Buzzword Breakdown: Storytelling

Jul 14, 2019 · 6 min read
…no, you’re a copywriter.

In the world of buzzwords, perhaps none has been more overused and less understood than storytelling. There are 216 TED Talks tagged with #storytelling. “Narrative” is thrown around brainstorms globally for such compelling products as diapers and beer. C-Suite executives cite it constantly as a strategy while their agency teams churn out targeted ads that tout product benefits only they would care about.

I’m not going to analyze whether or not storytelling is a strategy worth pursuing. It is. It’s the most powerful tool in brand-building, bar none. Instead, I’m going to dive into why it’s so important and what it truly encompasses.

A famous VW ad from 1971 tells a wonderful story without losing site of its sales message.

Real Storytelling

A story has a beginning, middle and end. It has main characters. Usually there’s a villain. Almost always there is a challenge or hurdle to overcome, unless you’re a “Waiting for Godot” kind of brand. Storytelling is definitely not listing out all the new features of a BMW or rattling off ingredients in a shampoo.

The best way to understand storytelling is to take it for what it is — the most basic element of human consciousness. It is what separates us from the apes — cave paintings. No one understood this better than Joseph Campbell, the American academic and part-time mystic who was a revolutionary and globally-minded prophet. Yet, in the age of Byron Sharp and Gary Vaynerchuck, we often ignore the incredible scholarly work that men and women like Campbell have dedicated their lives to in lieu of quick-solve solutions and Tweetable soundbites. It’s my opinion that no one’s work is more applicable to marketing and communications than Campbell. Our industry used to worship Freud. Now, we’ve moved on to the altar of Silicon Valley data wizards (Ken Auletta famously articulated this transition as “from Mad Men to Math Men”). It’s time to add a solid dose of humanism to the mix. Data and psychology get us positioned and define our target consumers. But it’s a good story that can close the sale.

The Hero’s Journey

There’s a lot more to the scholarship of narrative. But the core principle to understand here truly is the oft-cited, little-understood Hero’s Journey. Campbell believed in a monomyth, the idea that every story from the beginning of time essentially follows the same arc. This can be found in similarities across nearly every religious text throughout history as well as in some of the best novels, movies and even ad campaigns of the last Century. It goes something like this:

  • We’re living in an ordinary world.
  • There’s a call to adventure.
  • We refuse the call.
  • We meet a mentor and change our mind.
  • We cross the threshold into our adventure.
  • There are tests, allies and enemies.
  • There is an ordeal (often in a “cave” of sorts).
  • We win, and are rewarded (“Seizing the Sword”).
  • We return to the ordinary world, changed — and better for it.

There are obviously myriad alternatives to this path, as well as some additions (for example, often the hero dies and is resurrected…sound familiar?). However, this is the gist of it. To think we can’t fit all this into a 30-second Instagram post or a static billboard is lazy. Some of the best lines of copy of all time encapsulate a significant stage in the Hero’s Journey:

  • Just Do It — The Call to Adventure
  • Keep Walking — The Threshold
  • What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas — The Ordeal (reframed as something exciting and taboo)
  • A Diamond is Forever — The Reward

So on and so forth. There’s a lot more to how Campbell’s framing of stories and myth can be applied to brand marketing, but the point here is simple — a story has to follow some element of basic human truth. The best ads, branding initiatives and communications strategies of all time all tap into the Hero’s Journey in one way or another. This can be frameworked and activated against.

Samsung’s “Ostrich Ad” tells an irresistible story around a product that’s ugly, cumbersome and quite difficult to sell.

What Makes A Good Story

If you haven’t cried at a Pixar movie at some point in your life, you’re truly a broken spirit. Pixar has almost always dominated the competition in their industry largely due to the influence of Steve Jobs, who bought the company in 1985. They think like Apple. They innovate confidently and they value the intangibles. The brand has famously broken down their approach to storytelling into 22 rules, but I found a Medium post that highlights the top 6 even more useful:

  • Great stories are universal.
  • Great stories have a clear structure + purpose.
  • Great stories have characters to root for (usually an underdog, but could be an antihero).
  • Great stories appeal to emotion.
  • Great stories are surprising.
  • Great stories are simple.

One simple summary of this is that great stories are Felt, Not Seen. A good narrative hits you right in the emotions, selling a concept without being transparent about why it intends to do so. All great tales have a purpose. Think about the Bible’s many “parables.” These are essentially ethical guidelines explained through narratives simple enough for a child to understand. In many ways, we’re selling our ideologies as brands in the same way religious indoctrination used to work. Telling someone you’re the son of God is one thing. Walking on water is another.

Metaphors about climate change, the dangers of technology and the power of human connection are all neatly tied up in the story of a little robot — Pixar’s Wall-E.

Don’t Tell Your Brand’s Story

Understanding storytelling is key to brand comms. However, like any other approach, there are frameworks that can and must be applied to it. Many of the best authors in history have mapped out their narratives with excruciating attention to detail. In acting, a character’s “motivation” is everything. Yet we so frequently ignore these principles when given a creative brief.

It’s important to note that the pendulum can also swing the other way. Some of the best applications of storytelling to brand marketing have not created a return on investment for the companies behind them. This is why having a systematic approach to your narrative is important. Brand story must hinge completely on the VISION of a company, as well as align with a larger plan to create VALUE.

If something is so narrative-driven that it’s nearly impossible to tell what the ad is for or why the brand is activating in a particular way, it may capture people’s attention and stick in their memories but do little in terms of moving the needle. Fearless Girl is a perfect example of this. The vast majority of consumers who know about it have little clue that it’s an ad for State Street or that the bank was promoting its gender diversity fund (which has been embroiled in scandal). In cases like this, an agency (McCann) has successfully sold through a concept it knows will resonate in culture by tapping into the monomyth with little regard for whether or not it will impact its client’s bottom line. It often doesn’t matter to them as long as they win a Cannes Lion, which will generate more business. So, remember to craft your narratives carefully within the framework of the values, positioning and purpose of your brand.

A final point — no one cares about your brand’s story. Your brand is a company. It is designed to make products and money. It most likely sells something that is not particularly different from everything else in the market. Fashion brands are a perfect example. No matter how beautiful the hand-finishing from your atelier may be — it’s a fucking jacket. Instead, successful brands highlight the story of their consumer, or at least the ones they’d love to live. Luxury brands do this in an aspirational framework. Insurance companies have differentiated by being funny. Hotels embrace the magic of travel. Even Apple has yet to run a campaign about Steve Jobs. Because he’d hate it. And it wouldn’t work.


  • Use The Hero’s Journey when crafting your brand’s narrative or a particular campaign.
  • Good stories are emotional, but must be tied to your brand’s vision in order to impact business goals. Beware creative agencies seeking awards.
  • Apply a strict framework when designing your brand’s narrative and make sure every element of activation adheres to it.
  • Storytelling is a long-term brand-building strategy.
  • Don’t tell your brand’s story — show how what your brand makes or stands for fits into the idealized story of your target consumer’s life.
  • In general, avoid using the term “storytelling” when speaking to press or on panels. We’re in the communication industry. Everything we do is story. Show, don’t tell.

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Written by


A Brand Strategy Studio in NYC +LA.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.


Written by


A Brand Strategy Studio in NYC +LA.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.

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