Content marketing is about telling a brand’s story — using content to help audiences to make sense, not just of what a brand does, but of what they are interested in and where their priorities lie. Storytelling is a huge part of our lives today: we have instant access to a dizzying amount of articles, books, audiobooks, TV shows, and countless other forms of stories, on demand and on the go.
Throughout history, a litany of techniques and ways of telling stories have been developed. So, what inspiration can marketers take from some of the many ways in which stories have been told?
People have always been compelled by the impulse to know “what happens next?” From the heyday of serialised novels in the nineteenth century to the present day, in which audiences are captivated by “box set” dramas from around the world, serialisation has long been a hugely popular form of storytelling.
One of the best advantages of serialisation is its ability to generate conversation, encouraging audiences to speculate, theorise, and engage on a closer level. In the early '90s, the many ongoing mysteries at the heart of the cult series Twin Peaks were discussed at length by the internet's early adopters on Usenet message boards in a way that has only become more widespread as technology has developed. As media scholar Dr. Harry Jenkins remarked in an IndieWire article:
"None of us predicted just how big fan response to television would become, and how the things that were modelled early on by groups like alt.tv.twin-peaks were trying out things that would be so much more widespread over the years."
Fast-forward to today and this sort of engagement with serialised storytelling is more commonplace than ever: not only has the advent of social media revolutionised and globalised audience discussions, but it's reached the point that many news outlets now run in-depth episode recaps of the most acclaimed shows.
It goes without saying that this sort of organic buzz and enthusiasm is a holy grail for many brands; and one that has, in the past, been achieved by brands taking a serialised approach to their marketing. Take Nescafé’s famous campaign for ‘Gold Blend’ coffee in the ‘80s and ‘90s, for example, which, over six years, focused on a will-they-won’t-they romance between two characters that captivated the public and increased UK sales of the coffee by 50%.
An article published by The Drum in 2016, challenging contemporary marketers to reimagine this serialised campaign for modern platforms, highlights just how expansive the possibilities and opportunities out there are for brands looking to engage with telling ongoing stories using today’s outlets and technologies.
Some of my favourite films, TV series, and books are vignette-based; offering a number of shorter-form, and more or less self-contained, narratives that are linked by being variations on a single larger theme. One of the most well-known examples of recent years if Charlie Brooker's series Black Mirror. The stories can vary greatly from episode-to-episode — one may be a tense thriller, another a more low-key human story — but they are all connected by the series’ overarching primary theme of technology and mass communication.
As well as being an interesting creative experiment in working under self-imposed limitations, another benefit of this kind of approach is that it works quite effectively in addressing a common paradox often faced by marketers. Writing for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson writes about the view that:
"Consumers are torn between two opposing forces: neophilia, a curiosity about new things; and neophobia, a fear of anything too new ... [pioneering industrial designer, Raymond Loewy] said: to sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising."
One effective way in which many brands have been able to embrace this mode of storytelling is through branded short film competitions, challenging entrance to produce and submit their own short films based on a theme or set of parameters defined by the brand.
Look, for example, at American outdoors brand Baboon's recent 15-Second Film Fest, in which entrants were challenged with making fifteen-second shorts based on the theme of "making an adventure out of anything". This competition works both to generate an eclectic array of imaginative interpretations of the brand's adventure-focused brand identity, while also (especially given their partnership with the non-profit youth organisation, Art Start) contributing to a positive association of that brand as a patron and curator of budding or up-and-coming artists.
Metafictional narrative techniques that "break the fourth wall" have their roots in theatre and experimental literature, but have since become a staple part of popular culture. Such techniques crop up, for example, in TV programmes as diverse as The Simpsons, House of Cards, and Fleabag. It's a simple enough technique on paper — self-consciously playing with the line between fiction and reality (for example, through an actor speaking directly to the audience, or through a writer writing a story about the act of writing) — but one that, in practice, offers up an array of creative possibilities.
One person who has made a career out of making the most out of these possibilities is the screenwriter and director Charlie Kaufman: his screenplay for Being John Malkovich tells a surreal story about a portal that allows access into the mind of actor John Malkovich, for example, and then Adaptation is loosely about Kaufman himself struggling to write a follow-up to Being John Malkovich.
This kind of technique is not only good for creating imaginative works of fiction. In marketing, Becky Lang — self-consciously playing with the line between fiction and reality (for example, through an actor speaking directly to the audience, or through a writer writing a story about the act of writing) — writing for the US agency Superhuman — talks about the continued emergence of 'meta' techniques within the world of advertising as a means of speaking to a highly connected younger generation:
"Because of millennials' general literacy when it comes to branding, the reigning approach has often been self-aware advertising. 'Yes, we know this is an ad. But at least we know that, so let's have some fun.'"
Particularly interesting are 'viral marketing' campaigns that use elements of the real world as a medium for immersive, interactive, community-based storytelling. Possibly the most famous example is The Blair Witch Project's use of the internet, TV, and missing persons fliters to generate excitement and discussion about whether the film really was or wasn't based on true events. I’m also a particularly big fan of how Warp Records has taken a “reality-bending” approach to marketing releases in recent years — whether that’s through inventing a fictional band, leaving optical illusions in underground stations, or leaving mysterious singles in record shops.
In a world that's so saturated with stories, how you tell yours is more important than ever. There are many things for content marketers to consider when it comes to producing and distributing content, and primary among them should be the question of what methods of storytelling best suit the story that is being told.