Aesop Storytelling Series - Episode 1: Why brand storytelling has got zombie movie written all over it

The marketing sector can be a complicated place as new marketing tools and techniques are launched, almost on a weekly basis. Powered by The Drum Network, this regular column invites The Drum Network's members to demystify the marketing trade and offer expert insight and opinion on what is happening in the marketing industry today that can help your business tomorrow.

Storytelling is dead. Or so Raja Rajamannar, the chief marketing officer of Mastercard, declared in a recent article. No it isn’t and I suspect he knows it.

I say this because his opening contention is patently good storytelling. By introducing the dramatic conflict that drives his story from the first line, he’s employing a tried and tested narrative device to hook the reader. I’ve just repeated it.

Mr Rajamannar goes on to explain how the new Mastercard Priceless experiences (in which cardholders are ‘connected to priceless possibilities’ and subjected to endearing ‘priceless surprises’) is a form of ‘storydoing’ that makes traditional storytelling ‘obsolete’.

Hmmm. I’d argue that ‘storydoing’ is merely storytelling with the consumer as the protagonist of the narrative, the same shift in perspective that underpins much of ‘reality’ TV or immersive gaming, as opposed to traditional drama.

You know when a concept becomes useful in marketing when someone tries to brand it or ™ it. In the past few years, we’ve witnessed the advent of ‘storydoing’, ‘storyscaping’, and ‘the digi-oral age’. It’s fair enough to claim one’s piece of the action or reframe it for a new context. Nonetheless, all these concepts have good old fashioned ‘narrative’ as their mental source code.

The truth is storytelling is zombie-like; it refuses to die. The technologies we use to tell those stories are changing fast, but our brains still seek out timeless narrative patterns as much as our ancestors did. Blame the pace of biological evolution for our disappointing stubbornness to change. Storytelling is built into our DNA. Stories tell us who we are and why we do things. Social fictions are the very foundations of our societies – our faiths, our national myths, even our legal systems.

What’s more surprising is how late in the day narrative has become a buzzword in modern marketing. The recent fashion for storytelling in marketing can be attributed to the bumpy rise of content marketing. The idea was that if marketers brushed up on their storytelling skills, they could produce content that consumers would actively choose to consume and share in this age of on-demand and social media. Brands would become publishers, and marketing would enter the ‘post-advertising’ era.

This didn’t quite come to pass. Advertising is still alive and well. In theory, the thinking was indeed sound. By telling good stories, brands can insert themselves into both our personal and shared cultural narratives. Some brands have done so successfully. Few people have failed to notice the successful storytelling of brands like Dove, Red Bull, or Airbnb. But in practice, it’s also generated of cacophony of worthless noise, as brands scramble to fill their feeds for fear of falling silent.

As a result, there’s been a backlash against storytelling, and much of it warranted. It’s a much-abused term, and there is a whiff of the Emperor’s New Clothes about it that deserves the opprobrium. Everyone knows a good story when they hear it. Everyone is talking about storytelling in marketing. But too few actually see it for what it is. And that sets off many people’s bullshit alarms. Some of the criticism has been hysterical – “No f***er, you’re not a storyteller”, as Stefan Sagmeister so delicately put it.

But the truth is that storytelling is too human a phenomenon to be wholly maligned or side-lined. It will always be with us. It will always power on even after a bazooka to the face.

This is the first in a series of articles exploring the power of narrative and the ways it can be used in both business and marketing. Its uses stretch way beyond content marketing. Narrative thinking can be used to structure brands at their most fundamental. It can bring to life the raison d’etre of a company. It can make our advertising more memorable. It can make our content more compelling. It can make our brand experiences more involving. It can make customer journeys more sticky. In short, it can be used to make marketing more human and more effective as a result.

So please come back to watch the zombie spring back to life, over and over again.

Ed Woodcock is director of narrative at storytelling agency Aesop.

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