Marketing as Storytelling, in a Nutshell
Storytelling plays an increasingly prominent role in business as brands have evolved beyond push marketing to the curated consumer engagement and experiences that foster long-term relationships. And like every angle on the art and science of marketing, this has created a fair amount of conversation.
Indeed, one of my favorite clients, Antonio Sciuto, EVP Brands & CMO at Nestlé Waters North America, recently spoke about the significance of “stories” in an interview at eMarketer, Nestlé Waters: Brand, Publisher Goal Is Still About Telling Interesting Stories. But as an example, Antonio's piece is but the tip of an iceberg that spans scholarly articles, academic journals, college courses, webinars, seminars, blogs, posts, pitches, and a tsunami of continuing coverage in the advertising, marketing, and business press. The storytelling industrial complex: when Googled, marketing as storytelling yields a whopping 33,300,000 entries, as the inverse, storytelling as marketing, yields 22,700,000 entries!
Net, the story of storytelling in business has legs and it was in this context that I enjoyed dinner with a copywriter who recently joined one of New York’s hottest ad agencies in January. My friend explained that his Creative Director was also new to the agency and to build familiarity and collegiality with his team of twelve would call weekly meetings with little or no agenda. His goal was simply getting folks together as a group to get better acquainted with each another. The CD chose a prompt each week to get things going and have people share something personal about themselves, e.g., most embarrassing moment, favorite teacher in high school, and so on.
Last week he began the bull session by asking everyone to tell the group what they were currently reading. Oops. You see aside from Ted Talks, podcasts, cruising blogs and Twitter feeds, and the random video of dancing cats on You Tube, no one could offer anything that they were actually reading.
Nothing online, nothing offline. Nothing on a Kindle or an iPad; no hardcover or paperback, No plays, no essays; no graphic novels, novels, or novellas. No short stories, no screenplays, no histories, tragedies, or poetry. No biographies, anthologies, satires, or science fiction. Not even a coffee table cookbook!
After the discussion, which was quite lively, the CD and my friend, who both read, shared the fact that they were both horrified and they’re still working to come up with the best method to get some reading - any reading - into the groups' emotional and intellectual diet. If only because these well-educated, well-paid, agency creatives are, among many other wonderful things, in essence, professional storytellers for hire…
Where are the readers?
Our lack of interest in reading has been lamented for generations. As has the death of the novel, increasing levels of social and personal stress, vanishing attention spans, the explosion of new media, what have you. I've no idea what the root cause might be but I don't think it's screen versus paper. It isn't about the delivery system, it's about us. Just what aspect of us escapes me, but I also know it's not new. As Gore Vidal said,"You hear all this whining going on, 'Where are our great writers?' The thing I might feel doleful about is: 'Where are the readers?'"
I've no idea where the readers are but I admit to a few biases. I'm confident when ideas brush up against ideas the results are often surprising and therefore rewarding. And I'm certain that experiencing any form of art, in this case reading, sharpens our perceptions about ourselves and everything around us as we view the world through the author’s lens. This is what storytelling is and how it works. How it imagines, implies, and even explains as it makes or suggests both new ideas and new connections to our old ideas.
A Modest Proposal
My advice is if you want to be a good storyteller, you should read a lot of great stories. And I'll recommend one here, Nutshell which is Ian McEwan's incredibly imaginative adaption of Hamlet told from the perspective of a fetus in utero. Sounds promising, no?
Nutshell is the moving, modern retelling of one of the all-time classic crimes of passion fueled by lust, murder, and revenge. It’s an altogether piercingly human story. Here Hamlet’s uncle Claude (Shakespeare’s King Claudius) and mother Trudy (Queen Gertrude) consort together and conspire to kill Trudy’s husband, little Hamlet’s father, so that they may wed and reap the rewards of his family estate with him safely six feet under.
Now before anyone’s eyes glaze over at the thought of Shakespeare, which I realize isn't everyone's cup of tea, Nutshell a very modern take on some very primal motives set in a Georgian townhouse in London today. The writing is remarkable; clean, crisp, and fast- paced, the narrative complete less than 200 pages. No iambic pentameter, no ghosts, no "Alas, poor Yorick!", no windswept Danish castle, and no men in tights.
Claude and Trudy's plotting, deceit, lust, and hatred are on breathtaking display and revealed through conversation, action considered and taken, and several intimate moments that only McEwan's passenger/reluctant witness/tiny friend Hamlet could overhear and be aware of. And the little guy’s quite sophisticated take on all this as he slowly realizes who's doing what to whom - why Dad's been kicked out of his own house, is never around and why his uncle is paying such, uh, attention, to Mom is at once tragic, comedic, and remarkably gripping.
Beginning from the jump on page one as our little Ham-let introduces himself and our story begins, ”So here I am, upside down in a woman.”