Storytelling is how we make sense of the world around us.  If one brick on top of another is a wall in embryo, two connected facts is the beginning of a tale. Politicians justify their behaviour and push their beliefs with reference to history, academics wrangle over the truth of competing narratives, reporters cover the story and marketers seek to tell tales too.

As early as the nineteenth century, visual ads were showing happy families, washday, certain beers being good for you and tastefully abandoned young ladies, all part of a narrative vignette – like a frame from a comic book – aimed at telling a story, in which the product had a central part. Later marketers moved forward and began centralizing the brand, making the story one of interaction between the consumer and the brand.

Sometimes the consumer’s story could only be concluded satisfactorily with the help of the brand; sometimes the story was one of the consumers taking on the identity of the brand, the classic example of which is the Marlboro Man.  But getting the brand and the consumer into the same narrative was the marketer’s goal.

Now, though, the brand really does interact with the consumer. Consumers have begun to participate in writing the narrative, through fandoms, social media and more. When consumers heard that the next instalment of Batman would feature an actor they thought inappropriate, thousands joined a campaign to persuade the studio to change its mind. That might not be the type of engagement marketers dream about, but it certainly is a great level of engagement – and on social media, too.

Rather than the lesson being ‘never cast an actor in a role without first asking the internet,’ the real point here is that these people only care because they care about the narrative of the Batman films. After seeing compelling characters constructed and living through a plot that had meaning for them, they felt Mr. Affleck wasn’t up to the job.  This was engagement built through storytelling.

And while the job of Hollywood is storytelling, it’s important to note that the job of any communicator is storytelling – especially marketers. The better we can construe our clients’ brands as elements in a story, a compelling narrative that fans, audiences and shoppers absorb naturally into their lives and willingly share, engage with and participate in, the better we can hope to build genuine engagement – and the better our clients’ brands will fare.

Here are five key ways to build engagement through storytelling:

1. Brand Values

What character does the brand play in the story you’re creating, and who is it supposed to appeal to? Marlboro wrote a rugged cowboy part for their brand – so taciturn and masculine that he famously never spoke aloud at all.

The Marlboro man nevertheless said volumes about an American, masculine identity that appealed to generations of smokers. Coca-Cola’s character is youthful, fun, and social. What’s true about your brand – and what character does it play in your story?

2. Brand Experiences

Wherever you can, include people’s lived experiences in the story you’re telling, and let them create part of it for themselves. Experience-oriented businesses like festivals and universities are particularly good at this, but it can apply to almost any brand. No-one would have expected that a deodorant would have been well suited to branding experience, but the recent Lynx Apollo campaign shows it can be done.

3. Brand the Truth

Levi’s tells a story about its brand: that it was foundational American workwear, simple, durable and iconic, exemplifying a particular set of beliefs Americans have about themselves. Converse tells a similar story, checking off characters as diverse as Jackie Chan and Joey Ramone, to say nothing of Charles ‘Chuck’ Taylor himself, as it builds a narrative of effortless, functional style.

What these stories have in common is that they’re true: Levi’s really did start out making overalls. Converse really did start out making basketball shoes. Build the story you tell about your brand around the facts and you’ll create something strong and lasting.

4. It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

In 2010, the top places in the bestseller list were dominated by Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. In 2012, they didn’t make the top 30. Meanwhile, with Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, even though it wasn’t in the top 100 either year, it actualy ticked quietly along in the background, cementing its place as one of the five best selling books of all time, after the Baghava Gita, the Koran, The Bible and the Thoughts of Chairman Mao (clearly sales aren’t necessarily a comment on literary quality!).

A long-running, compelling story that gets revisited and reconsidered for another generation, another season, another product, is better than something that blows up and disappears. Engagement is great, but overarching narrative is better; build the brand first and foremost.

5. Bake Sharing In

As Seth Godin observes, people don’t share raw data about the performance of your product. They tell each other stories about what your product or service did for them. If you make your stories easy to share, your social media engagement will improve, and more people will become aware of the story you’re trying to tell.

Kunle Campbell

Kunle Campbell


Kunle Campbell is Founder of Fuzz One Media.