How Storytelling in Marketing Has Evolved

Dreams of travel! Child flying on a suitcase against the backdro

Storytelling was once an activity humans did to pass the time, reinforce values, and bond with one another.

When Gutenberg introduced the moveable type press to Europe in 1450, we told each other stories for another reason: to influence decisions. Opinionated pamphlets became newspapers and magazines, which soon included ads. Radio and television emerged, and they too began to use ads and editorials to influence the population.

But even as marketers adopted new storytelling platforms, the stories stayed largely the same. Customers were broken into large groups — men, women, children, etc. — and marketers cast pretty wide nets with their storytelling. Their stories spoke almost exclusively to their ideas of the majority, ignoring differences of almost every kind.

Then individualism came on the scene.

Individualism in the Mid-20th Century

In the mid-20th century, everything became about the individual making a better life for themselves and their family. Older children, now with disposable incomes and more access to their own cars, became “teenagers,” complete with their own identity markers. Women continued to stream into the workplace, and “working women” had identity markers distinct from more traditional “homemakers.”

So marketers changed tack. They began to speak more to individualistic identities, values, and desires, but still within the limited media outlets available.

Globalization and the Growth of Media

In the 1970s and 1980s, media opened up more. There were more TV and radio channels, both speaking to smaller and smaller niches — and showing those niches more and more of the world. As a result, people’s views became both more individualistic and more global. They were more aware of global events than ever before, but they also valued their own self-identities more.

Because of this, it became crucial to speak to increasingly diverse identities over more and more channels, and marketing as an industry grew accordingly. The best of the storytelling reflected this, shifting from an emphasis on conforming to the expectations of a niche identity into an emphasis on using products to express individuality.

The Internet and Social Media

As with just about every other aspect of our lives, the Internet ramped marketing communications up to 11. When social media exploded onto the scene, brands were no longer in complete control over the stories that were told about them. Many companies struggled to figure out how to respond.

Eventually it became clear: marketing and customer service would have to combine under a single communications strategy on social media. And that strategy had to shift from individualism to the actual individual, telling him or her their story precisely when and where each individual demanded it.

Storytelling in Marketing Today

Today, there are infinite channels to put a brand’s story on. There are stories a brand creates, and there are the stories told about the brand. Customers can ask questions and can learn all they want to know without talking directly to a brand at all. In fact, there are as many ways to ignore marketing messages as there are to consume them.

So what is a brand to do to capture attention? Well, they have to go back to the basics. And little is more instinctively compelling to humans than the primitive art of storytelling.

How to Tell Compelling Brand Stories in 5 Easy Steps

  1. Study what makes stories compelling. Look at Joseph Campbell’s monomyth for a story arc that has enchanted us for as long as we’ve been recording stories.

  2. Think about what kind of stories your customers want from you. If you were running a dental practice, chances are customers wouldn’t like to hear the (anonymous) disaster stories you helped solve. But if you were a plumber, that approach might work.

  3. Integrate your stories into ads, blog posts, and even longer social media posts.

  4. Take in feedback. Monitor your social and site stats, and listen to customers who respond, positively or negatively, to your stories.

  5. Modify and repeat. Take the data into consideration, change your material, and keep refining your stories.

Ultimately, you want your stories to do several things. They need to drive business and customer engagement, but they need to do more. They need to reinforce your customers’ values and help them bond with one another. They need to reflect your brand’s personality and customers’ own actual experiences with your brand. And most importantly, they need to keep your customers engaged and entertained.

It’s a tall order. But when you deliver on it, that’s when the magic happens… for you, for your clients, and for their customers, too.

Ruth Homer is an up and coming writer. She enjoys reading great novels and poetry, when she is not working on her company blog.

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