Friday, October 28, 2016

Don't Believe The Hype; Storytelling Is Not Dead

Radney Foster performing at The Blue Door
in Oklahoma City on October 20, 2016
Recently, I saw a story detailing the success of MasterCard's branding update. While this type of self-congratulatory "news" is nothing new in ad industry magazines, what caught my eye was the photo that accompanied the story, which showed a Mastercard official standing before a presentation slide proclaiming "Storytelling is dead. Long live storymaking (sic)." While I'm happy to congratulate MasterCard on their higher brand favorability score, let me also add that, for most of America's businesses, the pompous pronouncement that storytelling to enhance one's brand is dead is a total and complete pile of crap.

Granted, I'm taking that slide at face value, but my guess is some Madison Avenue visionary/guru/ninja/chief disrupter conjured up the term "storymaking" to give an edgy, "non-storytelling" definition to Mastercard's brand awareness campaign (where they "make" the stories by giving away things to cardholders, then un-ironically "tell" those stories in their marketing). Plus, declaring one approach "dead" while trumpeting your own, "new" process is a popular and cheap way to generate controversy and get attention (sort of like my own headline here!). However, if your business doesn't have the wherewithal to give away thousands of dollars or pay big name celebs to show up for "surprise" meet-and-greets while the camera rolls, then you still need to rely on storytelling as the foundation for your marketing campaign.

While I've talked about the power of storytelling and engaging with your customers before, last week I attended a master class in the concept of branding through storytelling at its most basic level. Far from a flashy presentation spewing catchy buzzwords, the featured speaker at this seminar was a singer/songwriter named Radney Foster and the venue was the Blue Door in Oklahoma City. In other words, I went to a concert (Full disclosure: I am an unapologetic Radney Foster fanboy and I regard the Blue Door with the same reverence that one might hold a house of worship).

As I listened to Radney tell the stories behind his songs (which are, obviously, stories unto themselves), I saw a man engaging an audience as he described music based on his own life. He told stories about his own experience stepping out into the world, the fear he felt over his son moving away after his divorce, and his anger at the current political climate. For Radney, this created a more personal connection between his music and the audience, which also helped him sell albums and t-shirts after the show and, hopefully, more albums and concert tickets in the future.

The icing on this storytelling cake was Radney's opening "act," author Tamara Saviano. Tamara opened the evening by telling stories from her outstanding new book, Without Getting Killed Or Caught, a biography of legendary singer/songwriter/storyteller Guy Clark. More than a generic author's reading, Tamara told personal stories about Guy Clark and his wife Susanna and about the connection to places she'd visited in Oklahoma City that were pivotal in the book. The result of that engagement was a good number of people who came for a concert but also wound up buying a book (printed books aren't dead either, btw). And the storytelling didn't stop with Radney and Tamara, as I found myself in the role of brand ambassador for the Blue Door several times, telling first-time visitors about its colorful history, its tilted walls and perfect acoustics, and the many notable performers who've played there.

Now, your business may not have songs, a biography or even a colorful history, but you still have stories to tell that will help you connect with your customer base. It may be new products, benefits, or uses for what you sell. Maybe it's success stories, community involvement or different ways customers can use your products or services in their every day life. Or, it could be putting names and faces to the employees behind the scenes or those who work with your customers. Any and all of these stories can help promote your brand though print materials, emails digital media, broadcast, podcast, direct mail, blog or social media.

Whether it's a camp fire or concert hall, books or blogs, storytelling will never die. The method you use to tell your stories may change, but the goal is still the same; engage your audience to build trust and promote brand awareness so that, when they're ready to buy, your business will be top of mind with your customers. Make that connection and you can share your very own success story.

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