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Marketing Story Brand

Great Storytelling is Great Marketing.

Storytelling is the cornerstone of great marketing. We explore what makes a story compelling, the questions that lead to engaging stories and some of the greats we can learn from such as Muhammad Ali.

Episode 020 TOPICS:

  • Why do we listen to stories?

  • Oldest marketing stories that still resonate

  • Which questions lead to great stories

  • Muhammad Ali, Marvin Gaye, Johny Cash - storytelling greats

  • Brands that tell the best stories.

Across The Pond- Marketing Transformed.

Episode 20. Great Storytelling is Great Marketing.


Every single person who sees a movie brings a whole set of unique experiences, but through careful manipulation and good storytelling, you can get everybody to clap at the same time, to hopefully laugh at the same time, and to be afraid at the same time.

Steven Spielberg



Let’s face it; an integral part of marketing is storytelling, we go on about it a lot, especially in some of the social media stuff, like LinkedIn, and how we create that narrative is a fascinating thing. Because it can be a means of entertainment, education, installing values or inspiration. So, we’re going to be looking at that, in terms of who does it well and what are the tricks of the trade? But it’s also, without doubt one of the most powerful things in our lives, forget the marketing aspect, and something we learn at an early age. We’re brought up with childhood stories about magic, adventure and morals, we’re inspired, hopefully, at school with tales of history, then we’re exposed to stories in the form of music, art, literature, which makes us dream, make us passionate and follow one of those mediums really.

But that’s not new is it. The earliest story we know about is on a cave wall. In France actually, I think it’s the Chauvet cave in France, thirty-six thousand years ago, and that was telling a story on volcanic eruption. Then of course you have classic visual storytelling about three thousand years ago with hieroglyphics in Egypt, and you bring that right forward to 1066 - you have the Bayeux Tapestry telling the story of the Battle of Hastings. And that’s just visual storytelling. You have the oldest literary book called the Epic of Gilgamesh, a mythical poem that appeared as early as 700 BC. What’s really interesting to me about all of this, is in history how these stories have been used and how they are parallel with marketing. We use different mediums to tell a story, new channels reinvented, you think about that example with the caves and the hieroglyphics to the tapestry. Bring it up to date now you have film, YouTube, etc. 

The fact that great stories are important in all cultures and tend to break through those language boundaries. The thing that strikes me is, at the heart of it, it doesn’t really matter in terms of what the story is, the principles are the same. It’s the need to be able to capture your audience, captivate their attention and make sure that they’re left inspired to do something. Even if it’s just to think about it, ensure that the message can be passed on and adapted, and of course in marketing we look at how we adapt things to different media channels, Instagram and live events -  we look at some of the things through this episode. If we think about TEDx, one of the greatest storytelling successes of the century, I think. And another I’m a particular fan of is The Moth - but what makes us listen to the stories in the first place, Sam? 


Well, I think great stories do start with the ability to truly listen or immerse or view, the practice of empathy is really important, really hearing what the other person actually has to say and not thinking about what you’re going to say next but actually hearing them and listening. I think you’ve, then, got to be able to respond in the appropriate way, and stories really are the most powerful form of communication we have. They help us make sense of information, how we share our experiences, how we engage our emotions, they help our memories, they really are memorable, they help us share our values and reveal our unconscious thoughts, they draw others into the experiences we’re in, and in some way we kind of relive them. I was fighting battles in some of those stories you were sharing there with those tapestries and that history. 

Stories always include an emotional component. Research has shown that stories elicit emotions in others. We find ourselves sharing the feelings, so it’s not just about the data or the facts, if you go back to history classes at school, the facts are difficult for us to retain, but the stories they’re much more memorable, because we don’t remember the dates or the amount of people in the 1966 soccer or football world cup, but we do remember the story of England winning at least one world cup Chris, those emotions. Even though it was before I was born, I can visualise it, I can remember that Chris and we tell and listen to stories, and when we do that we’re often revealing to others what we really think. If we listen really carefully, we can hear in the modern marketing sense - what the consumer really thinks as well.


Stephen King, Eminem and Marvin Gaye Walk into a Bar…


Absolutely Sam, I absolutely agree with that. And that emotional element - bringing that in, absolutely. And when I think about storytelling, I think about music as well. I’m a massive music fan, I spend all of my leisure time, if I possibly can, listening to music, but this equally applies to art and literature as well. Steven King said that he spends months, even years thinking about the first line of a novel as he realises how important it is to capture the imagination and make you want to read on. And I think the first sentence only has one real purpose and that’s to make sure that you read the second sentence and I think, how often do we rush that first line of the press release or even the headline on a digital campaign? I think that’s an important lesson there that actually that first interaction, we need to think deeply about.

But anyway, back to music, I love my music and if I think about singer/songwriters, I think about the power of Eminem or Johnny Cash to tell stories and sometimes that can be as little as two minutes or it can be longer but really, there’s a complete skill, an art form in terms of telling stories well.  What’s the knack? I mean you definitely keep it simple - start, beginning and end sounds obvious, but is important. Repetition plays a part, speaking about a subject that you know or care about is essential I think as well. With Johnny Cash, he battled addiction, arrest, divorce, and at the end the loss of his life as well. And that pours out into his words and there’s a huge amount of songs to choose from but the one that illustrates it for me is definitely worth listening to, it’s Folsom Prison Blues, which of course he went on famously to perform live in a jail, but there’s so much empathy, emotion and humour in those lyrics that it just comes flooding through, and clearly a lot of personal experience is brought out into that. 

One thing I do think we forget, is the role of humour. And I’m often asked from a B2B content strategy perspective, it’s all very well to make a fashion brand or lifestyle brand sexy but how do you sell ball bearings? It clearly is more difficult, because it means that some people will not empathise with it or be that interested. But you have to look at the art form as well, you have to think how you can bring it to life, or simply in an unusual way and there’s always a way around it I think. What about you Sam? 


Yeah, I don’t think I can build off the ball bearings there Chris, so I will steal the music reference you were talking about. When I think of music - Johnny Cash, I’ve heard of him, not really familiar with his music but I just always have a song by Marvin Gaye in my mind from the 70’s, which has a serious message and possibly before its time, ‘Whoa mercy me, things aren’t what they used to be, oh no, where did all the blue skies go, poison is the wind that blows from the north and south east, who mercy me, oh things ain't what they used to be, oh no. Oil wasted on the oceans, on our seas, fish full of mercury.’ And those lines, obviously I wasn’t going to sing, but I just have that line of ‘fish full of mercury’ just constantly repeating in my head. In terms of damage and environmental challenges we’re facing, a songwriter and musician that could bring it to life. you’ve got people like Kendrick Lamar who’s a Pulitzer winner, and so now, rap truly is respected and seen as an art form. 

But you know what Chris? There’s a lot of talk about building your own brand, and the best I can think of through storytelling is only the greatest. He said “I am the greatest. I said that before I even knew I was. I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I was really the greatest”. Mohammed Ali was smart, provocative, charming and quick witted, and in marketing terms, he made the best claims ever. I think anyway. The confidence and the swagger was all about positioning, repositioning and mispositioning and confronting his competitors to gain that competitor advantage. He said, “Liston will fall in eight to prove that I’m great”. He said that when he was fighting the heavy weight champion Sonny Liston. Guess what happened in the fight? Liston didn’t come out for round seven, he retired and basically couldn’t come back. Another simple technique that Mohammed Ali used was the power of repetition. Yes, the catch phrases we all know, all remember: “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, you can’t hit what your eyes don’t see”. Everyone knows that butterfly line. 

In advertising terms, Ali was a creative master. He would communicate with simple, catchy and poetic phrases and then deliver them. He had that musical cadence, so he would say things like ‘he’ll be mine in round nine, if he makes me sore I’ll cut it to four, if that don’t do, I’ll get him in two, if he run I’ll get him in one.’ Ali was magnificent. He was so awesome. 


It is so true isn’t it. Forget his boxing prowess, or his beliefs but actually from a copywriting perspective you can’t really top that. 

The Marketing Memoirs



So, how do these greats relate to marketing though?  Sam, in last week’s episode you spoke about the OXO family whose story is told over a decade. But there’s impatience now. We don’t afford ourselves the luxury of time. And I think you just have to understand that that is the fact of today, that we are looking for things in a much shorter timescale to get that impact. But that’s why it’s good to be prepared. I encourage people I mentor or brands to have their brand story or their personal story available in a thirty second to three minute or a three-thousand-word format. So, you’re prepared for any circumstances, but you are prepared to work out how you get that across as different formats. I also think that it’s good to be prepared about the stories as well. Who am I? What do I believe in? What’s my reason to be? What do I want you to do? And again, that equally applies from an individual perspective or a brand perspective as well. you can see that with Ali’s soundbites there or his longer form content. And I know there’s a friend of yours Sam, Paul Smith who talks a lot about this.


Yeah, he’s got a new book out right now, it’s called Ten Stories That Great Leaders Tell, it’s a really helpful way to categorise the stories, I won’t go through all ten, but I’ll give you a few of them. One of them is a ‘where we came from’ story, which is like the founder’s story and then another one was ‘why we can't stay here’, which would be the ‘case for change’ story that you and we often as brand marketers need, and there’s a few others and another one which is ‘why I lead the way I do’, which of course is a leadership philosophy story. So, we’ll definitely have to get him on as a guest in a future show. 


I think that would be good. I really like that one about the case for change because, I think I’m guilty of this, quite often we think about the past, or our foundations rather than what we’re going to do for our future ambitions to change, so yes, that sounds good. I look forward to that.


So, I brought up Mohammed Ali for another reason, remember a few years ago there was this Adidas campaign? ‘Impossible is nothing’. And that came from a great quote from Mohammed Ali, “impossible is just a word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given, than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact, it’s an opinion. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing”. Now, that was brand synergy in affection. You’ve got the athlete, and everything he stood for in terms of achievement, breaking boundaries and excellence and challenging perceptions - and being the greatest but incorporating his very own words to turn it into an anthemic and deeply personal brand message that so fitted the Adidas brand. That for me, was genius.

The Moth and TED 


You’re not wrong. A fantastic example. But sometimes it's as much about using the medium as it is the message. Two examples of that – Ted talks and The Moth. Both are platforms for telling stories in slightly different ways. Ted, I’m sure you’ve heard of Sam, and The Moth, I believe you have as well. 

The TED guidelines are strict. According to Ted talks curator Chris Anderson, eighteen minutes was decided as the format because it was short enough to hold people’s attention, including on the internet, and precise enough to be taken seriously -  but is also long enough to say something that matters. Again, a real punchy soundbite there, a story within itself. And the format, I believe, is a key part of how inspirational they’ve become, and let’s face it, they’ve been going since 1984, when it was a conference technology entertainment and design - that’s where the TED comes from. 

In 2015, 1.2 billion times a year a Ted talk was listened to...but I like The Moth. I find it takes things in a very different way, it’s all about storytelling. Established in 1997 by a novelist George Dawes Green, he wanted to create summer evenings in Georgia as hot-summer-nights’ moths were attracted to the porch where he and his friends spun stories - spellbinding stories. He ran events in his living room and they grew and there’s over ten thousand stories told now, all live, all without notes. As you say Sam, in all walks of life any story is relevant, and coming off the back of that is a podcast, a radio show, education programs, but what I love about it is the spontaneity, again from a marketing perspective I think that spontaneity is something we all can learn from. Honestly, the book is a fantastic read, I think it’s a great place to understand what makes a compelling story, that quizzical nature, things that to start to listen to, you’re taken into a different place, where you’re considering a perspective you never had before. If we manage to bring that to our marketing in some shape or form, we go a long way.


Definitely, I’m a huge fan of Ted and there’s a bunch of ted talks that I love. My ambition is to get as good as Bryan Stevenson, he’s the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, and his TED talk called ‘We need to talk about an injustice’ is truly mesmerising and just remains my favourite ever. What I love about it is he’s not hiding in slides and PowerPoint - there are no visuals. He’s got you in every single letter of the words he’s speaking and there’s no visuals, there’s no PowerPoint, an awesome way to do it.

I think from a marketing perspective, the greatest way to get good at this is to practice is not telling stories but hearing them. And you can do this yourself through consumer research. I mentioned before on episode 4 the imperative to have empathy when you’re doing your consumer research. I was walking into a consumer’s home; I was armed with a gushing guide and points galore and the product I wanted to talk about and the first woman I saw said to me when I entered her home, was that she was a breast cancer survivor, and how do you respond to that? Clearly, I couldn’t respond with an incentive question about my product, I had to pause, acknowledge the really personal information she had just shared, and as a human being, asked what impact that had on her life, what impact has that had on her family and what it meant for her decisions, for her life. and eventually, maybe twenty-five minutes later we got onto the subject about the food that I was researching. But that was a twenty-minute journey because we truly had to hear the stories, hear how that played out in her life. 

You know what Chris; it comes back to one of my tried and tested techniques. It’s about the power of asking great questions. So, to try and get to stories, you should ask questions like tell me about… tell me the story about… tell me about the first time… tell me about the worst experience… tell me about the best experience… tell me about the last time you..., whatever that thing, is. 

Try this next time, don’t ask someone what do you do? You know when we have these meetings, we bump into people at conferences and events and it's “what do you do?” Ask them what they are excited about right now. And if they start to talk about work, prompt them that this doesn’t have to be about work and see where that goes. You’d me amazed that eight minutes later they’re just talking about something they’re really passionate and excited about. 

You know what Chris? There’s about thirty-six questions that apparently if you ask, you’re guaranteed to get the other person to fall in love with you.  So, I’ll leave that for the audience to google but seriously, here’s something we can all practice. Next meeting, next phone call, introduction, dinner guest or plane seat buddy just ask them what would constitute a perfect day for you? And listen and respond to what they say. You would be amazed at the way it opens people up to tell a story that’s just personal and I think it makes the world a better place when we do that for other people.


That’s a lovely thought there Sam, but I’ve got to say, putting my slightly cynical hat on, I think that the thirty-six questions guarantee - that sounds a little bit like click bait to me, Sam. And funny enough we talked quite a lot about that at the start, thinking about the podcast and how we wanted to avoid those killer headlines where you can’t possibly match up the proposition. Again, another theme that we come back to, authenticity, and again, something important when we’re thinking about storytelling as well.

But, a lot of media has been built up on storytelling being done in the shadows and a front person taking the glory or managing the PR. Script writers are an open secret when we’re looking at politics. Ghost writing is still a considerable challenge in the publishing industry with editors writing the vast majority of some genres, books, celebrities for instance. And the same applies to business as well. There are many business leaders that I know, where actually, if you look behind the scenes they’ve been stuffed by tens of content writers and video executives and I think it paints a slightly different perception to what the audience are taking out of it where they think they’re sat around doing all of the social media elements themselves. I think we’ll comment on this another time but it’s interesting whether that is understandable, because it’s about getting the message out as widely as they can and there’s only one of them, or is there that element where it’s slightly unethical there as well.

Sam Sells Us ‘Jelly’


So, bringing it back to storytelling for marketing, let’s get back into the research mode, let’s just say you’re making jelly, and you’re looking for ideas and inspiration on how consumers use it, and let me first clarify that I’m referring to American jelly so, for the UK folks and I think Australian, that’s jam - what they call jelly here is called jam.

So, basically, you’re going back to a time when you’re hungry. So, your job is to truly listen and guide the person you’re speaking with through a journey and as you do that listen out for: How does the story begin? What happened before? What was the background? What happened afterwards? Who are the characters? Why are they in it? What are their motivations? What emotions were there, and what emotions weren’t there? Ask why. What is the setting?  And are there desired changes to this story?


Yeah that’s a great framework. And that’s my point really, that stories need a beginning and middle and end and so do marketing campaigns as well. Now, that might happen over a number of different formats, the one that springs to mind, the brand that tells a story well that I really like is Jack Daniels. There’s a long running tube advert here Sam, which is called Postcards from Lynchburg and it resembles an original campaign run in the 1950’s by Jack Daniels, and they use the same postcard format and they tell the story of Mr Jack and you really get a sense that this was a homegrown affair, where every vision was taken seriously and time was pondered on every single thing to do with building this amazing drink, and you get this real sense of Tennessee as well and the great thing is you can just about read the whole of this long text in the time before the train comes. And I’m not really a drinker of Jack Daniels but even at eleven AM in the morning I’m thinking ‘I wish I was transported to that distillery. It feels like an amazing place.’

I was looking at this article in Vice and they talked about this copywriter called Laura Farris who worked on those adverts between 2015 and 2017 and her boss told her to imagine an old Southern lawyer like Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird when she was writing, and there’s a Wizard of Oz Emerald City feeling to the way Lynchburg is portrayed, and that’s the secret of storytelling, bringing to life something magical, mysterious and slightly out of reach, but having a persona firmly in mind that you’re aiming for.


Michelin tyres is a perfect example of where money is no object. When it comes to the safety of your family. It shows a baby sitting next to a tyre with the headline ‘Michelin, because so much is riding on your tyres’. It’s powerful because it focuses on the conflict that it’s about safety, and then the baby represents something special that needs to be protected and you’re fighting that conflict because it forces you to reconsider that these are just a disposable thing you put on your car and actually you should spend a bit more on that tyre and it influences you to see that brand as more valuable but also worth paying for.


Yeah it works well doesn’t it, again pulling on those emotional heartstrings but telling a story with the context behind it and also using an analogy. I think that’s something we need to come back to Sam. We’re sort of running out of time now but I think we’re going to do a part two on this next week, and the reason being is that I think where we need to take this to is looking to that contract of the brands and the stories that they tell and provide a few more examples of how that’s brought to life. 

I also want to look at it from an entrepreneurs and digital start up perspective and that elevator pitch or twit pitch as it moves on to these days. How do you convey that story in thirty seconds? Because we’re all there, we’ll all have to pitch to our bosses a new campaign or a new concept, so worth doing a part two on this Sam but now, why don’t you sum up where we got to. 

The Three Key Takeouts


  1. I think the first one Chris is, listen out for stories and prompt them when you do hear them. 

  2. The second thing is, you should be crafting your own, something you said, your own thirty second and three-thousand-word story and having that personal story ready to share. 

  3. Thirdly, listen with empathy. Listen, not to respond, but listen to really hear what the other person has to share and guide them through. You can ask them questions like tell me more about that or tell me about the best experience or worst experience, but prompt that story and really be there for the other person and really hear them.



I like that. As I say we’re going to do part two next week, and it’s going to be a special one Sam, we’re going to be face to face for the first time ever as well aren’t we.


I can’t wait Chris; it’s going to be a bit weird seeing you and being next to you so maybe we’ll have to figure that out. 


Lots of good storytelling for us to work through so, look forward to that Sam. 


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