Marketing as Storytelling

A little while ago, I posted that transmedia is not marketing. I stand by that.

In comments, though, some suggested discomfort with a similar idea: that marketing is storytelling. There have been times I've disagreed with that, despite my own sometime involvement with marketing. The stuff I do is, after all, on the very fringe of marketing, right?

Of course, I'm wrong out of the gate. Imagine the simplest ads that ever were, and their problem/solution format. Rosie can't get her whites white enough/Sophie introduces her to Brand Omega. It's the same structure as any novel's tension/climax, even if the tension is caused by something prosaic. Shallow, tepid stories, but stories all the same.

Today, though, I had an epiphany. I read an article in the Guardian that touched on the absolutely brilliant Chrysler Superbowl ad, Imported from Detroit.

But it also drew its power from the intertwining stories it tapped. There's Chrysler's story, and Detroit's, Eminem's own, and that of his Rabbit character from 8 Mile – the ad's music kept threatening to break into his cathartic Lose Yourself. The more of the stories you knew, the more power the advert might have, and at their root they were all the same – comeback, redemption, turning flaws into glory.

Imported from Detroit was an advertisement. It was meant to sell cars. And yet it spoke to me on a deep emotional level, the way the very best films and novels do. --And given the public reaction, I don't think it's just because I'm from a town outside of Detroit, and I've stood in many of those places on my own two feet. 

This ad very definitely channels the same mysterious forces that make a story. It was about pride and loss, strength having the odds stacked against you. At the same time, it doesn't have a plot, it doesn't have motivations, it's doesn't have a narrative.

And yet--

I think in some sense, when the word 'story' is used in a marketing sense, it doesn't mean the same thing to those of us who write fiction. We're using the same word, but we don't mean the same thing by it.

When marketers say 'story,' it's referring not to narrative, but to the same deep, primal dynamics that we creators of fiction explore through narrative: love, yearning, status, pride, loss, forgiveness. So a marketing effort is storytelling in a sense that at its best, it invokes these dynamics, even without plot, even without action, even without characterization (or even characters!). It's the seeking of an emotional response. And it certainly isn't a lesser artform; just a shorter one.

And lo, I am converted. You win, marketers. You've been storytellers all along, and I just didn't understand what you meant by it until today.

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