Posted to Leigh Carver's blog on September 17th, 2013

Boost Your Content Marketing With Bold Storytelling

Over the past few days, I've noticed a surge in ads being shared across the social channels I follow. Two in particular seem to exemplify what makes great content marketing so powerful: a moving narrative that allows people to really connect with a brand’s message.

We've seen these kinds of narrative advertisements getting attention before in the past, with P&G's 2012 Thank You Mom ad campaign wringing tears out of Olympic viewers across the world, and several 2013 Chrysler Super Bowl ads honoring military families, farmers, and other American heroes.

But what is it about the narrative that makes it such a powerful marketing tool?


Plenty of research has been done on the tie between storytelling and basic human nature. Most areas of academic study agree that stories and storytelling play an intrinsic role in the way we communicate, and even encourage the survival of our species. Storytelling as a method of teaching how to handle situations indirectly is one particularly powerful tool-- for centuries, Aesop's fables encouraged the avoidance of hazards and the cultivation of certain moral standards. We hand down stories in the hopes that the children of the future don't repeat the mistakes of the past. As a species, stories keep us going.

Any marketer will agree that appealing to basic instincts can be a powerful persuasive tool. Off the top of my head, I can list a number of ads that are designed to appeal to basic needs like security and procreation, but they lack staying power. I like to think of them as psychological sucker-punches: after watching the ad, you see stars for a few minutes and then your head clears.

Storytelling, however, stays with you.

I'd like to showcase two specific ads below and discuss what makes each so powerful, and then parlay that into useful advice that you can use to enhance your content marketing strategy.

"The Scarecrow": Chipotle's Dystopian Food Future

According to Chipotle, this isn't a commercial: it's a "companion ad for Chipotle's new app-based game." Regardless, the ending of the advertisement does push burritos, but that's beside the point.

What “The Scarecrow” does is impressive, to say the least: it hammers the point home with a  gut-wrenching narrative that fits perfectly within the constraints of psychological horror. While the story stands well on its own, the narrative is made more impactful by the art of its presentation. Accompanied by Fiona Apple's haunting vocals and beautiful visuals that use color, light, and shadow brilliantly, “The Scarecrow” makes for an immersive three-and-a-half minutes that end with two subtle calls to action:

  1. Play our game.

  2. Eat Chipotle.

The subtext of the commercial, of course, is that Chipotle is the "scrappy little guy" fighting Big Ag in an attempt to change the world for the better. While the accuracy of that particular message is debatable, the story that Chipotle spins in "The Scarecrow" (ad and game alike) is captivating enough to remain with viewers long after the screen has been shut off.

"Giving" by Thai phone group True Move H.

Though this ad has drawn some fire for being unrelated to cell phone service, most of the comments I've read regarding it fall along the lines of "it's raining in my office"/"there's an onion under my desk"/"allergies are terrible today" and so on. This ad also uses color, light, shadow, and music to enhance the narrative of a man who gives freely and without asking for anything in return, only to be rewarded for his kindness at the end of his life.

If an American company (say, Sprint or Verizon) were to run this ad, I would likely be skeptical of the service, but still impressed with the narrative, and the two would remain linked in my mind for quite a while. Like "The Scarecrow," the narrative of this ad remains with viewers long after it's over.

So what can companies learn from "The Scarecrow" and “Giving”?

1. Use every tool in your toolkit.

This means making sure that what you're doing hits the mark in every way. In the ads mentioned above, we see light, shadow, color and contrast, music, and visual situation all come together to create a cohesive narrative that appeals to multiple senses. But you don't need to have a shiny, high production-value commercial to get the point across. A well written blog post, tastefully formatted with appropriate images included, will do the trick. And (like "The Scarecrow") if you can use multiple media channels or content types, the better.

2. Tell a human story.

Chipotle's story speaks about how they believe they stand apart from their competitors in Big Ag. True Move H believes that they are fostering meaningful communication. What is your brand doing that differentiates you from your competitors, and what story is there to be told there? When it boils down to it, how are you making a difference in the lives of the people who shop with you, work for you, or partner with you?

This doesn't just mean coming up with a glossy customer testimonial. Don't be afraid to be honest. Did you make poor decisions? Did your bad judgement nearly put you under? Telling a compelling story means you follow the narrative arc of exposition, rising action, crisis, resolution, and falling action-- and every compelling story needs conflict.

3. Be generous.

Instead of asking your readers (or viewers) to complete some action regarding your brand, compel them to do so with your story. True Move H compels viewers to be more giving and kind in their daily communication. Chipotle 's gorgeous commercial makes downloading "The Scarecrow" (a free game) nearly irresistible-- and the complimentary burrito you get upon completion of the game is ample reward for spending the time playing in the world of the Scarecrow. (As someone who enjoys both video games and free food, I tend to be relatively pleased with the situation.)

If you want your customers to take some action, don't just ask them to do it-- present them with a compelling narrative about why they should. Show them what sets you apart, and use every tool you can to do so. Always remember what storytelling always boils down to: the human in any given situation.

Be brave. Be human.


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