Storytelling in campaigns

by Claire Wilson

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This article was first published as a guest post on the Knowledge Hub.
As an old marketing hand, I remember when ‘storytelling’ was the buzzword du jour and the ‘next big thing’. With storytelling techniques now so prominent across marketing and advertising, it’s clear that in the last five years it has well and truly taken centre stage. So, with an inbox chock-full of ‘Best of’ and ‘Worst of 2017’ retrospectives, I thought I’d take a look at storytelling campaigns from the year past and discuss why storytelling is so effective as a marketing tool, illustrated, of course, by both good and bad examples.
The key strength of storytelling is its ability to connect with an audience at a deeper level in a way that doesn’t feel like they’re being marketed to. Much more than a straight up product flog, a storytelling approach gives the space to create a nuanced picture of a brand’s values and purpose and position its products in this context. This is particularly important in today’s market as more and more people cite shared values as the main reason they have a relationship with a brand.[i] The campaigns I looked at all seek to connect in different ways with their audiences, but there are some very useful lessons to be learned in understanding why some work brilliantly and some flop miserably.

The worthy cause

Politically, 2017 was characterised by deep and obvious tensions within societies across the globe. Several brands responded by hitching their wagons to social causes…with varying results.
Jigsaw succeeded with its beautiful ‘Love Immigration’ campaign, which I love so much I’ve written about it before. In an environment of rising domestic tension in the UK, the powerful ads explain that Jigsaw could not do what it does without materials, designers and fabrics from all over the world. The story is clearly tied to its products, making the ads relevant, tangible and perfectly aligned to Jigsaw’s core values.
In another example of using a brand as a platform for doing good, adventure brand Patagonia created its first tv advert last year, and it wasn’t peddling its wares. It was a manifesto in defence of public lands in the US. The ad is narrated by Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, and blends breath-taking images of natural beauty with images of him fishing and speaking to camera about the importance of protecting these precious wild spaces. His deeply-rooted conviction about the value of these public lands and stories on the impact they’ve had on his own life, make the already powerful message even more so. With my cynical marketing hat on, this ad works well for the brand because his values align perfectly to the values of Patagonia’s target market and resonate with an authenticity that would also play very well to that market.
In contrast, a high-profile example of a campaign which missed the mark on this social cause front, and ultimately flopped, was Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad. Unfortunately for Pepsi, this was such a classic case of ‘what not to do’ that the ad has appeared on most of the ‘Worst of 2017’ lists I’ve seen so far. The ad’s tone-deaf mirroring of the Black Lives Matter movement led to it being summarily condemned on social media for trivialising and cynically co-opting the global protest movement.
But why does Jigsaw’s social message work, while Pepsi’s fails so miserably? For me it comes down to one word: relevance. The Jigsaw campaign ties its messages beautifully to its brand values and products, while it remains unclear what message you can take from a supermodel vacuously handing a can of Pepsi to a policeman. Likewise, the strength of the Patagonia example is its poignant authenticity. A feature sadly lacking from Pepsi’s effort.

The epic journey

Nike’s Breaking 2 campaign is another stunning example of classic storytelling. It tasked three of the world’s most elite distance runners with the challenge of completing a marathon under two-hours and then told the story of their journey in a number of different ways across platforms. It has all the key elements of a great epic: three protagonists vying against each other, one elusive goal, a journey through adversity climaxing with a heroic finale, although ultimately the two-hour barrier remained just beyond reach. The moral to the story? Nike positioned itself as so much more than a shoe seller by inspiring its audience with an incredible story of human potential.

The human touch

Another realm where storytelling excels is humanising a brand and showing products in a context which resonate with an audience. Tesco has done a lovely job of this with its Food Love Stories campaign. The food-porn style segments aim to highlight the quality of Tesco’s grocery offer by sharing customers’ favourite recipes along with the situations they cook them in, e.g. Jo’s ‘Showstopper’ fish pie or Frankie’s ‘Late night’ breakfast. The campaign serves multiple purposes, sharing genuinely useful content in the form of recipe ideas but also finding a way to connect with a broad audience by profiling a diverse range of people. As I write this paragraph, I’ve just read the news that Tesco enjoyed a very strong Christmas trading period due to a particularly impressive performance from its fresh food business.[ii] I’d be very happy with that result if it were my campaign!
The Tesco campaign works because the people and the situations it references are believable and relatable. This is not the case in Jaguar’s Jose Mourinho advertisement, which devotes an unseemly amount of time to exploring ‘what makes him tick’ while spewing forth a series of arrogant sports clichés. The ad finishes on a low-point, with Mourinho declaring himself ‘special’, an unedifying (if not surprising) ending to seal the storytelling fail.

The tear jerkers

Finally, moving to the stories that unashamedly pull on our heartstrings, coming in at first place for 2017 is BBC One’s gorgeous stop-motion Christmas ad ‘The Supporting Act’. I’d strongly recommend having a look if you’ve had your head under a rock for all of December and haven’t seen it. It tells the story of a young girl dancing non-stop to practice for her school talent show while her distracted dad handles work phone calls, household chores and the daily grind, to her frustration. I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say that her dad comes through when it matters most, and they share a touching moment of togetherness. Once again, this story succeeds through its authenticity and relatability, showing moments and situations that we’ve all faced as a family. It uses classic storytelling techniques to build the tension until we’re all poised on the edge of our seat as the Dad helps the young girl to ultimately triumph. It certainly made me feel more Christmas-y. *happy sigh*
But emotional issues should be approached carefully, as a situation which resonates with one person could be deeply offensive to another. McDonalds discovered this the hard way with an ad which was accused of exploiting child bereavement to market its Filet-o-Fish burger. Awks.

The moral to the story – keep it real

It’s clear from these examples, that successful storytelling depends on authenticity, relevance and relatability. These are the key ingredients that create engaging, inspiring and impactful stories, and, hopefully, impactful marketing campaigns. Without these, even the most beautifully-shot, celebrity-studded promo can fall flat.

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