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The Shift from Advertising to Storytelling

Personal Insights for Brands or Any Organization


For years, I have enjoyed telling bedtime stories; first to my kids and now to my grandkids. I have been working on this craft long enough to know what kinds of stories capture and maintain their interest. Recently, my 13-year-old granddaughter reminded me of stories I told her when she was only five or six years old. Here’s the kicker – I never told a story more than once. So, I was shocked that she still remembers them with some level of detail, long after I forgot them. She knew her favorites and recently conveyed her excitement in retelling me a couple of my original stories.


This got me thinking about the purpose of my day job for the last 35 years – trying to capture and maintain the interest of targeted consumers with my clients’ brands. Our creatives are obsessed with this mission – how to capture the imaginations of the consumers we want to connect with our brands. I think part of the answer can be found in my own formula for creating stories.


1. I would ask them if they wanted to hear a story – This was the act of asking permission – though in my case, the answer was always “yes”. It was never a trick to help the kids get ready for bed. It was not a bribe. They knew already that I gave 100% to my stories and they could anticipate the good feelings that come from the close personal connection we always experienced by sharing in a story together.

Lesson: Story-telling is not intrusive – it is built on trust and empathetic tone. It’s best to make an invitation to your audience and to let them decide to spend their time and attention with your brand.


2. I would ask them what kind of story they wanted me to create and tell. A fun adventure, or a scary story?  A funny story, or a heart-warming tale of kindness? While scary and funny often won out, the most enduring story lines usually involved a group of children solving a problem.

Lesson: Craft your story around the mindset of the audiences you want to reach. Place your brand in the storytelling context that reflects their own aspirations and interests.


3. I would have them name and build the characters. The idea here was to engage them in the process of inventing the story. They would name each character, which always included little boys or girls about their age. They would also give physical and personality traits to their characters. Often these traits sounded a lot like themselves.

Lesson: A brand’s value and utility increases if the end users participate in its evolution. Features and benefits should not come from inside the walls or heads of product designers (unless they are named Steve Jobs). Your customers are your best innovators.


4. I would ask them make decisions at key points in the story. What road did Sammy choose to go down? What did the friends say to each other at a moment of decision? How did they solve problems?

Lesson: Engage in a dialogue to discover the values and ideas that your consumers have in order to solve the problems they want to have solved. Ask them, and they will lead you in the right direction – even if the path is somewhat foggy.


Pay attention to storytelling as the accelerating solution to traditional advertising problems. Don’t just tell your own story (though that is a great place to begin). Engage as a co-collaborator with your customer to craft a new story that takes you both into a better future.


Stay tuned for next week’s post, where we’ll explore the concept of storytelling in social media and other industry areas.


Marketing Agency Blog Post Author of The Shift from Advertising to Storytelling

November 1, 2018
Written by Tom Sullivan

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