The secret sauce: Storytelling tips from a master strategist

May 6, 2015Uncategorized

“Your content must be real, but it doesn’t have to be true”… and other storytelling gems from the Content Marketing Institute’s master strategist Robert Rose.

What’s the difference between the way your brand approaches telling a story versus the way Steven Spielberg would do it? How do you “get out of your own brand’s way”? What’s the secret sauce in nailing made-for-medium content?

Robert Rose, who co-authored the best-selling book Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing, and is Chief Strategy Officer for the Content Marketing Institute, reveals the top dos and don’ts of your brand’s storytelling journey.

King Content was fortunate to have Robert speak at our boutique storytelling-themed whiskey-tasting event to mark the launch of our New York City office.
(Read about how master Irish storyteller Ciaran O’Donovan stole the show by bringing ‘the power of the story’ to life.)

We sat down with Robert afterwards for an exclusive one-on-one. He shares his insights, tips and secrets about ‘storytelling for brands’ below.

‘Storytelling’ has become the buzzword of the decade, though the concept has, of course, been around forever. What does ‘storytelling for a brand’ mean and how does that differ from, say, how Steven Spielberg might interpret storytelling?

At its heart there’s not a lot of difference. What we’re both saying is that we want to take you on a journey, at the end of which you will have changed. That’s really all a story is. But when we talk of a business telling a story, we’re most often discussing one of two things. The first is a linear, self-contained piece: a video, a book or an article that occasionally presents classic storytelling structures as a narrative. The piece ideally has a beginning that introduces conflict, a middle that illustrates a main character’s journey, and an end that brings some kind of resolution.

The second, more typical kind of storytelling that businesses talk about is the brand story and how to express the ideas for which the company stands. These expressions come in varying content-driven forms: websites, blogs, magazines, email newsletters, et cetera. These content-driven experiences are not, themselves, linear stories but rather collections of content that, when consumed, hopefully tell the brand story.

We can think of them as ‘story spaces’ – non-linear, sometimes interactive collections of content where consumers create their own adventures and experience the essence of the brand. Understanding the difference between those two is critical.


Finance and insurance companies were some of the first to embrace the concept of content marketing. Arguably, however their brand stories could be deemed less interesting than more glamorous industries. How has this vertical successfully embraced storytelling and what are some of the best examples you’ve seen of these companies effectively using storytelling to engage consumers?

I disagree with the uninteresting bit. This is a cop-out. I’ve seen brands that make silicon chips make themselves emotional. I’ve seen companies that make welding torches create highly emotional stories. Financial and insurance companies deal with one of the most emotional and dramatic things on the planet – our future security. The biggest challenge is that most of these companies are scared to go some place that deals with that. They’re scared to take a position that might make somebody feel something, because it might be off-brand. But ultimately, it’s going to be the companies that make us feel and think, and emerge from high-impact experiences that will differentiate themselves in our lives.


On the flip side, some brands seem to lend themselves far better to storytelling, but have struggled to understand content marketing and its difference to PR, for example. What would you say to companies in verticals, such as fashion, beauty, retail, CPG, and so on, that are struggling with taking a strategic and performance-oriented approach to content marketing?

It’s a great point – and it’s actually the other side of the coin that we just talked about. Companies in the traditionally ‘sexy’ space can’t seem to get out or their own brand’s way. They assume because they are so cool or sexy that all they have to do is talk about themselves, because the brand itself is what’s cool. It’s not. This is where the ‘brand people’ can actually be a hindrance. They prevent the company from doing something from a content perspective that might be different than the product. I think L’Oréal actually does a really great job of this, by the way, with their hub. It’s a great example of not letting the brand get in the way of something that’s interesting in and of itself.


This is a tough question, but what’s your ultimate favorite example of storytelling done brilliantly?  

Not tough at all actually, because there’s some amazing work getting done. I think what Chipotle did with the ‘Farmed and Dangerous’, and ‘The Scarecrow’ pieces were just wonderful. At a similar level – but not a smaller company – what GE is doing with its new Breakthrough television series – and what it did with the Fallonventions (for Jimmy Fallon was also wonderful. Then, at the much, much smaller level, I absolutely adore what Lincoln Electric did with its site – it’s a story space that sets up wonderful short documentaries about all the cool things being done with welding torches. It’s awesome.


What are some of the best ways a brand can tell a story? For example, the default thought is ‘blog’. What are some of the most compelling mediums for storytelling you’ve seen work?

Any medium can work – the key is writing the story for the medium and not trying to force it into channels. My old screenwriting teacher used to drill that into our head. He would say, “your screenplay will probably suck as a novel and your novel will probably suck as a movie”. And for the most part I think this is true. Obviously, there are exceptions to this every year at the theaters. But aside from those extraordinary adaptations, my advice is to create the story first and then write it specifically for the experience to which you want to express it. That can be anything really – and even a combination of mediums which is optimal in a business sense. My biggest piece of advice is build your center of gravity first (where you will build your audience) and then build up the stories around it.


What role will video play in storytelling for brands over the next two years?

Well, it’s huge, obviously. As bandwidth continues to broaden – thanks, Net Neutrality – video will become an increasingly compelling way to impact people with content. It’s one of the easiest and most powerful way to illicit an emotion. But interestingly, I think we’ll start to see video that’s afforded the interactivity as well. Right now, we still look at internet video as TV, and that’s a very linear experience. I think we’ll see video start to evolve and emerge in a much more interactive way. We’re already starting to see that in some of the console games and I think it won’t be long till we start seeing it in business video as well.


What opportunities does this afford to brands? What challenges does it pose?

Well, the opportunity is to tell better stories and differentiate our brands to the point where we win more customers and create more loyalty. The challenge, of course, is in the execution – not everyone will be good at this. I mean, we’ve seen since digital began that there were leaders and laggards in developing beautiful, informative websites, and then social experiences, and then mobile experiences and now the convergence of the physical and digital will add another layer of complexity. It’s very exciting, but will be very daunting for brands that can’t act quickly. Luckily, there will be companies like King Content to help them along – wink, wink nudge, nudge.


‘Authentic’ is another word that’s thrown around a lot. What does authentic storytelling mean to brands and how do brands stay true to what they are, while still being highly engaging to target audiences?

You’re absolutely right – it absolutely does get thrown around too much and thankfully, you’ve defined it accurately in the question. It simply means, ‘of undisputed origin’. That’s it. So, the interesting thing is ‘authentic’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good’. You can be authentically crappy or you can be authentically damaged. So, think Coca-Cola for example. Is their content initiative – the ‘spread happiness’ idea – authentic storytelling? You can come to passionate arguments on both sides of that discussion. Some will argue that it absolutely isn’t who they are. The other side will argue that it’s absolutely true to what the brand of Coca-Cola intends to be (the promise they make) to spread happiness across the planet. Both are equally valid.

This is the key – we’re marketers; we’re not in the business of the truth. I don’t care what business, non-profit or government organization you work for, if you’re in marketing, you’re not in the business of the truth – you’re in the business of what ought to be the truth. The minute you say your product or service is the “top product that uniquely solves ‘x, y, z’ challenge, that… blah, blah, blah”, you’re out of the truth and into what ought to be the truth.

As I say a lot in my workshops – your content must be real, but it doesn’t have to be true.


What are the top three things companies should think about when embarking on their storytelling journey?

  1. Think ‘story’ first, then ‘medium’ second. We’re classically trained as marketers to think medium first, and then content. I need a print campaign or a TV campaign, etc. Today, we need to create the value – the story – first and then figure out where to tell it.
  2. Think product, not campaign. We are trained as marketers to think about the launch and then not much further out. Great content should live forever and therefore needs to be managed and created with that intention. That means it should be created with product development ideas, not campaign-minded thinking.
  3. Simplify. Stop trying to map every piece of content to every micro-decision that your buyer will make. Instead, simplify and pick a few places where you can have great impact with a smaller set of content.


What are the top three things they should avoid at all costs?

I’ll give you one big one. Stop starting with execution. Plan first. Create a strategy and a plan and a reason for content to exist first, and then execute slowly, deliberately. Stop mistaking moving fast for being agile. Be quick to adapt, and deliberate and measured in your execution. Be great.

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One Comment

  • David Butler says:

    Insightful interview! Thank you! I like to say “your story is your strategy”. Strategy connects to Story connects to Emotion connects to Actions. I totally agree with Robert we need more Strategy and Positioning First to be brilliant storytellers.