In recent years, brand storytelling has become the shiny new object in marketing. Every agency touts their expertise in telling stories, and companies are hiring storytellers to join their marketing teams.
There is nothing new about the concept. For decades, advertisers have used stories to sell products and services in an image or two and a few words of copy—often very effectively. The difference today is that the Internet allows us to create longer stories to be told in multiple formats—blogs, video, and podcasts. Stories can even be started in 30-second commercials and completed online.
I’ve been impressed with just how entertaining and engaging some brand stories are. But I also see risks to jumping on the brand storytelling bandwagon. Stories have the power to build stronger emotional connections and memorability—which is the goal. But, if your stories don’t match the reality of your business, are inconsistent from one story to the next or are just plain dull, your audience may remember your brand as something to avoid rather than to embrace.
It’s not easy to do brand storytelling well
In truth, there aren’t that many great storytellers out there. In history, the traveling storyteller was revered because his talents were so unique. In literature, there are thousands of bad novels and short stories published for every great one that withstands the test of time. Writing well is not that easy.
But even when you hire a great writer, a great brand story can backfire. I’ve been thinking about this while watching the fallout from Chipotle’s crisis with food poisoning. Chipotle’s award-winning videos convinced me that it was worth my time to watch what is, for all intents and purposes, a 3–1/2 minute advertisement. These beautifully produced short films completely engaged me in their opposition to the industrial food complex.
While not a fast food consumer, I became a fan of the chain. And then people started getting sick eating at their restaurants. Lots of them. Not just at one restaurant, but several across a few states.
Chipotle has gone to unprecedented lengths to revamp its food safety procedures. But unlike other chains that have had issues with E-coli outbreaks, Chipotle made the quality and health of its food ingredients its brand—and made that brand memorable in its stories. Before this, I was rooting for the scarecrow/farmer and his fight to promote healthy food. Now I feel a bit sad for him and question not only Chipotle but every open salad bar I see.
We all know that a good story is just a story. But when you ask your audience to relate your story to your brand, they’ll have expectations about what you’re going to deliver. When your reality can’t match your brand identity, you may be looking at an unhappy ending.