The Art of Storytelling

Mr. Clean

The abstract for ‘When Consumers and Brands Talk: Storytelling Theory and Research in Psychology and Marketing’ caught my eye:

Storytelling is pervasive through life. Much information is stored, indexed, and retrieved in the form of stories. Although lectures tend to put people to sleep, stories move them to action. People relate to each other in terms of stories — products and brands often play both central and peripheral roles in their stories.

My background in cognitive science supports the idea people remember in terms of stories, while our transactive memory lives in Google.

Being a marketer, I was intrigued to learn more about the role brands play in stories. From what I can gather from the exhaustive exhausting article, people tell stories primarily for three reasons:

  1. The act of telling a story is pleasurable to the storyteller. The storyteller enjoys the nostalgia of reliving earlier experiences over again, regardless of whether the original event was pleasurable or irritating.
  2. The plotline in a story supports the teller’s need to be a Jungian archetype. Stories allow us to be a hero, outlaw, ruler, jester, magician, or some other primal form – if even for a moment.
  3. Telling a story, especially repeatedly, deepens the significance of the event. Story repetition is often an attempt to get clarity or justification for the actions around the original event.

While this suggests why we tell stories, it doesn’t explain which stories we are more likely to listen to. Books and movies have a consistent structure for what makes a good and presumably, memorable story.  The story starts when everyday life is put out of balance. While trying to restore balance, the protagonist is met with resistance by an antagonist, natural occurrences, and/or personal limitations. We get emotionally involved in stories that describe what it’s like to overcome these opposing forces. The more involved we are in a story, the more likely we will retell it.

The implications for consumer marketing are straightforward. We want consumers to view themselves as protagonists in a story with the brand as a supporting actor. Mr. Clean is not just a household cleanser; it’s a sword in the epic never-ending battle against dirt. You are not just doing a chore; you are the hero worthy of conquering a dirty home.

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10 Responses to The Art of Storytelling

  1. Carina January 9, 2012 at 7:40 am #

    The power that stories can have in branding is really quite fascinating.
    It has also been found that the audience is more likely to become engaged/entranced with stories where they can recognise themselves in one of the characters. So information about the target market can be especially useful when creating a character for advertisements – the more the character is aligned with traits from the target market, the more the target market will see themselves in the story and find that the brand/product attracts them.

  2. Giles Farrow January 9, 2012 at 8:05 am #

    Stories are effective because they’re entertaining.

    They have been used to convey knowledge, wisdom, and morals through the ages – for millennia before printing.

    The Ancient Greeks formulated story structure and the same structure is used by Hollywood. Marketing delivered is not only more engaging that direct information dumps, it’s more memorable, and repeatable i.e. viral.

    You may be interested in this video from Content Marketing World 2011

  3. Christopher Kim January 9, 2012 at 12:46 pm #

    One of the best (if not *the* best) example of brand storytelling I’ve seen is this 90-second Google Chrome ad called “Dear Sophie”:

    It makes an emotional connection with the viewer and tells a heartwarming, clever story using simple visuals and background music. This video is the personal bar I’ve set for myself as a marketer in connecting with an audience and elevating the conversation above product features.

  4. Michael Brenner January 9, 2012 at 1:20 pm #


    I think you are quite right about the role and elements of a good story. Probably a little more science than art?

    Nancy Duarte will tell you that the real “art” of storytelling is fine-tuning the balance between “what is” (reality) and “what could be” (the dream). So in your example, a dirty house is the reality and a clean house is the dream. But just saying that isn’t very compelling. There needs to be a setup, a back story, a delayed gratification and more, but through it all is this back and forth rhythm of what is and what could be.

    To me, the science can be taught but the art…well that is much more difficult and takes a lot of effort, practice and the ability to read the audience.

  5. Tim Keelan January 10, 2012 at 8:31 am #


    Today more than, I believe the more any story gets personal – the more powerful they are. effect. While I am not an advertising person – at a field level – I believe all stories are personal. While the HP or Apple garage story works for the brand – they become far less relevant at field level. Below is a link to a blog post and two videos of SAP executives who share their stories of using business intelligence. While they are both talking about SAP product and brand, they are engaging to the extent that they are personal.

  6. Larry Marion January 13, 2012 at 5:10 pm #

    Generations of editors at leading business publications taught me that there are four types of story telling that grab the attention of a target audience. I call them the Four Cs:
    1) Change–it used to be one way but it will be different in the future. This is the same idea as your Mr. Clean approach. For many years this type of lead was the only one that was guaranteed to get published at Businessweek when i worked there.
    2) Controversy–Take an unexpected position and then defend it. Many years ago my colleagues at Businessweek did a cover story called “Equities are Dead.” It caused a huge uproar, attracted a lot of ridicule and was wrong. But it was a great project from a strategic point of view.
    3) Contrary–Take a piece of conventional wisdom and prove it to be completely wrong. Remember when Nicholas Carr published his piece that information technology doesn’t matter? Great example of both #2 and #3.
    4) Competition–Winners and losers define not just sports but business life as well (I’m ignoring politics, another part of society that reeks of hype of winners and losers during election seasons). Typically a powerful business story will combine #1 and #4.

    The smartest publishers and editors know that they have to present a mix of story telling types in each issue to sustain interest.


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