What Really Is Storytelling in Marketing?

We all know what a story is – “a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse or instruct the hearer or reader”. And the idea of storytelling in marketing is not new, but it has become a favorite word you’re likely to hear in one of your strategy meetings. So what really is storytelling in marketing, and what are the different ways it is being used?


Whether it is a commercial on TV or an online video, these types of ads are what most people think of when thinking about advertising as a storytelling medium. When executed masterfully, like the “Lost Panda” spot from Tile, a piece of advertising can play with our emotions, make us care about characters, see them triumph over obstacles, provide us a satisfying conclusion, and still communicate products benefits.

Branded content

For their series “Orange is the New Black”, Netflix worked with The New York Times to create branded content around female prisoners. Through a combination of video, audio, graphics, and statistics, they tell the compelling stories of real incarcerated females, to ultimately showcase why the same approach taken for male prisons doesn’t work for female prisoners. Tying this all back to promoting the show is the activism of the author of the book the show was based on.

Branded Content Storytelling

We utilized a branded content approach built around stories, with the Podcast series “Hackable?” that we created for our client McAfee. The goal was to educate people about online security in a way that would capture their interest, and keep them coming back to hear more stories. While there was an important message to get across to provide listeners with valuable knowledge so they can protect themselves, it is the fascinating stories of going behind the scenes of how things actually get hacked that provides the platform to share that knowledge.

Hackable? by McAfee Storytelling Podcast

sequential advertising

A storytelling approach can also be used by utilizing sequential advertising to progressively continue the message of a brand to people who have been exposed to previous ads.

Microsoft XBox used sequential advertising for the launch of the game “Halo Wars 2”. They first used a long-form video about 1-minute in length based to help develop the storylines around the characters, then remarketed to those that watched those with shorter, 6-second ads, like the one below, that extended the story.

Facebook has researched different storytelling approaches and the impact they have. They found that “most brands within the study experienced a statistically significant positive lift” when utilizing sequential advertising that tells a story.

product descriptions

Fans of Seinfeld may remember Elaine’s job working for the J Peterman catalog. Well, the J Peterman catalog is real, with each product getting the storytelling treatment like this one for a men’s vest:

“Jacket Not Required. Some men look better standing amongst rough-cut beams and blue stone hearths; sitting behind creaky desks, reading the Paris Review. These same men procure window seats at jacket-required restaurants wearing vests like this.

We found it on a rack of luxurious wools, silks, and velvets on Boulevard St. Germain in Paris, refusing to be ignored. The substantial texture of this 8-wale corduroy makes accompanying layers—those of the cotton, wool, or silk persuasion—achieve their full potential (power players such as this lead by bringing up the supporting cast).

The golden tan color and deep ribbing creates a symphony of shadow and light, resulting in a luster not normally associated with corduroy. Paired with a Gatsby or collared shirt and tie, you manage to look more dressed up than the conformist in the blah blazer. Worn under that blah blazer, the conformist becomes something altogether different.

Jacket may be required. For you, it’s a matter of choice.”

There is a tongue-in-cheek quality to their product stories that actually makes you want to read about products you’d never even consider purchasing, which is how I ended up reading the description of a brown corduroy vest in the first place. While the character of Eddie Sherman didn’t have a future at the J Peterman catalog, he knew how to paint a picture.

Shinola makes great use of storytelling in their product descriptions. “Built to last, and named accordingly, every detail of The Runwell was engineered with an obsessive focus to ensure the highest possible quality. The Argonite 1069 high-accuracy movement is the powerful motor behind this bold white dial and sub-second. The polished stainless steel case is accentuated by a classic pumpkin crown while Largo Tan leather straps compliment (sic) the refined dial handsomely. A good watch not only tells time, it sets the tone for your whole day.”

Product Description Storytelling

A similarly priced watch from Movado takes a non-storytelling, feature-focused approach: “Men’s Movado Heritage Series Calendoplan watch, 40 mm stainless steel case with fluidly extended lugs, round black 3-hand dial with luminescent silver-toned hands and applied markers, printed white minute index, and date display, cognac leather strap with white top-stitching and stainless steel buckle.”

Two companies selling similar items in a similar price bracket take different approaches that fit their brands. Shinola’s entire brand is built on a foundation of stories and they commit to it through sharing those stories of Detroit, their craftspeople, their partners, and their places, while Movado doesn’t tap into their brand heritage story all that much.

online experiences

Digital properties have been used to tell stories that may combine user interaction, video, audio, and writing. In their 6-part series “Breaking Through”, Teton Gravity Research, in partnership with REI Co-Op, tells the stories of unique athletes reaching new levels in their sports. REI Co-Op ties this into their Force of Nature initiative to help showcase female role models in the outdoors. They don’t use storytelling just for the sake of it but rather to address a concern their research uncovered that “63% of women said they could not think of an outdoor female role model”.

company backgrounds

For many companies, their backgrounds are the most natural places to utilize storytelling.

Take The North Face’s About Us page on their website. While they go through an extensive telling of their over 50-year history, in the first paragraph alone they establish how their origin story is still connected to what the brand is about today.

“We are named for the coldest, most unforgiving side of a mountain. We have helped explorers reach the most unfathomable heights of the Himalayas. But The North Face® legend begins, ironically, on a beach. More precisely, San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, at an altitude of only 150 feet above sea level. It was here in 1966 that two hiking enthusiasts resolved to follow their passions and founded a small mountaineering retail store. From the beginning, the brand committed to serving all those who desired to explore and to serving our natural wild lands by helping to conserve them. At our core, we believe exploration creates an indelible bond with the outdoors, inspiring people to protect our land and pass these beliefs down to the next generation.”

Their story helps you understand their purpose, brings you to the time when they developed their brand mantra of “Never Stop Exploring”, and connects this large global brand back to their humble roots.

case studies

Case studies are perfect opportunities for storytelling because their typical structure aligns with so many of the elements of a story. There is the background, which may be the setting or characters. The challenge, which may be the plot and the conflict. And the results, which may be the resolution. Each one of these elements provides an opportunity to set scenarios that people can relate to and show your product/service as the hero of the story.


According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, stories actually make our brain produce and release chemicals that can make us feel hopeful, optimistic, focused, and empathetic. So it is no wonder that as we are feeling good we are more likely to remember the things that were present at those moments. The Significant Objects project proved a great story can increase the perceived value of a product.

But not every brand has a great story to tell, and not every product is perfect to utilize a storytelling approach to communicate what is great about it. So you should ask yourself the following questions when talking a storytelling approach:

  • Does it have substance?
  • Is it compelling enough for people to care?
  • Is it relevant to my product/service that I offer today?
  • Is it the right place to tell a story?

If the answer to all of the above is “yes” then utilizing a storytelling approach may make what you are trying to communicate even more memorable.