Markus Gull

Woe betide advertising masquerading as a brand story.

The setting of a doctor's surgery in a German TV series. In the middle of it sits a paid grimace cutter dressed as a doctor, doing what he thinks a doctor does and reciting his texts, which in principle do nothing but pass on information. The guy is the only person on earth who is convinced that this is acting and, as perpetrator and victim alike, is helplessly caught in his web of fate made of misunderstandings.

Television series of this kind are quite successful in terms of their longevity and viewer numbers. But it has as much to do with film, art and everything that could be understood as such as Jacques Tati has to do with a sumo wrestler. A story can't be that good (most of the time it's not good anyway) that you don't turn away annoyed. Imitating someone and bringing a character to life through the art of acting are as different as vomit and pizza. It looks similar at first glance, but then: zap!

There's a lack of everything at the back and front, above all a lack of truthfulness. And it doesn't work without subtext either. That's why productions of this kind pass the viewer by like an unlit ship in the dark of night, as David Ogilvy once described it. The keyword David Ogilvy brings us to the wonderful world of advertising and to storytelling, the panacea that everyone has been prescribing to themselves for some years now.

During my military service in the Austrian Armed Forces, I had a lot of opportunities to marvel at oddities. One of the more harmless ones was the panacea for a wide variety of physical ailments: Vaseline! First of all, this crème de la crème did not primarily have medical connotations among us uniformed jokers in our teens and naturally provoked irritation and crude jokes when the equally uniformed doctors prescribed Vaseline as a medicine. According to the therapeutic principle "If it doesn't help, it won't hurt", Vaseline was prescribed for blisters on the feet and for everything else that could theoretically be helped by applying cream with imagination and good will. But in practice the good ointment never did. This at least led us brave defenders of the fatherland to realise that in an emergency, at least time heals - if not all - then most wounds.

Storytelling - the perfect lubricant

It seems to me that the Vaseline of marketing communication of our time is storytelling. A lubricant in the heart of the client and also in many other target areas. A panacea that is applied to everything and everyone, whether it helps or not. We don't know what to do, but we'll say "storytelling" for now, add a neat "narrative" to our therapy talk and possibly also a meaningful "framing" if it fits, or even if it doesn't. But the main thing is storytelling. But the main thing is storytelling. As a brand, we have to tell our story! In general, now that Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook offer a story feature.

Storytelling - the perfect method 

Storytelling is indeed a grandiose method, since time immemorial. Stories and storytelling are part of our humanity and are deeply engraved in the DNA of our species. In evolution, Homo Sapiens prevailed over Neanderthals, they say, only because, as Homo Narrans, he developed the ability to tell stories and was thus able to organise himself, his social structure, his diet and his security and defence effectively. I wasn't there at the time, but it makes sense to me.

"Whoever tells the best story wins", they say. The evolution of Homo Sapiens is a solid proof of this, I think, and so is the breathtaking leadership of story-powerful politicians, religious founders and business heroes. It is not for nothing that the world agrees that storytelling is one of the most important business skills of our time. Everyone can tell a story, but only very few know it. But only very few can really handle it skilfully, although many feel called to do so. But as is so often the case, many feel called, but only a few are chosen.

Storytelling must reach deep and go far.

YouTube is overflowing with excellently crafted commercials - touching, funny, exciting, superbly told stories. Many of them speak to real relevant values, based on excellent insights, well-crafted brand visions and missions, benefit ladders and triangles. There is no shortage of tools for this in the marketing school bags of this world. The devilish thing about storytelling, brand missions and today's world, however, is that it is simply no longer enough to think up something good, then package it in advertising campaigns as in the past and, more recently, post it on the Internet. Either no one is interested, or it backfires, or both. Unfortunately, you don't get a Smurf stamped in the magazine in 2017.

The same thing happens when good brand stories don't come to life but drown in commercials, dragging the audience, all ambition and goodwill, down with them. The audience starves with the brand story at the richly laid table. They enjoy the beautiful film for a moment, but subconsciously they recognise the intention and are disgruntled.

Brand storytelling has enormous sustainable nutritional value for a brand. But it must go into the depth of values and far into the wealth of communication possibilities, motivate, inspire and activate the audience and not just inform them head-on. Otherwise, a brand story remains at the level of a chewing gum. It looks like food, but it delivers zero nutritional value and a lot of empty calories to the hips.

So much would be possible if ...

Some current campaigns are good bad examples of this. First of all #glaubandich by the Austrian Erste Bank. These days, "the bank of trust" sounds rather like a joke, and when a bank advisor asks his customer: "What collateral can you offer?", she assumes she is in a sketch by Didi Hallervorden. So it is all the more gratifying when Erste Bank aggressively believes in people who believe in themselves. There is a really strong story machine in this idea, especially for a bank that feels responsible for younger, urban people anyway and is business-savvy. With a little bit of imagination, the movement that can be started jumps out at you: Entrepreneurial people who are helped by the bank to really get something going. Even more so in our time, in this country, where so many blows are thrown at you at every turn that the wooden path already feels like the way home. Finally something positive! Fresh air at last! And from a bank, of all places! - Let's go!

Unfortunately, that's not how it plays out, but Anna, 17, from Wiener Neustadt has to take her turn. In a promotional film we see her pushing through her ice hockey career against all odds. She doesn't get a word in edgewise, but her coach lists everything that speaks against her. Anna manages it anyway.

In principle, a pretty film. But doesn't women's empowerment in 2017 deserve a different image than an ice hockey girl? And this image would perhaps be created - if not in the advertising agency, at a creative session with two bottles of red wine per person - over a coffee with the chairwoman of Erste Stiftung.

And that the hockey girl story is a bit far away from what a bank has to do with it? All right, so be it. But the fact that the bank is very far away from what is the matter, that just unfortunately does not put a slender foot on the ground, because the hope that it will play out properly on the usual social media crime scenes, that dies first. On the website, the bank bosses explain the campaign in a video, followed by information about the bank and then a - naturally - sparsely populated social wall with postings, most of which are obviously made by the bank in sheer self-defence. Austria, the land of unused opportunities.

Now it's apparently Anna's little brother's turn to transform from outsider to king thanks to #glaubandich.



And behind the film, nothing remains but an empty stomach, empty looks and a lot of question marks. It is not enough to ask people to post something nice with #glaubandich. They haven't done that on many other and better occasions in recent years. A real movement must and can be initiated here, beyond advertising. With its highly potent story, Erste could have rolled out the first truly great banking communication of the 21st century and screwed its way into people's hearts. That is where a brand belongs: in the hearts of the people!

Edeka recently experienced something similar with "Eatkarus". A really good idea, a well-made spot. But then it gets soft in the knees.

Anyone who puts on the shoe "healthy nutrition", especially for children, and provocatively drives a few fat people around the body-shaming pool, would do well to put a powerful, serious initiative for better nutrition behind it. Even more so if you write "We love food" and "Eat like the person you want to be" on your T-shirt. Otherwise you'll rightly get a pack of online slaps.

The Little Triple Three.

If you don't want to get stuck halfway with your brand story, then please write down "The little three times three for brands with story power" on a piece of paper and pull it out again and again when it comes to new ideas. You can use it to check if you are right.

  1. Your brand purpose must be an authentic concern for your company: Would you also stand up for it without it bringing immediate advertising benefits to your brand?
  2. A brand purpose must contribute to the benefit of your audience.
  3. Your audience can and must be activated and not remain passive observers. In this way, it becomes a supporting part of the brand purpose.

If you inspire your audience with things that are useful in their lives, then you don't have to desperately pursue them, people will come to you. The prerequisite for this is that your brand activates the next three simple principles:

  1. Which core value do I address in a sustainable way, i.e.: which longing of people do I share?
  2. How can I satisfy and nourish this longing in equal measure?
  3. What can I stimulate, distribute or initiate so that people care enough to continue distributing it because it tells them more about themselves than about me?

As before, however, no one is interested in your story, but only and exclusively in their own. Therefore:

  1. Your story can never be about your brand and must always be about your audience and their values and aspirations.
  2. Your brand is not the hero, your brand has to make its users the hero.
  3. For your brand to get quality time with its audience, it has to be relevant. That means ... (see 1).

The basic prerequisite for this is a change in attitude in the company itself and not just a lot of young people with Snapchat accounts in the marketing department. This starts with the company management and includes all departments, especially of course marketing, sales, service and first and foremost human resources - keyword employer branding.

Brand storytelling is more than just advertising in disguise, otherwise it doesn't work. It's about the shared desires and the interweaving of the values of brand and audience. Then the brand holds back and activates every platform as a stage for the people. Advertising dressed up as a story backfires and at best has no effect. If a brand story is to be successful, it needs tangible truth, beyond the usual advertising appearances and content. People expect this, otherwise they turn away, because the internet has changed everything.

The principles for story and thus for brand story are very simple and universally valid. The implementation of these principles is damn difficult, labour-intensive and will not have an effect overnight, as a short-term price promotion does. But in fact, I am firmly convinced that this is the only path brands can take in our completely changed media world if they want to survive. I know what I'm talking about, because I have many years of advertising under my belt and a lot to show for it.

So if you don't just want to talk about the price, but respectfully engage with your audience, then engage people with a story that is relevant to both of you. For those who say, "You can't do that with my brand!" I remind you of the phrase my grandmother, old Story Dudette used to carve in cursive on the old oak tree in front of the school: "No Story. No Glory."


Picture reference: Erste Bank

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