Brands write the beginning of their stories - but they must let consumers shape the end

Nigel Clifton, head of creative, Havas EHS
Nigel Clifton, head of creative, Havas EHS

Storytelling isn't new but the way audiences can participate is, writes Nigel Clifton, head of creative at Havas EHS.

This notion of "storytelling" is everywhere at the moment. But let’s just stop for a minute; have we just pressed re-wind on decades of creative marketing?

This is what we marketers have been doing for years. This is not a "new" story and there is no new name for it. Humans love stories because of their affirmative value of providing a connection. The new part of the process is how those we’re connecting with are no longer a passive audience.

Let’s unpick the term "storytelling" in more detail.

Stories indeed have to be believable and credible in order for people to want to follow the brand journey. The story has to come from a legitimate source – people need to know the storyteller brand can be trusted. The narrative needs to be consistent with the receiver’s understanding of the brand because the person telling the tale is in a position of trust. If we don’t believe the storyteller, we’ll never believe the story.

Fundamental truth

It is crucial that the tale is believable – it must fit with, and expand on, what people already believe about the brand and about the human condition. It must stem from a fundamental truth. It must ring a bell in the universe.

John Lewis’s story is true for all of us, and yet different for each of us. The story has to be recognisable. Look at Red Bull. Excitement is woven into every aspect of its narrative. On reflection, isn’t storytelling just a good, balanced, truthful brand marketing strategy?

Look at Red Bull. Excitement is woven into every aspect of its narrative.

Lots of ideas get bandied around when it comes to how the story is told. In the past, we saw brands make ads with a beginning, middle and an end. Once upon a time, Guinness launched the "Surfer" TV ad, a beautiful story but whose ending was completely controlled.

However, times are changing; the uncontrolled and spontaneous nature of social media and digital has provided the latitude for stories to develop and evolve in directions that marketers may never have imagined. I believe that there should be a beginning, followed by a middle, but then the brand must allow audience engagement to shape the end. Brands need to be brave in letting a story take a course, not just set the conclusion in stone. Where’s the fun in that?

When T-Mobile unleashed the "Dance" flash mob in Liverpool Street station, the brand let the joy of the moment speak for itself, folding it into an integrated campaign by simply showing the event as it happened. Originally designed to be an online advertisement, the brand story went further than T-Mobile could ever have expected and it set the agenda for the brand’s ongoing direction of storytelling using the public to help shape the ending.


Many brands remain too fearful of letting go of control and seeing where the audience may take the story. New tech and media allow this to happen; it is how the unexpected comes to light. Brave brands can embrace this approach and empower consumers to be part of the journey of making them better.

Brands need to behave in a way that consumers want and need, so giving them a chance to be characters in the story encourages them to become brand advocates. And the more a brand knows about the customer, the more authentic the story can be. The story’s control ultimately rests in the hands of the reader or listener – or they can choose to disengage. 

Many brands remain too fearful of letting go of control and seeing where the audience may take the story.

Intel’s social film project "The Beauty Inside" was a foray into the uncharted territory of developing a myriad of stories through interactive, social entertainment. It allowed viewers to actively participate by giving them the chance to interact with the main character via social networking, allowing the story to take many different directions.

The film plot follows Alex, a 20-something guy who wakes up every day with a new face and new body. In order to generate deeper connections with the public, a global online casting call was issued for auditions for the part of one of Alex's identities.

So let’s stop talking about storytelling being new because it is how we have always empowered consumers, via a super combination of superior product and emotional engagement. You cannot tell a story without characters and emotion and sense detail.

Brands must allow their stories to change and give consumers the role of nurturing the story so it is attuned to their desires. There is still a place for stories on TV, but as Intel has proved, allowing consumers to have a role in the crafting of the story makes for a richer tale and ultimately, a richer brand.


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