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Guest Blogger

Not so long ago, I weighed in on a Twitter thread by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, who was questioning the concept of storytelling within marketing.

A WarnerMedia Exec had given an interview in which he referred to there only being three major players in the space of “storytelling companies”. “Does anyone in reach of my tweet know what a storytelling company is?”, asked Rosen, quoting another tweet pointing to the interview.

“As a marketing guy, it is marketing”, quickly replied someone in his network.

“How does ‘marketing’ = ‘storytelling’”, retorted the academic. Noting he would regret asking such questions, Rosen further challenged the idea by wondering whether corporate storytelling was not just “bloat”.

In all my years as a reporter/correspondent/digital journalist, now in charge of the digital comms for Ocado Group (which means I follow leaders of both worlds on my socials), it was the first time this type of crossover conversation turned up in my timeline. Though I am mostly a Twitter lurker, I jumped in.

“As a former journo now doing marketing, I feel like saying that bloat would be the outcome if you do it wrong”, said I.

“I still don’t get how marketing = storytelling”, Rosen replied.

Obviously they are not the same thing. But like I argued in my next tweet, storytelling is certainly one thing you can do.

I was not alone in this point of view.

“I think people who reference ‘storytelling’ in whatever product they are trying to pitch, are attempting to differentiate themselves from generic, soulless consumerism. Somehow ‘storytelling’ imbues their brand with something more personal, relatable etc”, said one twitter user.

Yet others were less inclined to see points of confluence.

“It’s used to describe ad agencies that create longer-form content for brands. Clients like the sound of it”, said one.

“One of those general terms that end up meaning nothing”, pointed out another.

“It’s a lazy catch all for a media company that does news + scripted and non-scripted entertainment. The idea is that storytelling is the common denominator and less antiseptic than ‘content’”, wrote a third, going back to WarnerMedia.

“Corporate gobbledygook”, was the verdict of a fourth. “Professional bullshit artists”, came another one.

At risk of being looked down upon by my former tribe, I stand by what I said. Storytelling is one very good thing that you can do for a brand. It is the “holy grail” of that thing they call content marketing.

Truth be told, I have struggled to find many people who can clearly articulate what it actually looks like in the context of companies.

Having attempted to do it myself, I can attest that is…how to put this elegantly?… damn hard to do properly.

What you want to say v what they’d be prepared to hear

I have certainly seen the idea of brand storytelling thrown around as the Spanish conquerors offered shiny mirrors to native inhabitants of the Americas, to bedazzle corporate audiences/clients in exchange for their gold. And no doubt there is a ton of corporate gobbledygook in the wild.

Just like there is a lot of bad journalism out there. And many a “storyteller” not worthy of the title.

At the root of the problem for brand storytelling, I feel, is the push and pull between saying what the company wants to say or saying something that adds value to the experience of the audience.
Obviously, in journalism you tell stories for the sake of the stories (though hold that thought, more on that in a moment). In business, that story needs to also connect with the business’ mission, values and capabilities. Therein lies the challenge.

Possibly because of this, journalists see all manner of ethical problems, and reject the idea of authentic storytelling ever coming from a brand.

“#Theranos comes to mind. As does Wirecard, Enron, Worldcom, Interoil…” were examples quoted in the Twitter thread.

You would hopefully agree that is a completely different type of storytelling. One I do not ascribe to.

Audience and customers
But I asked you to “hold that thought” a few paragraphs ago. It turns out that news or near news stories created for their own sake only have a good chance of failing to impress the audiences they are intended for. Because, lo and behold, it is not enough that an editor judge a story to be good: someone needs to be interested. It has to add value to the audience’s experience.

Here is where the ends meet.

In a way, while businesses need to stop seeing people at the other end of the corporate website/social media account as mere customers and treat them like an audience, news outlets seem to be needing to zoom in on audiences by taking more of a “customer centric” approach.

In business, as well as in News, content is a product. Like every other product, it needs to be designed for the person who is going to consume it.
Storytelling is a tool. One that connects humans to humans.

As such, a legitimate one for brands. Though it demands that companies stop looking at their own belly buttons and make true in their pledge to serve their customers.

Even with a tweet.

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