.
c. Native Ads
While the above two examples are landing pages, below are some examples of native ads that focus on the story aspect instead of the product or brand aspect. Customers eventually learn about the product upon going through the landing page, as advertisers deftly incorporate this within the story.
The point is, viewers are attracted to the promise of a story, not the promise of a product.
Start Creating a Story for your Ads Now
Throughout history, the art of storytelling has been used to convey messages and teach lessons. From Ancient Greece to today's modern world, people have always found a way to tell their story in order for others to hear it and learn from it.
Nowadays, we are seeing this ancient tradition come back in full force with the power of the internet and social media at our fingertips. There is no better time than now for businesses looking to grow their market share by telling stories that will capture their audience's attention! So stop thinking about storytelling as some kind of fairy tale marketing technique and start using it right now so you can improve your conversion rates!
We want to encourage you to start incorporating storytelling into your native marketing techniques - so let's get started! If you're interested in learning how we can partner up on this endeavor, please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org for our team of experts who are ready and waiting to work with you!