Is anyone listening?

BY Sue McCluskey

Stop telling consumers everything about your story, and start telling them how you fit into their story.

“We’re all storytellers” has been the mantra of marketers for years now. With good reason: a hero myth about your company’s founders or an attention-grabbing video about the passion that goes into delivering your services all hold the promise of being a huge factor in why your customers should choose you over your competition.

With this in mind, companies have spent enormous resources to make their stories strong, resonant and differentiated—including shelling out millions for agencies and consultants to bring their often-trademarked processes to bear in discovering, crafting and finessing that narrative.

It’s a lot of work, and the results are usually worth the effort. Good storytelling is a terrific way to focus on what your organization is all about, and to communicate your value in a way that is efficient, memorable and engaging.

But it seems that, in our rush to get stories told, many marketers have lost sight of the most important factor in storytelling—the audience. They’ve never asked, “What happens once we create our story? Will anyone listen to it?”

Content is king (sort of)

“Storytelling” has been the basis of advertising for nearly as long as advertising has existed. We just didn’t call it that.

The most famous early storytelling ad dates back to 1926: “They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano—But When I Started to Play!” written by the late John Caples, a marketing pioneer. (Caples was also known for his 1931 copywriting advice to “use words you would expect to find in a fifth-grade reader’’ on the rationale that “the average American is approximately 13 years old mentally,” but that’s another story.)

As Susan Gunelius wrote for Forbes in 2013, “Brand storytelling isn’t a new concept, but with the explosive growth of social media and content marketing, the opportunities to tell stories as part of direct and indirect brand marketing initiatives have become a strategic priority.”

And how. Whether you know Caples’s ad or not, you know the formula: it’s the one used to create attention-grabbing headlines by sites such as Upworthy, ViralNova, Pulptastic and all the other can’t-miss content that fills up your Facebook feed.

At a social media conference I attended a few years back, participants were reassured that, with the demise of newspapers and magazines, a lot of unemployed journalists were going to be able to transfer their skills to creating content for websites and publications for private companies. The world was changing, but not hugely—writers would still have opportunities to write; the difference is that they’d be writing for company websites and custom publications, rather than for the huge media outlets of yesterday.

Which is great when you’re creating content to support your brand promise to customers—the kind of material that helps your customers and clients learn more about their industries, gain insights into their business or learn about new products and services to help them go about their day.

Brand storytelling, however, is not branded content. It has a completely different purpose, and tackling it like a journalist just won’t cut it.

Journalists are trained to get important news out there, uncover scandal and injustice, inform readers about what’s going on in the world. Marketers are trained to sell you stuff. One audience is willing; the other indifferent-to-hostile.

And therein lies the challenge with most brand storytelling out there. A journalistic approach is terrific for brainstorming story ideas, interviewing experts for content and distilling that down into concise information—I consider journalism a huge asset when hiring writers for my agency. But a journalist comes from a background that assumes the reader is interested in the message. Yes, a juicy story will boost sales, but it’s not a journalist’s core job to sell the publication. That role belongs to Marketing and Sales. When your company focuses solely on the brand storytelling, you may forget that potential customers may not be as interested in your blog as they are in their subscription to Harper’s.

A good marketer always remembers this, and spends their career uncovering and overcoming objections to their message.

In our rush to tell stories—to be engaging, personalitydriven, emotionally connected and authentic—we seem to have pushed the pendulum too far to the storytelling end and too far away from the basics of marketing.

In branding, a good story well told is simply not enough. No matter that your story is authentic, transformative, real, relevant—it’s going nowhere until you first gain the audience’s ear.

What are people listening to?

Every generation of marketer is raised thinking that the previous generation had it easy, that, back in the old days, consumers were more innocent, less savvy, more willing to take what we told them at face value—basically, more gullible, whether you were selling snake oil or a presidential candidate.

But who wants gullible consumers? Unless you’re a con artist (which, considering you’re reading a journal about branding, seems unlikely—branding is way too much work), you probably would rather have a customer who chooses you because they’ve made an informed, intelligent choice to do so.

The real challenge isn’t in telling a great story, it’s in getting your name in front of the right customers and helping bring them to the conclusion that your product or service is the one they want. The one that fits into their personality and their needs.

The story to tell first is the customer’s. Listen to them.

Probably the biggest obstacle that brand storytelling has to face is the impulse to start telling consumers what you think they need to know. It’s the old argument of features versus benefits.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for brand storytelling. But the term itself has become such a buzzword these days, its attractiveness seems to be mostly based on the simple solution it promises. All we need to do is tell the right story, it reassures us, and, like the work of a skilled raconteur, it will have your audiences listening with rapt attention. The problem is, few people—and even fewer brands—are so naturally charismatic.

Seth Godin gets it right, as usual, when he describes a brand story as being about the customer, rather than about the brand. “Tell me what your ideal customer believes, at the most emotional and primordial level,” he states, “and then you can tell me the story you’ll craft and live and deliver that engages with that belief.”

Your brand is not about you, your company, your products or services. It’s about fulfilling an aspiration or desire, or easing a fear or insecurity. It’s about having a conversation with that voice running through a customer’s head, the voice that questions, that fears, that wants to belong to something, whether that something is about being attractive, cool, smart, happy, energized or powerful.

Uncover that conversation, and the brand story pretty well writes itself.