How brand storytelling became a retail marketing essential

Rather than a sales pitch, younger consumers want the story of a brand’s origin and purpose.
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Amelia Kinsinger

5 min read

The earliest examples we have of storytelling are rock art drawings in Africa dating back 30,000 years, but brand storytelling—where products are promoted for their origin stories and the mission of their companies—is a decidedly more modern notion.

In 2011, brand storytelling was “very much a fringe concept” and the number of marketers listing storytelling as a skill on their LinkedIn profiles was “minuscule,” according to LinkedIn data cited by Jason Miller on the platform’s Ads Blog.

But by 2017, just six years later, 570,000 marketers on LinkedIn listed “storytelling” as a skill. And the trend has continued:

  • In August, the number of marketers who added “storytelling” as a skill to LinkedIn profiles increased 22% YoY, according to LinkedIn data provided to Retail Brew.

How did brand storytelling go from obscurity to a retail marketing necessity? What brands are storytelling masters? And how do you sprinkle some of that narrative fairy dust over your brand?

Well, that’s a story in itself.

Multi-story building

In his post, Miller, who at the time was LinkedIn’s group marketing manager, pinpointed events that catapulted storytelling into the zeitgeist, including:

  • A 2011 Coca-Cola video introducing its “Content 2020” strategy described its shift to create “brand stories” that “provoke conversations.”
  • A 2012 short stop-action film by Chipotle, Back to the Start, featured a farmer succumbing to corporate agricultural practices, and then rejecting them. After running in 10,000 movie theaters, during the Grammys broadcast, and online, it won in the Cannes Lions Festival’s inaugural branded content and entertainment category.

The Chipotle film had no overt sales pitch, and the only reference to the company comes at the end when the farmer loads his produce onto a Chipotle truck. Rather, it tells a sustainability story, aligns itself with that story, and conveys to consumers that by eating at Chipotle they become part of that sustainability story, too.

There were, of course, precursors—even if marketers of yore didn’t call it brand storytelling.

The legendary Apple commercial “1984,” for example, which introduced the Macintosh computer during the 1984 Super Bowl, reflected co-founder Steve Jobs’s storytelling ethos.

In Margaret O’Mara’s book, The Code: ​​Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America, “Storytellers” is the title of a chapter about Apple.

“Steve Jobs…was extremely good at telling a story,” O’Mara told the Decoder Ring podcast. “You have this new sort of awareness of, ‘If we want to sell to people, we tell them a story about how this product is going to make you better, make you more creative, make you more fulfilled.’”

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Re-tale therapy

Martin Lindstrom, the branding guru and author, said that overt sales pitches are a turn-off for Gen Z consumers.

“They are incredibly cynical around brands and brand talk,” Lindstrom told Retail Brew.

“A brand needs to have a story, and that story needs to have a purpose,” Lindstrom said.

Patagonia, oft cited as a favorite brand of Gen Z, resonates because it’s “authentic” and stays true to the story of founder Yvon Chouinard, whose love of mountain climbing and the outdoors fueled his commitment to environmental causes, Lindstrom said.

Patagonia, which in a sense is selling adventures, is telegraphing to customers that it values their stories, and is helping to bring those stories to life.

“They take me on a journey to see aspects of me and my life, which I wouldn’t have seen without that brand,” Lindstrom said.

Brick by brick

Brand storytelling is not just for multimillion-dollar narrative productions that air during the Super Bowl, or for efforts by the marketing department.

Lego’s customer service agents, for example, have been known to spin a yarn or two.

In an incident described in Inc., a customer going only by his first name, John, bought a Star Wars-themed Lego set at Target, the Mos Eisley Cantina, for $350. The set contains 3,000 pieces, and John had about two-thirds of it built when he discovered a bag of pieces was missing.

When he contacted Lego through its website, he received an email that began with a standard apology–“I am so sorry that you are missing bag 14 from your Mos Eisley Cantina!”–but the rest of the email was anything but standard.

“This must be the work of Lord Vader,” the email continued. “Fear not, for I have hired Han to get that bag right out to you…Have a bricktastic day and may the Force be with you.”

Lindstrom, whose firm has counted Lego as a client, said the anecdote is instructive because “the story is not just ending when I bought the box or go to Legoland.”

Rather, “it’s also in the interaction with the consumer,” he concluded. “That is when the brand stays authentic and is not collapsing when I’m finally interacting with it.”

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.