How 3 Big Brands Use Storytelling to Make Everyday Products Exciting
Storytelling. It’s important. I feel like you, my Internet marketing comrades, get this by now. Interruption marketing is dead, the online attention span is dwindling, content creation is up, and your brand needs a hook to catch consumer attention before the message goes in one ear and out the other (if it even gets to the first ear at all).
You get it.
But what if you’re not GoPro? What if your brand is boring or mundane? What if you sell less than sexy everyday products like graham crackers or online classes?
Enough with the what-ifs.
Storytelling that works is all about telling your story in a context that gets people thinking about their own lives. Every brand, no matter how “boring,” has some special hook in their product line or their value system that is a great story just waiting to be told.
Taking a cue from the experts that are already doing it right, here are three great examples of big brands that are content marketing with stories that sell, and five reasons why their campaigns work so well.
Three Examples of Storytelling That Works
At the heart of it, storytelling is about using characters, setting and storyline to take an audience somewhere and make them feel something.
The values-driven, user-generated stories Patagonia, Honey Maid, and the University of Phoenix tell with their unscripted “Worn Wear,” “This is Wholesome,” and “A Career Outside Of Football” campaigns accomplish this extremely well.
Here’s what their campaigns look like:
Patagonia: “Worn Wear”
In the “Worn Wear” series Patagonia invites brand advocates to share about their outdoor adventures, their lives, and the stories their gear would tell if it could talk.
The campaign has two parts: A 27-minute YouTube documentary that brings to life the stories of seven adventurers, including Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard himself, and a dedicated landing page where readers can scroll through user-submitted images and their accompanying “Dear Patagonia” stories.
If you’re thinking about how not boring outdoor gear is, I tend to agree with you, but watching the documentary you’ll notice some of the products featured (like a child’s romper and a pair of board shorts) are not all that exciting on their own. It’s the stories around the romper and the shorts that make them engaging, not the clothes themselves.
In their own words, Patagonia describes the project as “an antidote to the Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping frenzy, [released as] an invitation to celebrate the stuff you already own.”
Why it’s successful:
- 265,251 views on YouTube
- 1,704 YouTube thumbs up
- 184 YouTube comments
Honey Made: “This is Wholesome”
In their “This is Wholesome” series of documentaries, Honey Made gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the lives of three different families, and how each make their unique situation work. The one-minute-plus documentaries feature a military family, a single dad, and a same-sex couple with two children. Although Honey Made graham products are shown in passing several times in the documentaries, the storyline is all about these families, their challenges, and, as the documentary series implies, what makes their family life wholesome.
Straight from the brand, these are the words Honey Made uses to describe the “Dad & Papa” episode of their “This is Wholesome” mini-series: “This is a touching story […] about how two traditional guys built their family on love and laughter.”
Why it’s successful:
- 203,267 views on YouTube
- 5,132 YouTube thumbs up
- 1,380 YouTube comments
University of Phoenix: “A Career Outside Football” (video no longer available)
In the University of Phoenix short documentary, we meet NFL wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who tells us in a first-person narrative about his mom’s fight with cancer, his dad’s emphasis on education and how studying at the University of Phoenix allows him to work on his degree even while raising a son and travelling the world.
In their own words University of Phoenix says this video is all about showcasing: “NFL wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald […] working toward one of the most important completion attempts of his life: his college degree.”
Why it’s successful:
- 10,475,974 views on YouTube (yes, over 10 million views)
- 50 YouTube comments
5 Elements That Make These Stories Successful
Outdoor gear, graham crackers, and online education; not the sexiest subjects. So what makes these storytelling campaigns so successful?
The short answer: They’re successful because they tell great stories.
The longer answer: The’re successful because they tell great stories that accomplishes these five elements:
- Hit a nerve: The stories told in these campaigns are fascinating, heart-felt, genuine and inspirational. Patagonia takes us down memory lane and inspires us to think about our own adventures and the stories we’ll pass down — with our gear — from generation to generation; Honey Made’s family stories make us think of our own families, and inspire us to live with more love in our day to day; and the University of Phoenix short makes us think about our own goals, the role education plays in our families, and how the flexibility of an online university can make it possible for anyone to fulfill their dreams — including us. These types of stories make us think introspectively and hit a nerve that makes them particularly memorable and share-worthy.
- Cast relatable characters that personify brand core values: Each of the adventurers, family members, and students we meet in these stories are true walking, talking embodiments of the Patagonia, Honey Made and University of Phoenix brand core values. People like to buy from brands they identify with; brands they believe in. These campaigns use the stories of real consumers to give the brands a human side, and to get the audience identifying with the characters as a means to get them identifying with the brand.
- Show, don’t tell: The trick to content marketing with storytelling is to use your story to show the audience how excellent your product is by working it naturally into the stories you tell. Honey Made shows us a family telling jokes, talking about what they love about each other, making s’mores on the stove. They never mention the graham crackers or tell the audience how to use them; instead they show the audience how they can be a fun, comforting addition to a day with the family. Patagonia shows you an old jacket — a jacket you can’t even buy! A jacket from the 1980s. They don’t tell you to buy a jacket, instead they do the opposite and tell you to keep the jacket you already have forever and reuse it a million times. They do this to show you the value of clothing that is made to last, which is part of Patagonia’s core value system. These stories show you scenes that softly pitch the framework of concepts, then allow you to interpret significant details and come to your own conclusions. Selling in this way is smart because it builds affinity and brand-loyal customers who are more likely to come back year after year to keep buying.
- Tell stories that naturally highlight product benefits: What’s the benefit of signing up for an online university? It allows you to take classes in Antarctica! Or so I’ve learned from watching Larry Fitzgerald’s University of Phoenix story. Why buy from Patagonia? Because “Worn Wear” just showed me a guy cross country skiing in a perfectly good pair of Patagonia pants he bought 30 years ago. Why buy graham crackers? Because it’s the little things that count and sharing a graham cracker with someone is a great way to show them you love them. I know; Honey Made just showed me three families that do it all the time and they look super happy. Every product has benefits; the trick is to use the show-not-tell angle to highlight these benefits and show them in action as a central part of your storytelling.
- Find real brand advocates that can sell the product for you: Production time aside, Patagonia, Honey Made and University of Phoenix didn’t have to do much writing at all to get these above-and-beyond stories. All they had to do was figure out the hook and ask their users to speak for themselves on a topic. The trick is to think about what makes your brand special — what the personification of your value system looks like — and then to find user stories that embody this vision.
At the end of the day, the type of introspective, user-generated storytelling exhibited in these three campaigns works particularly well as a marketing strategy because it engages the audience emotionally and makes them feel connected – both to the stories being told, and associatively to the brand.
Remember Your Campfire Roots and Don’t Overthink It
Considering storytelling as a content marketing tool, it can be easy to overthink the whole thing. If you want to create stories that sell, get in touch with your consumers (what makes them tick) and your own brand (what makes you special). The trick is to work smarter, not harder, by choosing to highlight stories that make an emotional impact, feature characters consumers can relate to, personify core values, and show (not tell) the benefits of products.
This approach can work for anyone, whether your product is deodorant, law services, online education, motorcycles, magazines, or something we’ve never even heard of.
Looking for more content marketing strategy tips? Check out Bruce Clay’s book “Content Marketing Strategies for Professionals” to learn more.
Keep the Story Going with a Tweet
Have a friend in a “boring brand” rut? Give them a tweet pep talk!
- Every product has benefits; the trick is to show them in action as a central part of your storytelling. [Tweet this quote]
- Storytelling 101: Consider what makes your brand special & find user stories that embody this vision. [Tweet this quote]
- Storytelling engages the audience and makes them feel connected to the brand through the story. [Tweet this quote]
- Storytelling tip: Highlight stories that personify core values consumers relate to. [Tweet this quote]
- Storytelling is about using characters, setting and storyline to make an audience feel something. [Tweet this quote]