Point of View

It’s the Story, Stupid

by Michael D'Antonio

Let me state this as simply as possible. If you want to create fun, award-winning advertising, find a hot agency known for their brilliant scripts, give them a pile of money and enjoy your 30-seconds in the spotlight. But if your goal is to create great branding, you need to start with a great story.

If you’ve ever watched a Super Bowl telecast in the company of other adults, you’ve done all the research you need. Some of the commercials grab your attention but leave everyone scratching their heads. Some are provocative, but only enough to build Monday morning buzz. There’s no substance. Other ads are visually arresting, but are thinly veiled attempts by the creative team to build a reel or win an award. And the really awful ads? Odds are, a client exec got involved and hijacked the whole mess in order to jam more mumbo-jumbo into an already cluttered message.

Year after year, the spots we remember are the ones that got their story down first. The Snickers commercial with Betty White was hilarious, but it clearly began with a good story, e.g., “when we’re hungry, we’re not our best selves.”  We get it – a Snickers bar will tide us over until we can eat a proper meal. Perfect. The story makes sense and the spot has the kind of staying power that builds brands.

Even a TV diva like Betty White could tell you that brand storytelling isn’t limited to traditional media. Red Bull energy drinks have consistently told their story in every possible medium – but most effectively through experiential marketing, where they can show Red Bull is the perfect energy pick-me-up, an elixir that gives you the boost to accomplish anything. So when Red Bull sponsors a non-stop series of extreme sports events and adrenaline-junky stunts, it all makes sense. In fact, the Red Bull story has become so iconic, and retold by so many people, that Mashable aptly notes, “Red Bull is a publishing empire that also happens to sell a beverage.” Their content – the Red Bull storyline – has totally outstripped the product while remaining authentic to the foundational brand concept.

Or how about a smaller, but no less impressive example? Michael Dubin had a humble product to sell, backed by an audacious brand story – the Dollar Shave Club. He told the story himself in a simple YouTube video that went crazy viral – and garnered 12,000 orders in the first 48 hours.  His success wasn’t because he had proof that his razors were better, but because people love a good story and the authenticity of his message was beyond doubt. In a recent New York Times article, Dubin explained the brand premise this way, “Guys are so used to milking their blades for as long as possible because they’re so expensive, and they’d forgotten how awesome it can be to shave with a fresh razor each week.” Bingo.

Entertainers, from Madonna to Kid Rock, have also figured out that the secret to staying power is a good storyline. They continuously reinvent their brand personas in a way that keeps people engrossed in their personal narrative; in many ways, it’s more interesting than their music.

It’s the same thing with entertainment destinations. Las Vegas lost its glitter. And it totally failed when it tried to bill itself as a family-friendly experience. It just wasn’t authentic. But when they tapped into an authentic story – everyone’s fantasy of an adult weekend adventure – they struck gold. The line “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” quickly became cultural shorthand for a thousand guilty pleasures, spawned movies, provoked parodies and rebuilt the brand into something Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack could once again claim as its own.

My point? Whether you’re a marketer or a consumer, you don’t have to accept shoddy substitutes that try to pass off glittery, special-effect-laden marketing as the real thing.  Technology is a great tool, but it isn’t storytelling.  Hilarious scripts with huge personalities still need to convey something we care about.

And don’t be fooled by so-called branding gurus who will have you believe that only the elect few can divine the Oracle of Big Brands. After all, every four-year old knows what needs to be done. Tell me a story. Please.