Storytelling or Telling Stories? Why Authenticity Rules

Storytelling may be the most overused buzzword in marketing today, applied to everything from brand films and SlideShare decks, to Facebook posts and Vines. Companies are “storytellers” and consumers are being spun a yarn, whether they realize it or not.

The application of the term storytelling to content marketing can incite mixed emotions. Some feel it diminishes the work of authors and historians. However, storytelling as it relates to business is a different beast. 

This term has been a part of marketing and sales since peddlers stood on street corners touting the miraculous benefits of their restorative tonics. It’s the best word we have to describe the messages that marketers and copywriters create on behalf of brands. Simply put, storytelling is how brands intrigue and connect with consumers, and retain buyers over time.

Today, the extent to which storytelling is prioritized within companies varies from one business to the next. Many now employ chief storytelling officers, which can be former journalists and even novelists who are tasked with crafting corporate narratives and messages that reflect the core tenets of the brand. Some outsource their content marketing to development agencies, seeking out the experts who can give their content legitimacy.

Brands like LEGO choose to recount their heritage. Others like Intel share stories about inspiring people who reflect their values or have used their products to do great things.

At the heart of every brand story should be authenticity. Consumers trust social media influencers’ opinions about brands and products because they come off as word-of-mouth, rather than a hard sell.

While every one of these approaches can work, it behooves brands to ask: are you practicing the art of storytelling, or simply telling stories? The difference between the two is worth examining. Stories engage and words have power – but only if they ring true.

Part of the appeal of influencer marketing is its ability to establish authentic connections with potential customers. And influencer marketing continues to grow – studies show that 59 percent of marketers plan to increase their spending on influencer campaigns in the coming months. 

Last December,  The New York Times reported that relaying information about where materials and ingredients are sourced, the geographic origins of a company, and the “myths and rituals” of historical shops can improve the perception of a brand or product so much, that sales and loyalty go up.

“It’s storytelling,” the co-founder of online retailer Zady said. “It’s people getting to feel that connection and wanting to be part of it.”

If the story told feels synthetic, consumers will scatter – and they’re getting better and better at spotting a fake.

Here are three ways that marketers can make sure their stories read as honest to better deliver the desired results.

1. Embrace a Cause and Mean It.

Through its newly-launched sustainable food business Patagonia Provisions, outdoor apparel company Patagonia is telling stories about “cooking, eating, and adventure,” including the importance of protecting buffalo and prairie grasslands.

In addition to a print catalog designed to enlighten and motivate change through photographs and short articles about grassland and conservation, the brand is creating videos and posting its stories online. A partnership with rancher, wildlife biologist and Wild Idea author, Dan O’Brien, gives the content and message added validity.

2. Employ Humor

Creating a brand story that provokes laughter and delights audiences takes effort and a bit of luck, but the payoff is huge when marketers hit their mark. Consider Organic Valley’s ongoing #SavetheBros campaign.

Launched in February with a YouTube video and interactive microsite, it’s generating millions of video views.

The company’s PSA obviously isn’t real, but there’s truth to the message. The originality of the content makes the brand come off as refreshingly frank. By entertaining viewers, Organic Valley delivers a message that’s impossible to forget. By association, so too is the product that the story of “endangered bros” it ultimately promotes.

3. Express the Cultural Significance of Your Brand

Released last year in its first brand campaign, Starbucks endeavored to remind consumers of its place within the lives of customers around the world. An interactive YouTube film tells multiple mini stories about real-life meet-ups that occur at the coffee chain’s global locations.

According to Starbucks, the content explores “the good things that can only happen when we get together face to face.” It’s a moving message that speaks to busy parents, lifelong friends, lovers, digital natives, and niche groups alike. 

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Got a story to tell? Make it real. It’s the only way to ensure that consumers really listen.

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