brand storytelling

Most brand storytelling wouldn’t pass the bedtime story test. Yet there’s never been a greater time for brands that can tell a story well.

Content marketing is rapidly becoming a key plank of many marketing plans (now at 33% of the average marketing budget, according to Junta42). However, much of that content, whether distributed in social media or paid media, is not content worth sharing. It lacks intrinsic value.

I enjoyed this post from Mike Sweeney at Right Source Marketing: “Don’t Let the Social Media Tail Wag the Content Marketing Dog”.

“While content marketing efforts are absolutely enhanced via social media marketing, content marketing can happen without social media marketing. On the flip side, social media marketing loses a whole lot of punch without content marketing. Without content, social media marketing stops after 140 characters and only continues when you’re ready to answer the question “What’s happening?” again, or listen to someone else’s response to that question.”

I am learning a great deal about content marketing in the course of my new Marketoonist business. For several clients, I now create a weekly ongoing cartoon as content marketing. Through trial and error, we see immediately which cartoons spread like wildfire and which ones stall. The tricky balance is to be unique, valuable, and relevant, without being advertorial. The cartoons have to touch on customers’ issues, but they can’t pitch features and benefits.  They can’t be seen as advertising.

Poor content marketing reminds me of this classic two-minute scene from A Christmas Story. Nine year old Ralphie gets a Secret Society decoder pin for his favorite Little Orphan Annie radio show. He excitedly translates the secret message, only to find that it says “Be Sure to Drink Your Ovaltine”. Ralphie stares at the message and says, “Ovaltine? A crummy commercial? Son of a…”

Content marketing should never come across as a crummy commercial.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away two signed prints of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post. I’ll pick one comment from my blog and one comment from Facebook at 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

  1. Lukc says

    While it may be easy enough to identify this problem, often I feel marketers are unwilling to pay the price for creating truly good content. I’m consistently surprised by how incredibly hard it is to come up with “good stuff” … and how often people simply do not realise this fact.

    With content, as with many other things, “you get what you pay for” seems to be the rule.

  2. Marcos Dutra says

    You are 100% right. lots of awful content around.
    The problem is this a long term activity, and it is hard to convince short term managers that it is worth spending that time after it.
    Great post, BTW.

  3. Doolittle says

    Media today needs to generate “cocktail currency” and not just impressions. The moment when a brand moves away from making flat statements, and towards conversations that consumers will actively bring up during a cocktail party, is the moment a brand comes to life. It is the “did you hear about” moments which bring our brands to life.

  4. Rose says

    The brand story is also very important within organizations, as a way to bring new employees into the fold, and to understand the culture of the work place. If you can’t tell a good story internally it will be even less relevant to consumers. Part of the difficulty of creating content marketing that will engage people is in truly knowing what the brand represents. I have observed this via brands that I have ‘Liked’ on Facebook – for example Cascadian Farms posts messages about sustainability and environmental causes to show that their brand position is wholesome and organic, whereas some others post only messages about their products. This shows a lack of knowledge of who they are, or minimally an inability to translate that knowledge into meaningful content. Those brands I quickly ‘Unlike’ as the bombardment of advertising is more annoying than engaging.
    (Raplhie and the Ovaltine scene = perfect illustration. One of my favorite’s.)

  5. Christina says

    Hello Tom – yet another great one, and I have of course shared it on twitter as always. Particularly resonates with me though because it comes back to great branding. The best brands have found what they truly mean – what is at their core, and what is important in their history – allowing them to tell a great story that is compelling with their users/consumers. These are the brands whose ‘story’ runs thick and fast through everything they do – both internally and externally. Thanks Cx

  6. Catherine says

    Hi Tom! I love your work. I believe that to make content valuable and relevant, without being advertorial, you need to speak from the heart, and really care about your audience, and treat them as “friends”. To touch on customer’s issues it is important to “forget” for a moment that you are trying to “sell” your product, and only influence their choices by sharing relevant information they can use, whether they buy or product or not. Un abrazo! Catherine

  7. Mike says

    In my experience, there are three things you need to have compelling content whether it is :30 spots or 140 character posts:

    1) An in-depth understanding of your consumer’s needs and how your brand can help (in many cases, this is the most difficult part since we marketers are usually not our target audience but like to insert our personal experiences for our consumers’).
    2) A relevant and authentic brand positioning/story
    3) The ability to deliver your message in a creative way that does not feel like advertising but still works.

    Many times, we struggle with being “interesting” and continue to learn what works best with the different consumers of different media types. One thing we cannot sacrifice for the sake of “likes” – our brand voice must be consistent and true to our equity. Boring can be fixed; destroying your equity is forever.

  8. Christina Pappas says

    Its not only important to know and share your brand’s story, but to tell it in the right way with the best supporting elements. How are you telling your story?

    The way our company was founded and even how we got our name is interesting but I doubt very few people know it. Are those stories as interesting as the story about how you doubled your customer’s conversions or reduced productivity costs by 50%? Ardath Albee wrote a blog recently about using posed customer scenarios. These are really fictional stories in nature but have the power to resonate with an audience. I love this idea and I think it presents an interesting way to share and tell stories with your customers and brand fans.

  9. Tom Larsen says

    Great salesmanship has always been the best storyteller’s around and great sales copy is really salesmanship in print (Caples I think). So this post about content is spot on if the company and/or salesman wants to tell his/her story.

    1st post I’ve read of your, will subscribe now!

    Thanks, Tom

  10. Heather G says

    This post hits home a necessary truth – content (whether written, graphic, video, etc.) must have substance! (as you clearly demonstrate in your cartoons)
    I love the parallel to a bedtime story. We can learn a lot from children’s books. For instance, consider:
    – Character: know who you are writing to
    – Setting: remember the where & when; make it current & relevant
    – Plot: tell the story; must engage the reader, capture their interest & make them want to read more
    – Problem to Solve: should be practical, easily defined and relatable
    – Lesson to Learn: connect all the pieces together and lead the reader back to your company’s solution

    Thanks again for cartoons that make us both laugh and think!
    Here’s to wishing you and your readers many happy endings!

  11. David B says

    How many marketers actually follow or engage other brands? And I don’t mean their competitors. If they were to become content students, they would quickly discover what works and what doesn’t. Go on put yourself in a bored and unengaged consumer’s shoes.

  12. says

    Hi all,

    Awesome insights everyone, many thanks! I’m glad this week’s topic struck such a chord. You raised a number of the challenges and opportunities with content marketing. I particularly sparked to Rose’s insight that content marketing starts with the storytelling within an organization. How can you expect to share quality stories with consumers/customers if you don’t share quality stories internally?

    I included many of your points in my guest lecture today at UCDavis.

    This week’s winners are Rose from the blog and Andrea from Facebook. Signed prints are on the way.



  13. LeahG says

    Simple–People remember stories!

    Favorite Ovaltine “story”– an FSI that directed the consumer to the ‘milk modifier’ aisle– and that would be where?

    Cartoon alert– the funny things brand managers say!

  14. denise lee yohn says

    i think the problem stems from the label “content marketing” — content alone doesn’t have value — only when it demonstrates the value of the brand and is relevant to the target does it fulfill marketing’s purpose — that’s why i prefer the term “thought leadership” — denise lee yohn

  15. Jason says

    Hi Tom,

    I always look forward to your awesome work here. You’re right! A brand story must be compelling enough to consumers or we’ll just put them to sleep.

    It should be relevant and it must pass the (Who Gives A Sh*t) test. Consumers want to see themselves in that story so that they can relate to a business. They want stories of how that brand can benefit them.

    A brand story should also be authentic and true. It’s simply taking something that’s fundamentally true about your brand, a value, founding philosophy, belief, personality trait, quirk or unique experience that you embrace within your organisation, and telling it to the world. Something that’s purely and truly yours.

    Keep up the good work, Tom. Cheers!

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