To build great stories, you need creatives—and you need them earlier than you think.
So you’re a marketer who wants to do storytelling. Or if we’ve now passed that term’s sell-by date, maybe you want to build narratives.
Just know that if you’re leaving the creative stuff to the end, you’re probably not doing your best work.
Let’s use an archery metaphor:
First, there’s a target. That’s the customer or prospect. Marketing pinpoints this target before pulling back on the bow.
The bow represents all the tools you use to launch content at this target—marketing and campaign planning, etc.
You, dear marketer, are the archer.
And then there’s the arrow.
The arrow, in this metaphor, is your “story” (or narrative, if you prefer).
Each of the elements—bow, target, archer, arrow—is essential. But it’s the arrow that makes contact. It’s the payload that strikes the heart of the target, makes an impression, persuades them to act—or to shrug and walk away.
Your target can, and should, be triangulated and Marketo-ed and persona-ed using data and research and best practices. The bow can be structurally sound. You can be the best archer in town. But if you don’t load the right payload onto a bow—if you try firing a fish or a pool noodle instead of an arrow—however well-aimed, it will land with a splat.
I am often approached by marketers trying to cram a pool noodle into their bow. They ask me and my creative colleagues to just ‘trim it down a little.’ But we know the truth: ‘trimming it down a little’ will never turn a pool noodle into an arrow.
The arrow is a creative product honed with a mixture of skill, training, experience, instinct, words, images, inspiration, caffeine, and collaboration. Sometimes whiskey is involved also.
The arrow should be carved by experts.
The experts, in the case of storytelling and narrative, are designers and videographers and writers and other creative specialists.
The archer guides the process. But the arrow-building experts know which wood flies true and how to weight the feathers. They know how to build the right arrow for a particular bow. They know tricks and possibilities non-experts would never think of.
Recognizing this expertise, and how and when to integrate it with marketing expertise, is vital to successful story-building and story-telling.
Because, despite the fact that marketing does require imagination and creativity, crafting the arrow is not exclusively, or even predominantly, a marketing skill.
And as a result, well-intentioned marketers often mess up the payload.
The evidence is scattered far and wide across the internet, on social media, and in an unread brochure near you.
Powerful business stories are built from the inside out.
And ‘inside’ is the creative’s natural habitat.
Creative professionals aren’t just adept at creating assets; their skill set is uniquely suited to the story-building process as well. These skills can be a secret weapon in narrative development and content strategy.
One of my favourite campaigns is the Coca-Cola Company’s legendary 1971“Hilltop” ad, featuring I’d like to buy the world a Coke.
It’s a compelling work of storytelling. It was creative, but still did the heavy lifting: making a connection, conveying differentiation, expressing a persuasive set of values. ‘Coke is more than a soft drink,’ the ad suggested, ‘it’s a common human experience. It unites people.’ It spoke to diversity and a global sensibility that elevated the message miles above ‘we taste good.’
This great narrative wasn’t born as a line item in a marketing plan. It started with a spark in the mind of a creative professional.
Bill Backer, McCann Erickson creative director on the Coca-Cola account, came up with the idea for “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” while laid up in an Irish airport, waiting out heavy fog. He noticed that the miffed passengers whose flights had been delayed eventually settled into calm and ease while sitting around talking and enjoying a Coke. His creative mind extrapolated that moment into a series of images of people all around the world, smiling together over a Coke.
Here’s Backer’s account of that moment:
“In that moment [I] saw a bottle of Coke in a whole new light… [I] began to see a bottle of Coca-Cola as more than a drink that refreshed a hundred million people a day in almost every corner of the globe.[…]So that was the basic idea: to see Coke not as it was originally designed to be — a liquid refresher — but as a tiny bit of commonality between all peoples, a universally liked formula that would help to keep them company for a few minutes.”
Backer translated this moment of inspiration into a marketable narrative. He was equipped to think this way, to recognize this moment and translate it into a saleable story, because of his training, aptitude, and experience as a creative professional.
The Center of the Content Universe
Powerful stories are built from the inside out. And, as Simon Sinek and others have discussed, the big questions at the centre of it all are Why? and Who?
That this graphic looks like an orbit diagram is not accidental. The questions Why? and Who? should assert a gravitational pull on story-building, story-planning, and story-telling. These processes should always circle back to these two questions.
With the crazy pace of business, marketing efforts often skip the innermost question (Why), document demographics about the background context (Who), dive right in at the planning stage and try to do story-building from there. The creative processes, and creative professionals, are relegated to the end. That’s a mistake.
Because then this happens:
…The campaign launch is days away, but the creative isn’t what you were hoping for. It’s okay, but it’s not blowing your mind. You’re frustrated. You swap out your creative team for some pinch hitters. You’re over budget and too close to your deadline to be picky, so you settle for a version everyone can live with (kind of).
The creative lacks an emotional core because the creative team wasn’t involved in building an originating narrative, or perhaps because there is no originating narrative.
In the absence of great creative, the question of whether or not the company is ‘comfortable’ with it takes on inordinate weight. The “brand” is wielded like a librarian’s hush. The “Why?” and “Who?” are nowhere to be found…
And that is how you build so-so assets based on inadequate stories stemming from status quo-driven processes.
Why? and Who? The questions at the heart of your narrative.
Like story-telling, story-building is a creative process. It explores a different set of questions from those associated with tactical marketing activities.
These questions aren’t execution-oriented.
They are emotional. They are philosophical. They start with “Why?” and “Who?”
Why are we selling this? What is it contributing to the world, to our industry, to our customers? What do we get out of it?
Who are our customers and what do they care about? Why should they listen to us? Why would they choose us?
These are questions whose answers naturally draw humans in.
They’re where story begins.
And that’s why you need your professional storytellers alongside you from the beginning—because this place is their natural habitat.
- Story-building is the process of exploring what your business has to share that could resonate with customer needs and desires.
- Story-telling means expressing your discoveries in an intriguing, engaging way that starts a conversation and keeps it going.
- To do each well, you need people with the right skills present throughout these processes.
A few more observations:
1. When doing story-building work, fight your urge to plan. But do document your discoveries.
Story-building is a strategic creative process, not a tactical planning process. If you try to plan or build a story without a clear purpose or vision — be it an internal story or an external one — it’s likely to flop like an arrow-shaped pool noodle.
The self-analysis at the center of story-building is thinking work. We may want to plan-execute-plan-execute, because we’re doing something concrete, but planning and execution in the absence of purpose leads to random acts of marketing.
When my colleagues and I do story-building work with a client, we document the outcome in a Story-Building Brief or Narrative Brief. This document memorializes the conversation we had about the client’s Why? and Who? It gives the organization a narrative foundation from which to spin off its customer-facing stories.
2. Know where marketing skills end and other creative skills begin.
Marketers should candidly examine their own skills and abilities when deciding what role to play in building, directing, or evaluating creative stories and narrative products.
This can be a tough one for marketers to swallow, but it has a fundamental impact on the quality of the content a company puts out.
Building internal and external narratives demands skills and experience that lie outside the marketing skill set. Some marketers have extensive design or writing experience and some don’t. Some struggle to share the process with other experts, or their timelines are too pinned to allow it.
But the earlier you involve visual and narrative storytellers, the stronger your narrative will be and the richer the external expressions will be. It takes you down paths you may not have considered. And it gives you a strong vision to sell internally.
3. Story-building is a definable, repeatable, and business-oriented process.
I’m not trying to make a case for wild, cut-your-own-ear-off creativity here. There’s a place for that, but it’s probably not your next marketing campaign. The creative process I’m talking about supports business objectives.
If I could wave a magic writer’s wand, here’s how every narrative development process would look:
This is the part where we ask the big questions I mentioned earlier. It’s a thinking, research, and discussion phase, not a tactical phase.
Here, we document the discoveries of the previous phase. The ultimate form of this documentation matters. It is an internal communication, but it should be treated with the same rigor as an external communication because it articulates the foundational narrative.
The process of organizing how the story/narrative will be delivered to the world. This phase encompasses many of the activities we associate with outbound and inbound marketing strategy.
Creating the external assets that tell your story/narrative.
Assessing the narrative’s ongoing relevance, determining whether there are adjacent stories to tell, synthesizing external feedback. This stage should drive new exploration.
Note how this process doesn’t centre around “What?”—in other words, it doesn’t centre around products, services, features, or benefits…or even particular campaigns. It centres around the core narrative questions, “Why?” and “Who?” Because narratives are built around values and audiences, not products and services. I understand that this distinction can be hard to grasp. We’ll explore it in an upcoming post.
4. Ever after: Story-building is never-ending.
The Snow White story has been re-imagined in film nearly three dozen times since 1902. That’s just one story and one medium. From straight-up depictions of the Brothers Grimm original to mash-ups with other fairy tales (like The Woodsman’s Tale, which connects Snow White with the Scandinavian fairytale of the Snow Queen), its bones just lend themselves to eternal re-arrangement.
Your company’s stories are no different. The variables evolve: your vision, target audience, and solution set. So the stories you tell must evolve too. This process keeps moving. It is a discipline. And staying on top of it means making narrative top-of-mind and keeping your creative partners close at hand.
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