How Brands Wield the Power of Storytelling Marketing

Why storytelling marketing works — plus eight examples showing how it’s done.

Written by Hal Koss
Published on Oct. 06, 2021
How Brands Wield the Power of Storytelling Marketing

Consider Trix. Is it a great cereal? That’s up for debate. But this much is clear: It’s fun and kids want it. Probably in no small part because of its storytelling marketing.

At some point after Trix’s inception in 1954, General Mills developed lore around the white rabbit that appeared on its box. This rabbit would make ongoing, increasingly desperate bids to obtain Trix cereal. But it always failed, constantly outsmarted by a group of children who’d remind it, “Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids.”

Some version of this duel played out on TV commercials and on illustrations printed on the back of the box. It was always around, inviting children into a larger, always unfolding story where they get to play the role of Trix gatekeeper. The cereal is meant for them, not the rabbit.

“The human brain processes things in stories,” Greg Manago, North America president of Content+ at global media agency Mindshare, told Built In. “To tell someone to remember something, or to get them to understand something, you need to tell them a story.”

8 Examples of Storytelling Marketing

  • Carlos’s Story (Lime)
  • Go Beyond (Beyond Meat)
  • Beyond the Block (Realtor.com)
  • Dear Santa (United States Postal Service)
  • Black Men Care (Dove Men)
  • #GarageLife With Luke Kuechly (Castrol)
  • Breaking the Cast (Little Caesars)
  • The Man Your Man Could Smell Like (Old Spice)

Research bears this out. Tension-filled narratives and character-driven stories improve recall and move people into action.

That may explain why General Mills didn’t just say, “This is Trix, here’s what it tastes like, please buy some. Stories have deeper hooks.

Storytelling marketing can take many forms, depending on the brand’s overall goals — whether it’s to raise brand or product awareness, or align themselves with a worthy cause and boost brand equity in the process. It ranges from television commercials to brand-sponsored content to integrated marketing campaigns with a strong narrative.

The point is: Brands rely on the power of stories to effectively communicate their message.

 

Stories Help Marketing Break Through

Why don’t businesses just make great products and use their marketing dollars to simply and clearly articulate their features and functionalities? Why bother telling stories in the first place?

Because no one’s going to pay attention otherwise, says Eric Kallman.

“That’s the whole business I’m in,” Kallman told Built In. “Making people pay attention.”

Kallman knows all about that. Now the co-founder and chief creative officer of the ad agency Erich & Kallman, he’s probably best known for his writing work on iconic campaigns for Old Spice, Skittles and Little Caesars. If you recall those brands making particularly loud, funny commercials, there’s a good chance Kallman was behind it.

“Coming up in my career, I was really good at the stuff you can’t help but notice,” he said. “It just screams whatever we’re screaming.”

There’s so much noise brands have to cut through. What Kallman learned is that the best way to do it is to tell stories that are bold, surprising, funny — stories people will actually like.

“And if it’s really good, [they’ll] remember it, tell their friends about it and share a link to it when they’re on Facebook or Instagram,” Kallman added.

Of course, storytelling in marketing isn’t new. But it may have newfound importance, given the saturation of content and the proliferation of clamoring voices on feeds and streams.

“You need different ways to communicate to your consumer, you need different ways to break through,” Manago said.

People scroll through their phones so much. How do you get them to stop? “You gotta show them something that’s interesting, that catches their attention,” he said. “And to keep them you have to tell them a story that does the same thing.”

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Centering the Customer, Not the Brand

Stories arent as likable when theyre all about the brands themselves. And that can be a tough pill for marketers to swallow. After all, their job is to get people to develop love for their brand. Showing restraint in the face of that is difficult.

Kallman believes it’s worth it.

“We’re in a world where people pay for subscriptions to not have to watch advertisements,” he said. So if a brand interrupts someone’s day with a story that is all about how great the brand is, people are going to change the channel.

But if the story centers on the “guy on the couch” and how he can make his life better, Kallman said, then suddenly it’s a story worth caring about. If it’s good enough, consumers will remember it.

Many of the brands Manago has worked with don’t merely use storytelling as a device to explicitly sell products (though that certainly happens too). A lot of times, the brand uses stories to say something that’s important to them — or, more accurately, important to their customers.

Brands are finding it worthwhile to tell stories that embody the ideals and values they align with, even if it’s only tangentially related to their product or service.

Andrew Strickman, a brand and marketing consultant whose career includes a stretch at Realtor.com as its senior vice president, head of brand and chief creative officer, told Built In that “the core focus of brand storytelling should not be about the brand itself.”

“If the content isn’t created to provide value to someone — whether that’s entertainment, whether that’s laughter, whether that’s education, whether that’s information — there’s no point in making it,” he added.

“If the content isn’t created to provide value to someone — whether that’s entertainment, whether that’s laughter, whether that’s education, whether that’s information — there’s no point in making it.”

Strickman laments that some brands “get a little too precious about wanting everything to be about them, as opposed to wanting to put something out in the world that people are actually going to engage with.”

At Realtor.com, Strickman helped make long-form stories, many of which weren’t even about the home-buying process (the core service the company offered). Rather, Strickman told stories about the meaning of home — a topic that took on even more weight as the pandemic sent people into lockdown. These were stories that were important to all kinds of people. They weren’t a sales pitch. But Strickman found them to be worthwhile stories for the brand to help tell.

“Storytelling, whether it’s brand funded or it comes from the people who interact with that brand, can be extremely valuable and important to how that brand is perceived in the market and how it grows,” he said.

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8 Examples of Storytelling Marketing

We asked a handful of experts to provide a few examples of storytelling marketing in action. Some of the work they spotlighted is stuff they helped make, while others are simply recent examples of narrative-driven marketing they admire.

In either case, the eight pieces of storytelling below offer a look at the different ways brands can use the power of narrative to get their messages across.

 

Carlos’ Story (Lime)

This short documentary captures the everyday life of a guy named Carlos. In a narrator-like voiceover, Carlos tells the audience he lives in a rough neighborhood on the south side of Los Angeles and for a long time only took the bus to get around, which made him feel disconnected from the city. But then he started riding a scooter around town, which helped him discover new places and meet different kinds of people.

Part of why this is an effective piece of storytelling marketing is that, while Lime is part of the story (it’s the brand of scooter Carlos rides), the story is still very much centered around Carlos and his journey, and the positive impact that micro-mobility can help bring about.

“It was a very non-exploitative way of telling the story,” Strickman said. “But it was also much bigger than the brand.”

 

Go Beyond (Beyond Meat)

NBA player Kyrie Irving stars in this 60-second spot where he recounts his journey from humble beginnings to basketball’s biggest stage. Along with his determination and work ethic, Irving, who’s a vegan, credits his diet with helping him persevere and “go beyond.”

What helps make this a savvy story, in Strickman’s mind, is that it’s not an attempt to convince the viewer that Beyond Meat’s plant-based protein looks and tastes like real meat. It’s not even a story about alternative meat. It’s a story about how “strength and health are so important to elite athletes,” Strickman said. “It’s really about the mental, philosophical and biological conversation about performance — what drives performance and why.” Beyond Meat’s logo is featured throughout though, which helps audiences make the connection.

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Beyond the Block (Realtor.com)

Realtor.com, an online platform that lists for-sale properties, produced an episodic, full-length TV series called Beyond the Block. But the show isn’t just one really long commercial for Realtor.com, it’s meant to create real value for first-time home buyers. It does so by serving as a series of educational, entertaining stories about the businesses and cultures that make up a neighborhood.

Strickman, who worked on the project, said the series drew a large viewership and that Realtor.com’s before-and-after tests revealed that the series contributed to a substantial lift in brand awareness — so much so that it greenlit another season to run on video network Tastemade.

 

Dear Santa (United States Postal Service)

The United States Postal Service bankrolled a feature-length documentary film about the inner workings of its century-old Operation Santa program, in which the USPS delivers gifts to families in need each year.

The film represents a big moment for brand-funded content — “it was created in such a way and with such heart and warmth that IFC Films picked it up to distribute it,” Strickman said, noting that the USPS managed to recoup its production costs as well as positively get its brand name out there.

 

Black Men Care (Dove Men)

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the resulting unrest that swept across the country, Dove Men partnered with the National Basketball Players Association on an initiative called Commit to C.A.R.E. (Care About Racial Inequity). The goal was to recognize and celebrate Black men and call attention to the pervasive negative portrayals of Black men in the media. The initiative featured a storytelling component, including the 60-second “Black Men Care spot above, as well as several short videos that ran on some of the participating NBA players’ Instagram accounts.

The campaign is effective because Dove got out of the way and let the players share their own experiences. “The brand wanted to help the community be able to tell those stories,” Manago said. “The story is not a narrative kind of story with a hero or anything like that. It’s just them relating their experiences … It’s very raw, very moving.” The initiative also came with a petition to sign so viewers could take action.

 

#GarageLife With Luke Kuechly (Castrol)

Former NFL star Luke Kuechly takes center stage in this spot — a team-up between motor oil brand Castrol Edge and Walmart — to talk about his garage. More specifically, he describes how his garage is an “oasis” — a place where he can rest, recharge. “Performance starts in the garage,” Kuechly says, before the camera cuts to a bottle of Castrol on his woodworking table.

The story isn’t about motor oil though. It’s about how and where Kuechly blows off steam so he can do his job well — something people can relate to. And it’s an especially effective story, Manago said, because we only know Kuechly from the football field. We haven’t seen much of his private life. So this story is a bit unexpected, one we don’t normally hear.

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Breaking the Cast (Little Caesars)

Anyone who doubts a full story can be told in 15 seconds has never spent time on TikTok. This TV spot had the task of memorably conveying one essential piece of information — Little Caesars sells $5 pizzas — in just 15 seconds. So it features a man painfully breaking out of a full arm cast to reach the five bucks in his pocket needed to pay for his Hot-n-Ready pizza. He loudly yelps in pain as he does it, signaling the great lengths he will go to to get his pizza (and grabbing the audience’s attention in the process).

Even though the commercial is so short and features one line of dialogue, “it’s still storytelling,” Kallman, who wrote the ad, said. “It’s just almost the new, 2021 format, [which is] a lot shorter than it used to be.”

 

The Man Your Man Could Smell Like (Old Spice)

At the time this iconic ad spot was broadcast nearly a dozen years ago, brands were virtually forbidden from using spokespersons who looked directly into the camera and talked about a product while holding it; it was seen as a hokey, mid-20th-century trope.

But sometimes the best stories are the ones that break the rules and resurrect old styles to riff on. Old Spice leaned right into it with its “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like TV spots, which featured buff guys talking directly to the viewer about Old Spice (a move that invites the viewer into the story).

“It was super breakthrough,” Kallman said of this campaign, which he worked on as a writer. “Old Spice played a huge role in bringing that kind of directness back.”

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