Storytelling for businesses, Part 1 - Adverts

Storytelling for Businesses, Part 1 – Adverts

Storytelling seems to have become a buzzword in marketing today, but people have long understood the power of stories to sell. This is especially evident in the advertisements that bombard your television. 

Back in the 70’s, Cadbury’s introduced the Smash Martians and their story. Today, Freeview’s advert tells an epic tale right out of 1984 (Because of course, the first thing that comes to mind when I think of subscription TV is a fascist dictatorship, right?). But why exaclty are advertisers so enamoured with story?

The Strength of Stories

There’s no doubt that stories are immensely powerful and popular. Children around the world are told fairytales before they can even speak. We spend our free time reading, watching and listening to stories. They can entertain us, make us laugh or cry. But they also educate us. From the medieval morality tales of good verses evil to the gossip heard at the local hairdresser, we learn from stories. The good are rewarded, and the wicked are punished, and all the variations in between. We learn consequences.

Adverts with a story are a powerful combination of entertainment and education. Click To Tweet

Obviously, I’m a huge fan of storytelling. I can’t get enough of deep characters and twisty plots that grab you and refuse to let go. Turns out that brainy people have discovered that they grab hold of our brains too. Facts and figures just don’t cut it. This fascinating article on LifeHacker explains how when we hear a story, we experience it too.

Storytelling for businesses: Stories affect the brain more

This is your brain on stories

Reading about a mouth-watering steak? The part of your brain that handles taste goes crazy. Listening to a tale of Arctic explorers battling sub-zero conditions? The part of your brain that deals with temperature lights up like thermite.

This is part of why when you watch a scary film, you get scared. Why when you read a sad book, you cry like a baby. Even though you know it’s a story, with actors and special effects or words and made up characters, your brain is lighting up the same way it would if you were experiencing the events in real life.  Your brain puts you in the place of the main character, complete with all his emotions.

Remember that point, it’ll come up again later.

What Stories Make the Biggest Impact

As mentioned, using stories to sell is nothing new. But there’s more than one story a business can tell. In fact there are three specific stories that every business can choose from.

The Company’s Story

When people are told to tell stories that promote their company, their first thought is, quite logically, the story of their company. However, this so often turns out to be a mistake. You end up with a boring history lesson , which very rarely holds interest for anyone other than the company itself.

It’s like when your subjected to an hour of your friend’s holiday snaps. Your friends love it, because it has special meaning to them. They can’t understand why you’re clawing at the doors after the 18th picture of the beach. Those photos have no meaning for you. The international paint drying championships draw a bigger crowd.

Yet this is what invariably happens when company’s try and tell you their story.

Can it ever work? In the finest example I know, Johnnie Walker tell the history of their brand. The following advert shares more in common with a film than the typical TV advertisement, clocking in at over six minutes, but it’s worth every second.

If you insist on telling your company’s story, make it a good one. Make it genuinely interesting. The Johnnie Walker example stands as a story in it’s own right. We have a catchy tag-line, an inciting incident, clear motivation and a man against the odds. Robert Carlyle, a top notch actor, does a great job as the narrator, and the backdrop of the Scottish landscape is stunning. The story is riveting, and at the same time establishes Johnnie Walker as a quality product.

The Product’s Story

The next story business owners like to tell is about the product or service they offer. Again, it makes sense. They’ve spent a lot of time and money on making the most awesome product in the history of the world. When you’re so close to your product/service, it’s your baby, and you want to show those baby photos to everyone. That special component, that rare ingredient, that top-of-the-range factory you built; that’s got to be a great story people want to hear, right?

Storytelling for businesses: No-one really wants to know how the sausage is made

Sausages. Delicious, but don’t ask how they’re made.


No-one really wants to see how the sausage is made.

Don’t misunderstand me, you should talk about what makes your product/service unique. But if  your features (rather than your benefits) are your headline, then you’re in trouble. When you comparing the Broadband Adverts, Sky’s benefit focused story was far more compelling than Virgin Media’s feature fest.

As with the Company Story, there are exceptions that work well. McDonald’s recent efforts to dispel the negative image of what goes into their burgers is one example. Along with using quirky storytelling, they also challenge a commonly held belief. It’s a risky move, drawing attention to the negative view associated with their product, but they pull it off.

I’m a big fan of Innocent, both the drink and as a company. Their rise from humble beginnings is inspiring, and their attention to detail is a great example to follow.  But how on earth do you make fruit juice interesting?

Again, quirky storytelling comes in handy. No dry repetition of the ingredients, or footage of the factory where the juice is bottled. Instead, we’re shown tasty looking ingredients (remember, when the brain sees mouth-watering, it experiences mouth-watering). We’re told how the mangos are hand turned for seven days (which leads me onto a whole new conversation on the effect perception of labour and effort have on us, but that’s for another post), leading to the benefit of even tastier juice. We have humour, with the use of Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Turn Around’ to illustrate the mango-turning. Even our mango-turner seems to be laughing, and having a good time.

If you’re going to go ahead and tell your product’s story, take a step back. Don’t talk about the features that are interesting to you, rather talk about the benefits that are interesting to your customer. Again, make it a story that stands on it’s own, one that entertains as well as educates.

The Customer’s Story

The final story may seem the least obvious, but it’s without a doubt the most effective. Customers rarely care for companies and products, but there is one thing that will always be high on their agenda: Themselves. We’re all busy people, with our own problems, and we simply don’t have the mental energy to care about every last company and product competing for our attention. So don’t try. Don’t tell them all about your company history, or you product features. Tell them about themselves.

Take a look at this recent example from HSBC

Again, we have an actual story here. It even follows the traditional three act structure, with a beginning, middle and end. Along the journey we have victories along with setbacks. But who is the hero of the story?

You are.

Okay, you look nothing like him, I know.

But what HSBC have done wonderfully is set up their customer as the hero, rather than themselves.

They’ve narrowed it down a bit, showing him as a business owner. He has a family. He has good days, he has bad days. In other words, he’s someone HSBC’s typical customer can identify with.

We see him from the first day of his company, through to the time when he’s made it, complete with international clients and fancy offices. At the end, we see the adverts message: ‘It’s never just business.’ And anyone who’s run a business, from the freelance writer to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, is nodding along. Finally, someone who understand what it’s really like to run a business! Then for barely a second, we see HSBC’s logo.

The message is subtle. HSBC establish that they know what it’s like for you, business owner. And they can help.

Storytelling for businesses: Put your customer in the spotlight

When you put the spotlight back on your customer, you tell them a story they care about.

I can’t emphasise enough that throughout this,from start to finish, the customer is the star. You are the star.

Remember, when you hear a story, your brain puts you in the place of the main character. So when you hear the customer’s story, it’s a unique chance for you to experience what it’s like to be the customer.

Microsoft’s recent adverts have nailed this idea as well. Their Windows 10 advert focuses on the children who are going to change the world. Let me repeat that. It’s not Windows 10 that’ll change the world. It’s the kids. We just have to make sure they ‘have what they need.’ That’s where Windows comes in. Not as the star, but as the support. The help, not the hero.

Their advert for their cloud services even starts with the words ‘What can you do?” You’d be forgiven for thinking this was an advert for the Special Olympics, but rather it’s showing how the organisers of the Special Olympics handle their work. During the advert we’re told that ‘technology is the tool to make an impact. Technology is the tool to make a difference.’ At the end, the message Microsoft wants to leave us with is that they are ’empowering business.’ And if it can handle the demands of organising a massive event like the Special Olympics, then they can handle your demands as a business owner as well.

There we have it. The three stories we can tell, and how adverts have used them effectively. Tell stories that are intriguing, that are memorable. Light up the brain with descriptions and emotions. You can tell stories about your company if you must, or sometimes about your product/service. But you should always tell stories about your customers and clients.

Have you got any favourite examples of storytelling in adverts? Share them in the comments below.

Photo Credit: Spotlight by Victor Bergmann, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0