There has been a dramatic shift in brand marketing and advertising techniques over the past 20 years; humanity now takes center stage.
When I think back to the most popular ad campaigns of my childhood — the pink Energizer Bunny who keeps “going and going and going,” the Taco Bell chihuahua, the creepy McDonald’s moon-head dude playing “Mac the Knife” — I see a common thread. They all employ gimmicks to drive home the value of their products.
The “characters” in these campaigns are one-dimensional, attention-grabbing stick figures who point loudly and clumsily back to their corporate sponsors. There’s nothing emotional or human about any of these campaigns. The message comes across loud and clear: “Buy our stuff because we’re clever.” But that message is uninspired and uninspiring.
In the past 10 years or so, I’ve seen a gradual shift away from brand-centric messaging. Marketers are starting to understand that consumers are burned out on egocentric communications from egocentric companies who don’t know them or care about them. The new approach to marketing and advertising is called brand storytelling, and it’s a much more human-centric way of selling products and services.
The new approach to marketing and advertising is called brand storytelling, and it’s a much more human-centric way of selling products and services.
What is brand storytelling?
The term brand storytelling is pretty straightforward. It’s about brands telling stories. But instead of telling stories about themselves — the traditional approach to marketing — brand storytelling turns the spotlight away from the business. Often, brand storytelling features customers or everyday people who could be potential customers. Sometimes, it focuses on iconic or influential people their audience cares about.
Why is this approach so effective? There are two key factors:
- Storytelling is hardwired into humanity. Stories are how we learn, how we remember, how we connect with one another and with the world. Tapping into this basic human impulse makes for much more powerful content.
- Brand storytelling that puts its audience first is more relatable and genuine than a corporate mascot or generic celebrity endorser. It also shows a business understands the people they’re talking to and what motivates them.
Who’s winning with brand storytelling?
Some of the most successful campaigns from the past couple of years have utilized storytelling to great effect. Here are 5 great examples of brands that are putting human-centered stories front in center in their marketing.
1. Dove real beauty sketches
This ad campaign by hygiene brand Dove took the internet by storm in 2013, garnering over 66 million views on YouTube and a slew of awards, including 19 at Cannes Lions.
While the premise behind this campaign was contrived, the story is one that resonated with women worldwide: Social standards of beauty have caused us to be our own harshest critics. When the pairs of sketches are revealed at the end, the participants’ emotions have a powerful impact.
2. Beats by Dr. Dre: The Game Before the Game
When Beats by Dr. Dre first launched, the brand relied heavily on the star power of its creator. In 2015, the brand tried something refreshingly different in its The Game Before the Game ad campaign.
The mini-film is framed by the story of a father giving his son, Brazil’s superstar player Neymar Da Silva Santos Jr., a pep talk before the World Cup football match. The commercial features a montage of fans getting ready to watch the match all over the world, other players preparing before the match, and that tension-filled moment right before Neymar Jr. steps out onto the field.
The beauty of this commercial? Beats headphones are featured in a number of the shots, but the product placement doesn’t detract from the energy or pace of the story.
3. Always: Like a girl
There’s a reason this commercial from feminine hygiene brand Always has over 59 million views on YouTube and took home an Emmy award, a Glass Lion at Cannes, and several other awards in 2015. In just over 3 minutes, this marketing piece brings to light a story pervasive throughout our culture—that girls aren’t as strong, athletic, or brave as boys — and illustrates how this story is a side effect of social education instead of a fact.
The message is powerful. The actors are relatable. And the concept has nothing to do with pads, although it does speak directly to Always’ target audience (and future audience) members. This is brand storytelling gold.
4. Dallas Cowboys: Jason Witten
It’s strange to think of sports teams as brands. But of course, they are brands — some of the most powerful brands out there, in fact.
The Dallas Cowboys have worked hard to cultivate their brand, and they command attention from fans (and haters) alike. Part of the reason they’ve made such an impact on American football fans is their investment in great players like Jason Witten. This interactive biography explores the life of one of their key players. Described as “a story of abuse… a story of perseverance… and above all, a story of redemption,” the Cowboys allow Witten’s history and accomplishments to speak for themselves. The result is a truly inspiring piece of brand storytelling.
5. Leica: 100
Camera brand Leica celebrated its centennial anniversary with a beautiful campaign that tells the story of its brand without featuring their brand at all. Instead, the video highlights some key moments in human history captured on film, recreated with Leica technology. The narration really pulls the experience together into an interesting story that celebrates the brand’s 100 years of business without being salesy.
The bottom line
Brand storytelling is the antidote to the soulless “Buy now! Buy more!” marketing of the past. Through the power of stories, brands are becoming more human—and connecting with their audiences on a human level.
Want more insight on leveraging your brand by adding a human element? See A Brand Is Just A Brand — Unless It Has Purpose.
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