Story is how human beings live and explain their own lives – both externally and internally.
(To beautiful stranger: “Hi, er, I’m Mark and I, er, collect teapots shaped as elephants.”
To self: “Aaaaaaaaaargh!!!!!!!”)
From love at first sight to wanting a brand new car, the human mind instantly incorporates the beloved person or desired object into one’s own story.
Love for another is as old as life itself, suddenly and magically rendering your previously lonely life story into an endless vista of caring and sharing.
Desire for an object is an equally atavistic emotion, fleshing out our story with the increased status that the object of desire (a car, perhaps) will confer.
Choosing a tube of toothpaste? Yup, it’s a story detail: partly it’s to do with content of the toothpaste and how the manufacturer dovetails the story of that content and its properties with the story of our desired oral health; partly to do with the celebrity of the toothpaste brand – celebrity meaning that many others have incorporated this toothpaste into their story, which makes it a safe purchase.
Every single thing we buy goes through an instant ‘casting session’ in our minds in order to ascertain if and how it fits into the story that we are telling the world about ourselves.
Our unfolding digital world puts profound knowledge and understanding of everything at our fingertips at the speed of thought so that we can make up our mind.
Thus have the tangible, physical, actual constituents of products become increasingly and immediately knowable and devoid of mystery – in a good way: we don’t want any mystery whatsoever concerning whatever it is we are putting into our bodies. We weave these details in to our story or reject them and all in real time.
Digitization is condensing knowledge and rapidly shrinking both the knowledge gap and innovation catch-up time. This means that even if you invent, say, a car entirely powered by water, people won’t necessarily flock to buy it.
Unless you are Mercedes or BMW or Ford or some other brand with a famous longstanding story, the vast majority of people will wait for such a brand to produce their version of the water-powered car before they part with the second largest sum of money they’ll ever expend after buying a home.
Unless of course, the newcomer’s story is transcendently and irresistibly and uniquely resonant and powerful. (Perhaps your story is one of longstanding pre-eminence in the world of hydraulics?)
The point is that new technology alone no longer cuts it because everyone in our digitized universe is acutely aware that your technology can be caught up with, copied and reproduced. Easily.
Only your story is unique.
Yes, only your story is unique!
And yet, you know what? While more and more brands are cancelling each out by adding more and more technology-facing, low-hanging-fruit-gathering positions, I don’t know of one which, alongside these various ‘delivery system’ jobs, has a storyteller-in-chief ensuring that the brand lives and breathes as seamlessly as it possibly can in all dimensions.
This may not have mattered in more traditional, pre-digital times, but now people carry out instant and thorough ‘audits’ of everything they’re thinking of buying because they can. In mere moments, with the massively powerful supercomputer in their hand or pocket or handbag or at their bedside – 24/7/365.
So how can it be that I’ve yet to come across a single company that employs a world-class storyteller?
Perhaps you don’t yet get that when somebody looks up your product on Google what they’re doing is reading your story? You need to hurry up.
Story is the flesh that incorporates and enhances the bone and sinew of your brand. Imagine seeing somebody walking about made only of bone and sinew. You’d run a mile. Now ask yourself what that Googler actually saw.
Because you take less care over your story than other areas of your brand – believing it to be a job for your PR department, perhaps – your brand’s exposed bone and sinew is still clearly visible.
Any story flaws be it in what your brand/product is or what it’s made of or what it looks like or what it says on the packaging or how it is displayed in retail or where or by whom or what the advertising says about it or what people say about it on social media or what they say about it in private to each other or what influencers/celebrities say about it is potentially damaging if not seamlessly orchestrated in a world of instant yet thorough iPhone audits.
Any lack or flaw or shortcoming of story creates disbelief or skepticism or downright rejection. Any one of those three is enough to prevent a sale or inspire negativity. Any one can sink you like a hole in a boat.
In a previous piece I discussed the story constructed by Henry Gondorff to fool Studs Lonegan in The Sting: one tiny tear in the fabric of his story and Henry is dead.
It’s slightly different for brands: fooling people is no strategy for a digital world. But never has the need for the brand story to be seamlessly and multi-dimensionally woven from the brand’s truths been so essential.
Story is not to be confused with so-called ‘brand synergy’ as trotted out by ad agencies these past decades in an effort to make every single thing a client does look exactly the same (and thus spend all its money with the ad agency).
Your brand’s story can only be executed and faithfully maintained by somebody on the client side, somebody who is living the brand.
Technology is a self-fulfilling process: the better it gets, the less there is to conquer, the shorter and more frequent the leaps of innovation.
At the same time, humans remain essentially unchanging by nature.
Eventually all of us – and that includes marketers – must become adept at understanding and dealing with the fundamental human truths that never change. They must, to paraphrase the inimitable Bill Bernbach, continue to work to understand “unchanging man” and her or his need to love, to live, to be happy, to succeed, to protect.
Story has its place among those fundamental truths as the very first thing examined when two humans lay eyes on each other:
“What’s his/her story?”
We’re already witnessing marketers making a move away from the agencies of record who have en masse walked away from storytelling in a grab for the digital era’s lowest hanging fruit.
These marketers are realizing that understanding the latest ‘digital delivery systems’ is only as effective as what you are actually delivering.
No marketers in the world can rival American marketers for having their brand and products’ bone and sinew in place.
But most are nowhere near where they should be in presenting those brands as living breathing things in sync with humanity.
Only great storytellers can do this.
Only they can tell stories that create what we call suspension of disbelief – essential if people are to believe that your little bar of soap/cereal/cough medicine matters in the grand scheme of things.
Great storytellers will become increasingly key contributors to marketing success as the world continues to move on from mere buying and value for money to buying in and values for money.
Mark Wnek is a Cannes Grand Prix-winning copywriter and the Founder / Chief Mentor at The New Breed Talent Army, the first ever agency based on millennial diversity and social disadvantage. Marks career includes leadership roles with a wide range of creative agencies, and a Master’s Degree from Cambridge University. Follow him on Twitter.