When marketers started talking about ‘storytelling’, I had to fight the urge to vom
21st March 2023
There, I said it.
I, who now work at an agency that sells storytelling services, and even half-coined the term ‘storyful’ to describe brands and marketers who get this story stuff right…I admit it. When marketers started to co-opt the word ‘storytelling’ and apply it to their work, I experienced what I can only describe as infinite cringe.
(I’m a pretty cynical bastard at the best of times. Those pioneering storytellers didn’t really stand a chance.)
You can call me a hypocrite. I’ve been called worse. But I can explain.
I didn’t get it
The truth is I just didn’t get it at the time. I was judging them unfairly, these Chief Storytellers (…okay some of those titles are still cringe).
I was misinterpreting the whole notion of brand storytelling. So I was rolling my eyes at something I wasn’t really seeing clearly.
These ‘Brand Storytellers’ just seemed a bit lofty, earnest and self-important. English Lit graduates who found themselves in corporate marketing with no time to write their own magnum opus (okay maybe that’s a little too relatable). I heard ‘storytelling’ and assumed they were inflating the importance of their About Us page and tactical pieces of content marketing. Or awkwardly finding ways to air their brand values – values being much easier to tell than show. Or invoking brand archetypes like figures of legend and sending their intrepid buyer personas out on The Hero’s Journey, as if the Booker Prize had a B2B marketing category.
So I cringed and I dismissed them.
And I was wrong. (But maybe only for the most part. Some of them were just spinning fluffy yarns.)
I’m sorry for doubting you, early storytelling forebears
So this is my apology to all you early brand storytellers whose only sin was to be ahead of the curve.
It took me a long time, but I gradually learned about the strategic importance of story in B2B marketing. And how it relates to brand positioning, brand narrative, strategy, messaging. I learned what these things actually mean and stopped thinking about them as an amorphous blob of squidgy marketing guff. (I used to be lazier than I am now, and muddier in my thinking, and delusional enough to think I could wing this kind of work on strategic and creative instinct.)
I heard the oft-quoted Ben Horowitz line about how ‘the story is the strategy.’ I learned how to position B2B companies under Stan Woods and Doug Kessler. I swotted up on Andy Raskin’s strategic narrative work. I read Ries and Trout, April Dunford and others.
And I saw it work: good brand stories won investment, won customers. Stories, it turned out, do actually make sales.
Gradually, I stopped cringing when I talked about the importance of story in B2B marketing. And once it clicked, it really clicked.
Something to help you treat your storytelling cringe reflex
If you work in B2B marketing, maybe you’ve been on a similar journey. Or maybe you were less of a cynical, emotionally stunted sarcasm-monger to start with.
If you still wince a little when you hear a marketer with the audacity to utter words like ‘storytelling’ and ‘narrative’ in the same breath as ‘enterprise software’ and ‘marketing funnel’ – I get it.
But here’s something that might help. It’s a guide we put together at Beneath, called ‘Storyful brands and how to build them’.
It works through the issues and confusions that made me sceptical during the rise of brand storytelling. And, personally, the process of working on the guide was ultimately what helped me to get some important definitions straight in my head, codify a method of sorts for effective brand storytelling, and distil lots of fuzzy thinking into more practical advice.
Take a look, and try not to vom.