People are over being marketed to. Blame the internet, blame the iPhones, blame the ever-shrinking attention span but the chances of an audience sitting still for your pitch are growing smaller by the second.
But wait, what’s this? There’s a shape out there on the horizon. Those look like sails; could it be that the good ship Storyteller has come to save the day? Stow those life-vests, there may be hope yet.
So how do you do it? It’s not as simple as starting with “Once upon a time” and closing with “The end”. But there are some classic structural elements that can be incredibly useful to marketers, whether you’re creating a long-form video, a tweet, or something in-between.
No, we’re not recommending that you repeat your core marketing message 22 times in every piece (that’s crazy -- the real number is more than twice that much… kidding). The insight is from Cognitive Psychologist Jerome Bruner who discovered that humans are “22 times more likely to remember a story than a factual statement.”
A story creates an emotional connection, and gets your audience involved in the outcome. It takes them on a journey, and shows them how your brand or product can play a hero’s role in solving a problem.
7 types of stories
Pretty much every story ever told is one of these seven types: Overcoming the Monster, Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, Rags to Riches, or Rebirth. When you look at these seven types through a marketing lens, you begin to see how the storytelling construct can be leveraged to better position your brand or product.
Some of these types are easier to leverage than others. Keeping in mind that we will need to nudge them a bit for marketing purposes, here’s a quick riff on all seven:
Overcoming the Monster: The hero sets out to destroy a singular evil. This is one of the more common marketing-storytelling constructs, as your brand can be positioned as a clear alternative to the “same old boring routine”. And while “monster” might be a little harsh, that kid in the Mentos ad is quite the escape artist.
Quest: Similar to Overcoming the Monster, but with the focus on a mission instead of a singular evil. Gillette’s “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” spot was a fantastic example of this construct. The razor company positioned themselves squarely in a quest to Do Better as men.
Voyage and Return: Although it is similar to the two types above, Voyage focuses more on a hero’s growth. In one of the most-loved car ads of all-time, the vehicle takes its passengers on a literal journey to a party, then on a larger figurative journey to something more subtle yet profound. Volkswagen’s Cabrio “Pink Moon” spot shows us a voyage where the heroes embark on just such a voyage.
Comedy: This is probably THE most popular construct, with the goal of positioning your brand in a positive light and providing a happy ending. Skittles and Old Spice mine this approach hard, creating ads that are both memorable and bizarre. Comedy is often seen as a shortcut, but it’s real work to go beyond a cheap laugh.
Tragedy: This one’s a little tougher, as this type typically relies on the downfall of a villain (whose demise causes much rejoicing). However, as with Overcoming the Monster, Tragedy can be used in a positive light by showing the brand as the exciting alternative and a way to “Escape Your Everyday.”
Rags to Riches: It’s a simple construct, encapsulated perfectly by the three-word title (Rags to Riches). This is a pattern that can be easily adapted for marketing purposes: Brand has a problem, marketer has a solution, brand wins! (Remember “KFC FCK”?) This simple arc (tough beginning, middle bit, happy ending) is as old as storytelling itself.
Rebirth: These stories often start out with something tragic, then follow a rocky path to discover and rebirth (Disney’s The Lion King is a classic example). This story type is a little trickier for marketing purposes, but can be an ideal choice if a brand is looking to overcome a specific marketing challenge or PR problem (2019’s Toyota brakes recall perhaps?).
Beginning, middle, end
As mentioned in “Rags to Riches”, this simple story arc goes waaayyy back. You see it in TV spots all the time, including the VW Cabrio ad referenced above. But it can also be employed in something as short as a tweet (“Stuck in a rut? Southwest has flights leaving right now. Click to stick your toes in the sand!”), and as long as a PowerPoint presentation.
Drop a dead body
You need to hook your audience right away. Moby Dick starts with perhaps the best-known opening line of all time: “Call me Ishmael.” The reader is instantly drawn-in, and wants to learn more. In marketing, a strong opening is often referred to as “dropping a dead body”. Studies show you have about seven seconds to make a first impression, so get right to it.
Say you’re working on a presentation for a financial services client. Trouble is, financial services is in LAST PLACE when it comes to consumer trust across all industries. You’re pitching them on how your social media strategy can help overcome this obstacle, and you need to grab them right away.
An effective storytelling approach here would be to drop a “dead body” in the opening slide: NOBODY TRUSTS YOU.
Call attention to the elephant in the room, ruffle some feathers, step on some tails. You are sure to get your audience to lean forward; now construct the rest of your ad (or deck, or speech) around the systematic ways your marketing campaign will rebuild consumer trust.
Pick up the pace
You’ve hooked the reader with your “Call me Ishmael” -- now what? Plunge them into the action, the challenge, the heart of the matter. Want to get them to read the next paragraph or slide?
Ask them a question. Then give them the answer, using language that moves the story along. Stats are great as support points, but use them wisely. Avoid using cliches and generalizations; they just give your audience more reasons to tune out.
“What are Gen X customers looking for in a financial services company?”
“They’re looking to build a dream. They’re looking to sail off into the sunset without a financial care in the world.”
“Gen X customers are facing different kinds of challenges. Only 1 in 10 expects to be able to afford their own home. Now more than ever, we need to find custom solutions to their financial challenges.”
“Help your customers unlock their earning power. They need to know that the American Dream of home ownership is within their reach!”
End on a high note
Who doesn’t love a happy ending? The end of your ad (or your speech, or your post) is where you show your audience what’s POSSIBLE. You lured them in, you showed them the problem, you showed them the solution. Now make sure they see how their lives will be BETTER.
Simple economic benefit is not enough. Money is a means to end; show them that sandy beach, that house in the south of France. Show them how THEY can do it, with help from your brand or product.
Just do it
Here is one last example, that ties together a bunch of the elements we discussed above. This one goes all the way back to 1988, and Nike’s very first TV spot. It tells the story (Quest) of Walt Stack, an 80-year-old man who runs 17 miles every morning (Voyage), and keeps his teeth from chattering by leaving them in his locker (Comedy). Watch how the simple, profound story unfolds. Then absorb how it ends, as the company’s now iconic tagline (“Just do it.”) is revealed.
It’s a gorgeous piece of storytelling because it’s inspirational without being hand-holding. 80-year-old Walt can do it, with a smile on his face; surely you can too. “Just do it” sets the stage for the audience to pick it up from there and write their OWN story. Nike leaves them with the feeling that they can achieve anything.
Aim higher! Get in a room with your marketing team (even if that’s just you and your cat) and put the 7 Types of Stories up on the whiteboard. See what sticks. You could try Comedy, for an instant connection. Or dig deeper and give Overcoming the Monster a shot.
As marketers, we have to work harder than ever (and compete with more and more) to capture the attention of an audience. Storytelling creates an enhanced connection between brands and consumers. So remember to keep that basic story construct in mind. Hook your audience right away, give them enough action to keep them on the line, then show them how their lives will be better.
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Ben Pierce is an Oakland-based writer who may or may not be losing his hearing from years and years of standing too close to crash cymbals.