The art of storytelling: Why dirty hands are better than beautiful words

Sixty hours of content is uploaded to YouTube every minute. How can branded messaging avoid getting lost in a sea of noise? Seth Godin’s book ‘All marketers are liars’ claims the answer lies in stories: “Truth is elusive. What we do know is our story. Marketing is storytelling”.

Since then, brands have relied on storytelling to win the attention battle. Countless articles share the secret to telling a great story: understand your customers; engage them in a timely manner; be relevant; be entertaining; create emotional connections. Except storytelling isn’t a magic recipe for turning branded content into entertaining content.

To begin with, what most brands talk about are not proper stories: can Budweiser’s “Whassup”, Old Spice’s “Smell like a man, man” or Cadbury’s drumming gorilla seriously be called stories? Those who think so must never have read War and Peace.

Brands simply don’t need to tell a story to be compelling.

That’s even more true in the social media era where responsiveness is key. Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and their ilk have perverted the concept of ‘story’ by attaching it to everything. But in reality, those ‘stories’ are more collections of independent pictures rather than narratives with a beginning, a middle and an end.

Even brands that do tell stories well struggle for credibility. Only 23% of consumers in the U.S. and just 7% in Western Europe believe that “brands are open and honest”.

No matter how great your story is, it’s likely to fall on deaf ears. Hiring social media influencers to tell your brand story for you won’t do the trick either: people have learnt that where there is money, there is no authenticity.

So how can brands thrive in a non-storytelling world? By taking action. Focus on producing useful, beautiful or bold content – and let people judge for themselves whether they buy in or not.

Adopting a ‘show don’t tell’ approach is one way to take action. Rather than telling your audience something they’ll ignore – or at best question – engage in showmanship. Elon Musk could well be the greatest showman on earth right now: who needs advertising after shooting a car into space carrying a mannequin wearing a SpaceX space suit with the radio blaring David Bowie’s Space Oddity?

Such grandiose events might not be attainable for most brands. Red Bull manages to build a more accessible type of show – from sporting events to festivals.

What makes the brand so powerful is the fact that it doesn’t use these events to tell a story about itself. It entertains people and lets them associate the brand with the feelings they get from these events.

But showmanship isn’t a good fit for all brands. Taking a bold stand can sometimes be enough – as long as it is reflected in your offer. Patagonia’s ‘Worn Wear’ programme, which makes it easy for customers to repair or recycle their garment is a case in point: people don’t need extraordinary events where they can see unwavering commitment.

Going back to the entertainment industry, Childish Gambino’s video “This is America” shows again that powerful images and arresting lines can be more memorable than well-constructed narratives. What is striking is that this bold stand against racism has inspired such frenzied analysis; it reminds us that the quality of creative content, no matter which form it takes, can only be judged by how people receive and internalise it.

The moral of the story here is this: rather than crafting beautiful stories about your brand, get your hands dirty. Do something different. Do something spectacular. Or do something meaningful. And if it resonates with people, they’ll do the storytelling for you.