Earlier this month, Spotify and WARC published a report on B2B marketing within the technology and telecoms sectors. Based on the opinions of more than 330 marketers across 10 markets, the report paints a vivid picture of the challenges marketing professionals face in engaging with diverse and attention-poor audiences in a fluid, fragmented media landscape.
The final chapter of the report is devoted to a subject that 82% of the marketers surveyed agree will be an important route to building their brands: storytelling.
I’m a big fan of Spotify and WARC. Their report is thoroughly researched, clearly reported and nicely designed. But reading quotes from B2B marketers about “driving engagement though storytelling solutions” as a route to ROI and top line growth made me want to set my laptop on fire.
Within a fortnight of the report’s publication, the FT’s How To Spend It section announced that “All decorating is about storytelling”, Forbes posted at least two articles on the power of storytelling to build better business relationships (“Storytelling Can Amplify Your Virtual Networking Events” and “How To Win More Business With The Art Of Storytelling”), and Raconteur published a (paid) feature on how “Storytelling helps leaders navigate choppy waters of constant change”.
I thought we’d reached peak storytelling back in April 2014, when Stefan Sagmeister was filmed launching a potty-mouthed riposte to an article in which a rollercoaster designer referred to himself as a storyteller:
“NO Fuckhead, you are NOT a storyteller, you are a ROLLERCOASTER DESIGNER and that’s FANTASTIC!”
I had assumed at the time that Sagmeister’s fame, combined with the venom and veracity of his message, would beckon an end to the trend for marketers and rollercoaster designers to define themselves as storytellers. But nearly seven years later, the storytelling bandwagon shows no signs of slowing, let alone stopping.
Why should we care?
There’s such a fine line between branding and bullshit that if we don’t call out this sort of nonsense ourselves, then the line will become so thin and inconsequential that it will disappear entirely. Storytelling is an art and few people involved in branding have mastered it. Nor do we need to. As the WARC / Spotify report points out, modern audiences are typically short on time and attention. The available space for telling stories is contracting. For evidence of this, look no further than the average length of an Instagram “story”: 15 seconds. When people do have time to devote to long-form stories, the likes of the BBC, Netflix and Audible provide infinitely more interesting and authentic examples of storytelling than any branded content provider can muster.
Here’s the thing: I have no issue with storytelling as a way to capture people’s attention and stimulate their imagination. I love a great story! But when marketers and brand consultants talk about storytelling, we often mean it in the most banal and basic way possible: sponsoring a podcast isn’t telling a story; nor is a tweet, an Instagram post, a 15-second video, a digital banner ad or building a network on Guild. But, to paraphrase Stefan Sagmeister, you are NOT a storyteller, you are a MARKETER and that’s FANTASTIC!
Because it’s better to make a statement than tell a story.
When Brewdog invested £30m in becoming carbon negative, they didn’t share their commitment to sustainability through storytelling; they launched a series of ads spelling out ‘F**k You’ to carbon emissions. And when those ads were banned by the Advertising Standards Authority, BrewDog co-founder, James Watt responded with the following statement:
“The ASA can go fuck themselves. We are in the midst of an existential climate crisis. Thank you to the Metro, The Week, The Economist and billboard sites for understanding the importance of our carbon negative campaign.”
The Brewdog brand is built with a clear point in mind (to make people passionate about great craft beer) and a firm set of principles, including a commitment to be “radically honest”. Does Brewdog tell stories? Of course. But only selectively and only to support a point. Not on a billboard. And not when there’s a shorter way to get their message across.
This is what really great brands do: they have a point to make and then find the most effective ways to make that point. Brewdog is guided by a mission. Other brands are motivated by a purpose. Personally, I don’t really care what you call it, as long as you are able to answer the following question:
“What’s the point of your brand?”
Only once you have a sharp, bullshit-proof answer to this question should you even begin to contemplate what storytelling might do for your brand. Storytelling is one tool in a marketer’s arsenal, but it isn’t a silver bullet for building engaged audiences. IBM built a brand by encouraging people to “Think” and then employed talented designers and filmmakers to bring this ethos to life. Decades later, Apple encouraged people to “Think Different”. Both brands tell stories, but those stories are only powerful because they have a clear point to make.