How the brand storytelling trend began – and whether it will ever end

By Nick Asbury

OK, enough with the brand storytelling. The campfire went out years ago. The audience got cramp from crossing their legs. You were only going to get away with the Jackanory stuff for so long. Everyone’s at the chatbot party now. Move on.

It would be nice to end the article there. But we haven’t moved on, have we? Storytelling is still everywhere. Conference speeches, agency home pages, brand guidelines, thought pieces – everyone is still keen to tell us that we’re all storytellers now.

The same was true five years ago, when many people (including me) were already writing articles about how tired this whole trend was. For industries that like to portray themselves as restlessly innovative, advertising and branding have a habit of getting stuck in the same slow-moving trend cycles for years, even decades.

Storytelling is still everywhere. Speeches, home pages, brand guidelines — everyone is still keen to tell us that we’re all storytellers now.

And it is at least two decades. It’s interesting to trace the tale of brand storytelling back to its roots. From a brief trawl, I can find a Fast Company article from 1997 that talks about how “a great brand is a story that’s never completely told”, referring to Nike and Starbucks in particular. Sample quote: “A brand is a metaphorical story that’s evolving all the time. This connects with something very deep — a fundamental human appreciation of mythology.”

Fast Company is back in 1998 with an article titled ‘Every leader tells a story’, which talks about how “storytelling is the ultimate leadership tool”. Harvard Business Review talks about the rise of “corporate storytellers” in 2002. And there’s a wave of books around the early 2000s, including Legendary Brands: Unleashing the Power of Storytelling to Create a Winning Market Strategy, by Laurence Vincent (Kaplan Business, 2002) and Creative Business: The Making of Addictive Stories, by Paul Nero and Neeta Patel (Prentice Hall, 2002).

Those were niche business books, but in 2005 came The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, by Christopher Booker (Continuum, 2005), which broke down the seven archetypal plots that the author argues drives all stories from Hamlet to Star Wars. It’s a fascinating book and it captured something in the zeitgeist. This was also the decade that saw the rise of TED Talks (around since 1984 but only online since 2005), where the typical speaker style is to build an argument through the use of stories. The same technique was popularised by authors like Malcolm Gladwell, who built book-long arguments by stringing together smartly told anecdotes (see The Tipping Point, 2000 and Blink, 2005).

It was in that cultural context that the brand storytelling trend began to take hold, no doubt aided by the fact that writers were starting to play a greater role in the branding process. And it has kept growing ever since. The business section is now piled high with brand storytelling books. And every brand talks about its ‘brand story’ being at least as important as its logo, and probably more so.

Storytelling was always a limited way to describe what branders and advertisers do. Hollywood, journalists, comedians all do storytelling brilliantly

So, two questions. Why did the idea of storytelling prove so popular? And is it still a useful way to think about branding and advertising?

On the first question, you can see the appeal of storytelling as an analogy, or set of analogies, for what branders and advertisers do. There have been other analogies in the past – there was a long-standing military theme (tactics, campaigns, target audiences), then the built environment (brand architecture, brand pillars, brand pyramids), and a blue-collar engineering theme (boilerplates, toolkits, roll-outs). But storytelling offers an especially fertile field of analogies for what branding is about – narratives, story arcs, characters, motivations, resolutions.

But the real appeal, I think, was always emotional. Compared to the military and engineering language, storytelling felt more homely. It evokes firesides and fairytales. Just the word ‘story’ activates the child inside us (at least it used to). And, in the hands of advertisers with something to sell, that was always part of the point. Tell people you’re here to sell them something and the defences go up. But say you’re going to tell a story and people relax. For industries that haven’t always enjoyed the best reputations, advertising and branding were always going to see the appeal of rebranding themselves as ‘storytellers’.

The problem is that a lot of it has been exactly that – a rebranding exercise. As many have lamented, the word ‘story’ has been hollowed of all meaning. In 2013, I wrote about TSB’s advert The Story of TSB, which used lovely animation to tell a vacuous version of its story, starting with the Reverend Henry Duncan founding the bank in 1810, then briefly mentioning something about ‘a storm’ coming, before skipping two centuries to the present day. As I argued then, the storm is the story. But no brands want to talk about the storm. Conflict and struggle are inconvenient commercially – and it is, after all, meant to be a commercial.

TSB was just one example. The same approach has become the default mode for most brand stories. In many cases, they abandon any pretence at a narrative style – many brand stories are what would have been called missions, manifestos, visions or boilerplates in previous years, just relabelled.

When Pixar want to advertise, they turn to advertisers — because it’s a different skillset. If it was about just storytelling, they’d do it themselves.

But every trend gets its share of bandwagon-jumpers and point-missers, and it doesn’t necessarily invalidate the trend. Which leads to question two – beneath all the bluster, is storytelling still a useful way to think about branding and advertising?

Well, yes in the sense that the analogy still holds. But no in the bigger sense that analogies are only useful if they jolt you into seeing things in a new way. Saying that brands are like stories was an interesting point to make 20 years ago. Now, not so much. It has become so tired through overuse that it has lost any power it once had.

In any case, storytelling was always a limited way to describe what branders and advertisers do. The storytelling territory is already occupied by Hollywood, and by journalists, documentary-makers, stand-up comedians and authors, all of whom do storytelling brilliantly. Sometimes advertisers do it brilliantly too (from JR Hartley to the Bear and the Hare), but wouldn’t it be smarter to highlight something they do b better than all those other people? Isn’t that what agencies tell clients all the time – find your point of difference?

The core sell of creative agencies is the same as it always was. At their best, they are great at ideas, great at being funny, great at concentrated moments of wit and ingenuity, great at creating memes that infiltrate and influence culture, usually carrying a sales or behavioural message. That’s why, when Pixar or the New York Times want to brand or advertise themselves, they turn to the advertisers and designers – because it’s a different skillset. If it was about storytelling, they’d do it themselves.

Conversely, the most outstanding example in the last two decades of a brand reinventing itself through the use of storytelling is Lego. But when Lego cast its brand story in the brilliant emotional parable that is The Lego Movie, they didn’t ask the ad agency to do it – they got the screenwriters in. The people who know how to do storytelling. (Even then, it’s worth noting that Lego’s revival wasn’t just about storytelling – there were plenty of hard-nosed business decisions involving boring things like licensing and stock.)

It will no doubt be possible to come back in five or ten years and write the same article about storytelling. It’s pretty firmly embedded now. Many agencies have built storytelling into their name, founding ethos and trademarked processes, so the commercial stakes are high. But a sequel is surely overdue. Every time we use the word ‘story’ these days, we advertise how conventional our thinking is. It’s time to move on. The campfire has gone out. End of story.

A typology of brand stories

The one where it’s promised and never happens

Welcome to the GenericTM Brand Story. Our Brand Story starts with our purpose, which is to do something generic. This extends into our generic identity and tone of voice. Thanks for reading our Brand Story.

The one with the beginning, end and no middle

In 1878, our founder was driven by some generic principles to start our business. Fast forward to today and those generic principles matter more than ever.

The one on all packaging

Back in 2008, we were in the kitchen making a generic product, when someone said we should make this a business. Things have changed since then, but we’re still about the same generic thing – using generic ingredients in a generic way.

The one that uses story tropes without being a story

Once upon a time, these are our brand values. All of a sudden, our product contains the following ingredients. Please feel free to get in touch happily ever after.

The one that is honest

In 1878, someone founded a small business which, after a long history of mergers and hostile takeovers, bears some legal relationship to our current global operation. A lot of money has been made since then and we hope to make some more by loosely reinterpreting our founding values and leveraging them as our marketing hook for the next quarter.

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