The Ultimate Guide to storytelling in advertising
Updated: Feb 27
What do stories have to do with advertising?
Capturing your audience's attention is no easy feat. Netflix knows this, which is why their TV shows are cleverly crafted to encourage binge-watching. You know this, dare I say every one of us has that one show, which was or is our guilty pleasure, that we end up watching episode after episode, until the season itself is over, leaving us craving for the next season.
So what is it, that keeps us hooked, keeps us wanting more? It's storytelling.
We like to think of ourselves as logical beings, and we are to some extent, but we are also emotive beings, and it is that emotion that drives us to live our lives to the fullest of our abilities. It's the emotion that connects us so viscerally to each other.
Stories are able to communicate complex messages in very specific and emotional ways. Stories make things memorable, it's the primary driver of how we communicate with one another, so in that measure, brands that are trying to connect with their customers on a deeply fundamental level, should use stories powerfully and profoundly.
So what separates a powerful story from a mediocre one?
We've worked with numerous brands to help them craft their stories to communicate their message to their consumers, and this is a conundrum that we have seen repeat itself over and over again. In order to start, you need to truly understand your customer.
Step 1: Develop your Customer Personas
Developing Customer Personas is not rocket science. It may sound complicated, but it isn't. If you have the tiniest inclination towards who your ideal customer ought to be, a persona makes them relatable and accessible to you. So, let's say you are a real estate company, that develops ultra-premium luxury apartments. You already know that the income segment of your ideal customer is $x and above. Develop the character further, be creative. Assign them an identity, imagine what their day-to-day life is like. Flesh it out further. Do they have a family? What are their interests? What are their primary motivations to buy an ultra-premium luxury apartment?
By developing your character and going deeper, you start to see patterns form, you start to realise that there are key motivations that drive their decision making. But don't stop there, add more personas that fit the profile of your target customers, make them different from each other. And eventually, you will start to see patterns coalesce and form.
Customer Personas provide a tremendous value and insight that is more qualitative than quantitative, it helps you understand your customer's needs and motivations and how you can help them.
Step 2: Start with the skeleton of the story
You don't need to go into massive detail in order to craft a story that is memorable, but you need to have an idea of the flow of the story. This is where you craft the 'what' and the 'who'. What is the story or the primary message that you are communicating, and who are you communicating it to?
A story to succeed has to have three primary parts:
It needs to be relatable
It needs to be emotional
Finally, it needs to have a cohesive flow
The character or the hero has to be relatable to the audience. It means that he/she has to be grounded in reality. In terms of the story, its relatability allows people to empathize with the plot, characters, and themes in a way that its core message appeals to your target consumer.
Emotions are another key driver. Humor always breaks the ice, and it doesn't hurt to inject a bit of humour into your story. It's about creating a story that evokes powerful emotions. It can be a 'feel-good' story that slots your brand into that experience, or it can be a story that enables us to relate better to the characters in the advertisement, it could be a story about connection, it could be about a good many things, but as long as it forms meaning for the viewer, it has fulfilled its purpose.
Finally, the flow. Stories always start with a conflict, a problem that the hero or heroine is facing, a process or a journey to resolve that problem, and then the final resolution. That cohesive flow allows the user to easily digest the message that is being communicated, simply and powerfully.
Step 3: Choose a protagonist carefully
Remember when we did the exercise of the customer personas and the detail that you had to go into in order to properly flesh out the character? In the same way, you need to do that with your primary protagonist. The hero or heroine is the face that you associate the story with, and for that reason, you need to choose a character that the audience can relate to immediately.
The character has to be appealing, people should vouch for him/her and feel strongly for what they are going through. The character has to be well-defined and intriguing enough to leave an impression in the audiences' minds.
Step 4: Place the most interesting elements at the beginning of your story
As with a good article, or a book, you have a hook that draws the reader in. So is the same with a story. You need to have a compelling enough introduction that keeps people watching till the end of the advert.
Especially in the age of Youtube ads where the skip button is the most clicked button on the internet today, it's ever so important to have the introduction be so compelling that the viewer chooses not to click the skip button and watch the next 30 secs of the ad, and then the next 30 seconds and so on and so forth. The first 5 seconds of any advertisement is highly critical and plays a massive role in drawing the viewer in.
Step 5: Create some sort of "conflict"
Why I hear you asking. Conflict is the easiest way to keep an audience hooked. Everyone wants to know the conclusion, they want the resolution, and hence, they will watch until they feel that the conflict is resolved. But how much conflict do you create, and is there something like too much conflict?
The conflict doesn't need to be drawn out, but it is important for the protagonist to fail at whatever they are trying to achieve. If they get what they are looking for immediately, there is no story for the viewer to follow. When you add to these differing perspectives, opinions and obstacles, you create a "follow-through" path that the viewers are eager to see resolved, because they are already invested in the protagonist's story.
Step 6: Find the sweet spot between telling the story and listening
Now imagine you are in a room full of people, and you are narrating your story. But here's the catch, none of them are listening to you. Will you be able to tell your story after all? Nope.
There is a symbiotic relationship between telling your story and keeping your viewership hooked. Most of the time the nuances can be found in the silence. Use your visual landscape to your advantage, and tell the story viscerally through the accompanying visuals and associated emotions. Identify those obstacles we talked earlier about, and understand why those obstacles are meaningful to your viewer, why does it keep them hooked? You need to understand your viewer's attention span, their likes and dislikes, what is their primary motivation and why the protagonist's story is meaningful for them. Remember the personas, this is where it all comes together.
Step 7: Keep it Real
There's an argument that people watch TV to escape from their reality, and there's some truth in that. However, TV shows have to be based on reality for people to feel connected. Even Sci-Fi shows and movies are deeply human, in being emotional. Remember we said that humans are emotional beings? People are driven by emotion, and a story grounded in that emotional reality is profound and meaningful to your viewers.
We all have a "sixth" sense when we have a gut feeling that someone is not being authentic. This is even more prevalent in the stories that brands put out. Twitter is rife with people making fun of brands that fake authenticity, and it backfires on them massively. Do not steal other people's ideas, or stories, they are deeply personal, neither should you come across as a brand that is trying to impress them. Many others have done the same before you, and they have failed miserably.
Staying true to your brand, its personality and what it stands for is fundamental to the art of story-telling. If your brand embodies thinking out of the box, don't be afraid to be funny or humorous. If you're a hospital or a healthcare organization, people need to know that their lives and their health are safe in your hands. People are drawn to products from brands that speak to them, that they feel connected to, so don't feel afraid to show them who you really are as a brand.
Leaving a lasting, memorable impression
Brand storytelling is an art. And it's an art form that many tout to be experts in. To be a good storyteller, you need to understand life and its nuances. To be a good storyteller, you need to have a story to tell. Luckily for all of us, life is filled with those stories that connect us and unite us in ways that we just couldn't fathom.
If you need inspiration, turn to your team, involve them in the process. This is a great exercise for team building, and ramping up inspirational stories amongst one another. Finally, if you're stuck, we've created stories that are impactful for a number of brands across the globe, and we'd be more than happy to assist you, contact us if you need help.