Storytelling is The New Advertising

"What does it mean to do something 'like a girl'?"

The video starts out asking teenagers to perform activities "like a girl." These include running, fighting, throwing - the things that are often associated with the insult "you x like a girl." The actors perform the activities in a dainty or silly manner, as one might imagine a "girl" would.

The same requests are then made of 10-year-old girls. Instead of pretending to do the task, they try - for real. They run, fight, and throw like any 10-year-old would.

The director asks one of the teenage girls from the beginning, "so, when they're in that vulnerable time - between 10 and 12 - how do you think it affects them when somebody uses 'like a girl' as an insult?"

She responds:

"I think it definitely drops their self-confidence and really puts them down. During that time, they're already trying to figure themselves out and when somebody says, 'you hit like a girl,' it's like, 'well, what does that mean?' They think they're a strong person; it's kind of like telling them that they're weak and they're not as good as them."

This is a snippet from the "Like a Girl" campaign by Always - a video that went viral after it launched in 2014. It resonated with people around the globe because of the message - because of the story - that it told. Not because of the products it sold.

In fact, there was absolutely no mention of feminine products - only the story of self-confidence and women empowerment.

This is one example of how advertising has transformed over the last few decades. Today, the old strategies of bragging, over-promising, and pushing products are losing traction.

Instead, as more consumers use ad blockers and ignore the ads they do see on a daily basis, marketers are turning to the tactics of effective storytelling to get their message across. 

Unsurprisingly, there's been some lash back in the advertising community when it comes to the topic of brand storytelling. For example, @AdWeak (a satirical spoof account based on @AdWeek)'s recent tweet:

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So, yes, storytelling is a thing, and it's got the advertising industry talking. But...why is that?

To understand this, we have to first dive into the history of advertising and how it has evolved over the last few decades - and even over the last couple of centuries.

The Evolution of Advertising: A 60-Second History Lesson

The following history lesson is a summary from the first chapter of the book Storynomics by Thomas Gerace and Robert McKee.

Believe it or not, advertising isn't a new concept. It started in the 1700s as a way to bring local newspapers in the American colonies income. After some time, they discovered that the most effective advertising was interruption ads. In other words, the ads we're used to seeing today that disrupt our content intake.

This concept stuck around for a while and got continually worse as TV stations crammed as many ads into their 30- and 60-minute segments. Yet, over time, we finally started to realize that the more we interrupt people, the less we satisfy their overall experience.

In the early 2000s, however, consumers found a way to revolt when TiVo came out. Finally, we could skip past the commercials and get to the content we wanted to watch.

This compounded further as subscription and streaming became available through media such as Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify. These companies found that consumers were more than willing to pay the $10 monthly fee in order to stop seeing ads. 

What about internet ads? Well, display ads aren't doing much better. In fact, according to Media Post, “After being asked to recall the last display ad they saw, only 14% of users could name the company, the brand, or the product, suggesting that brands are wasting millions of dollars in ads that consumers don’t remember.”

As you can see, brands are spending millions of dollars to interrupt content and use old-fashioned push strategies of bragging and promising - and it's not working. That's why marketers are turning to the tactics of effective storytelling.

Building a Story Around Your Brand

Why is Storytelling Important?

As you can see, yelling at consumers that your product is "THE BEST THING EVER OMGGGG" is no longer working. Instead, you need to tell them a story in order to get - and maintain - their attention.

Storytelling brings your customer along on a journey to discover your brand - and therefore your product. It also connects with them on a deeper level, making them more loyal and more willing to support you.

Beyond all that, storytelling shows the human side of your brand. Think about it; it's the oldest form of communication. Humans are built to tell stories and have been passing them from generation to generation for centuries. People buy from other people, so why wouldn't you personify your brand?

Understanding Your Brand Story

This is all well and good, but now what? You need to get customers, so how do you begin to understand your brand story in order to create one that connects with your audience?

The first step is to ask yourself: what story are you telling your customers about your brand? In other words, are your products high-fashion and exclusively available for people who can afford them, or low-price and available to anyone? 

The next step is to consider: what story are your customers telling themselves about owning your products? One of my favorite examples to use is wearing a pair of Gucci sunglasses compared to a $25 pair bought at Target. They're both designed for the same purpose - blocking the sun from your eyes - but they each tell a different story about who you are.

Whichever answers you come up with here, keep in mind that a well-told story wraps its telling around emotionally-charged values. It's much easier to remember a story than a bunch of facts.

As you begin crafting your story, don't simply list off all the features of your products. Instead, tell a story about your benefits

I know, it's so easy to get caught up on the features of what we have to offer - after all, they're our babies! The thing is, that's not what consumers care about. As you launch into it, consider: how will the features of your product or service benefit their life?

Structuring Your Story

Think about your favorite movie or book. Why do you love it so much? It's probably because of the way you resonated with the topic, a character, or an aspect of the plot. 

When you break them down, all great stories are structured the same way; they all include the same 4-5 key elements that make up a story. In this case, there are four important elements to consider as you structure your brand story. 

1) Character

The character of your story is your target audience. It's who you're communicating with and who you're ultimately selling to. As you're forming an idea of your character, ask yourself:

  • Who are they?
  • What are their challenges?
  • What do their daily lives look like?
  • What other brands resonate with them?

2) Problem

The problem is a challenge or set of challenges your customers face on a daily basis. While you should take into consideration all the problems they face, focus on only one per story. Ideally, this should be the problem your product solves.

3) Solution

The solution is how your product solves the problem we previously identified. It entails your brand promise and an idea of what your character's life looks like after interacting with your product.

4) Ending

If you thought the solution was the last stage of the process, you were wrong. The ending is how you're delighting your customers after you've solved their problem. 

As you create your ending, consider how you'll keep your customers coming back for more and what you can do to finish out their journey and complete the entire experience.

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The next time you're thinking about implementing an ad campaign to attract new customers, think about how you can tell a story instead. After all, what makes your brand stand out is your story and the narrative your customers tell themselves when interacting with you.

Get started with discovering your brand story by downloading your free worksheet. You'll find prompts that will help you build the core of your brand and gain that base layer to move forward with.