Special Report
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Once upon a time ... a guide to digital storytelling

It’s no longer enough to have a brand name. Successful companies build a story around their product to attract customers. Here’s how . . .

You can’t beat a cracking good story. Whether it’s a novel, a film, a TV show or a magazine article, everyone loves a good, well-woven yarn – and if it has the ring of truth, then all the better. We want to be dazzled by great storytelling, and we love to connect with the characters and get swept along on the story arc.

We get drawn in by good stories, and start to care about the characters, following their adventures to see what happens next. Television executives know this, which is why they spend so much time and money searching for the most compelling stories to air on their networks. Film makers know it too – if they find the perfect epic tale, they know it’ll result in epic box-office.

Business leaders have also copped on to the benefits of spinning a good story about their product, and in recent years we’ve seen the rise of digital storytelling, as companies utilise social media and other online platforms to get customers to engage with their brand on a deeper level.

For years, data was the big prize for businesses – armed with an array of customer and marketing data, companies could gain a crucial edge over their competitors. But numbers can only take you so far, even though one leading brand built its entire success on the promise that it “kills 99.9 per cent of all known germs”.


In general, it’s not easy to engage consumers with a block of cold data – you need to create a narrative around that data to capture your customers’ imaginations and get them clicking for more.

When you create a story, you are doing more than just selling your brand – you’re conveying a compelling message about your brand and positioning it in a positive way in consumers’ minds. The story could illustrate the benefits of your product for potential customers or highlight the unique community that has built up around your brand, or even demonstrate how your brand is helping to make the world a better place.

Tell a good, compelling, memorable story, and it will capture your customers’ imaginations and stay in their minds, giving them a nice, warm feeling every time they see your logo or colours. Tell a fake, unconvincing, insincere story, though, and your customers will quickly give you the cold shoulder. So, it’s vital that when you create your digital story, you don’t try to fool your audience.

Many major brands have mastered the art of storytelling, and there’s no reason why smaller companies and start-ups can’t tell their own compelling stories, too. You just need to find that kernel within your company that can seed a story that will click with your customers.

A great example of storytelling can be seen in the current VHI marketing campaign, designed by ad agency Publicis Dublin. You know the ads: a mix of live action and animation, each one highlighting a VHI customer’s health story. There’s primary school teacher Katherine, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer after one of her pupils said her voice sounded strange, and Kat, who ended up in intensive care on a trip to Cuba, suffering from deep-vein thrombosis. The animation neatly embraces the concept of being cared-for and nurtured, and, of course, each story has a happy outcome for the main character – and will have the viewer reaching for the Kleenex.

Real people

What’s all-important to the ad’s success is that it doesn’t use an actor to play the main character. We’re all too familiar with ads that portray obviously fake families frolicking at the seaside or laughing at the dinner table. Katherine and Kat are real people, and they’ve been paid a “gratuity” for appearing in the ad – but that doesn’t diminish the power of the storytelling.

Another great example of storytelling can be seen in the Allianz ads, dreamed up by creative agency In the Company of Huskies. Each one tells a unique true story of Irish lives, and each one has the ring of authenticity. We’ve all seen the one featuring Irish Paralympic swimmer Ellen Keane, recounting how she found the courage to step out and take the plunge into competitive swimming. Then there’s the one recreating the famous speech by minister for education Donogh O’Malley in 1966, announcing free secondary school education for all Irish children. If the video looks scarily real, that’s because the part of the minister was played by the politician’s own son, Daragh O’Malley.

Huskies is also behind the Londis “Local Like You” ad campaign. You know the one, featuring mums sitting in the car reading gossip mags while their kids play soccer, and one of the mums flirting with the coach. On the face of it, it’s a funny, awkward comedy sketch, but it’s based on real research into what items sell well at different Londis stores around the country.

Agency staff “drove the length and breadth of Ireland talking to shop owners. We trawled through their sales data. Something began to become clear: each Londis shop was unique. We found that out that Kilkenny buys more dog food than cat food, odd for the county known for the Kilkenny Cats. We discovered that Longford buys the most marmalade, but the least amount of bread. What do they do with it?”

Armed with the data, the company set up a website where visitors could click on and find out what items were the most popular purchases in their county. This gets to the heart of digital storytelling – being able to use multiple platforms to progress the story. In the past, it may have been just all about the TV ad, but now it’s all about moving the storyline along using Twitter, Facebook and other social media. Stories are ever moving and evolving entities, which is why your digital marketing campaign should also evolve.

If you’ve gone blue in the face telling people how great your product is, or are wondering why your competitors are getting a commercial edge over you, perhaps it’s time to look at how you market yourself, and think about telling a compelling story rather than just simply delivering stock sales patter. But what are the dos and don’ts of good digital storytelling?

Don’t lose the plot

Every story has a premise, a central plot that drives the narrative. So it should be with your digital campaign. You need to find the story within your own company and expand it into a narrative that will capture the imagination of your target market – which could be a bit of a challenge if your firm lacks a rich history to select from. Brands such as Guinness, Brennan’s bread and Kerrygold butter have a built-in advantage here – they can go through their back pages and dig out tales that can be spun into watchable advertising.

Your company may have to look harder to find the story, but believe me, it’s in there somewhere. You may have a unique origin story, or a tale about having to overcome adversity to set up your business. What does your business stand for, and what is its mission statement? There could be a story there. Look at your customers – is there a story to be told about how your product or service has enhanced their lives? And what about your employees – what motivates them to work for you? That could be an interesting tale in itself.

Keep it real

Whatever story you decide to tell, the most important thing is that it’s believable. Sure, you can embellish the tale a bit, and even add some magic realism, but make sure that the core of your story is based in truth. Customers are quick to spot when a company is telling porkies, and nobody is fooled by those ads featuring professional models posing as families, romping and laughing in their picture-perfect homes, or those ads in which kitchens and bathrooms are magically transformed by CGI and not the product being advertised. Don’t be afraid to tell the truth, no matter how mundane – it’s much preferable, and more effective, than a dazzling, elaborate lie.

Remember the main character

Many digital storytelling campaigns use real people to tell the story, which enforces the brand’s authenticity in the minds of its customers. But you can also use actors to effectively tell the story – as long as the core of the tale is real. If you’re telling a story from far back in your company’s past, you’ll have to use actors anyway.

But whether you’ve got George Clooney or George from human resources in your ad, don’t forget the real stars of your true-life drama: your customers. Make sure that whatever story you tell, you put your customers at the centre of the tale. Your story should be about how your product benefits your customer, not about how your customer benefits your product. Focus on the person buying your product and make the story about them.

Have a happy ending

Every story has to have an outcome, and nobody likes a story that peters out without any resolution or loses track of where it’s going. Why would anyone buy a boxset of Lost if they’re just setting themselves up for a disappointing non-ending? The same with your digital campaign. You want to make sure your story has a proper ending, and a good outcome for the protagonists.

No need for a perfect ending, though. Those ads where the guy gets the girl just by using a certain fragrance or chewing a certain brand of gum are old hat. You need believable, realistic outcomes for your characters that highlight the benefit of your product without exaggerating its life-enhancing properties. And don’t say your product is saving the world unless it really is.

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist