Product Storytellers : The latest marketing gods?
Max Bygraves’ trademark line was “I wanna tell you a story”. Back in 70’s Britain, this became a national catchphrase (ask your nan), if synonymous with a long winded shaggy dog tale. Now, it seems, a whole new wave of agencies also want to tell us stories – it’s the hip way to do branding. There is a fulsome and well argued thought piece here which sets out storytelling’s stall. In a nutshell “in a world where consumers are inundated with choices, products that want to be noticed and adopted must be rooted in the why”. And that ‘why’ needs joined up thinking: “A product should provide an experience or service that adds value to someone’s life through fulfilling a need or satisfying a desire. The ultimate question then becomes: who identifies that value? After the executive or stakeholder identifies the initial idea, who in the organisation ensures that the product and experience deliver value to the user? Maybe it isn’t the product manager, marketer, technologist, or designer; perhaps what we need is a new role: the product storyteller.”
Writer Sarah Doody proposes such a role will effectively keep the point of a design – it’s integrity – coherent from marketing to design, back through the CEO and onwards to us, who will ‘get it’.
Storytelling is increasingly becoming a buzzword because those new agencies are smart enough to see an opportunity with integrated communication, for the job of a master tiler, who can put all the channel pieces together, but is not constrained by one particular discipline. This much is relatively new. But do you think storytelling is a broadly a new approach, or just the emperor in new clothes? Would master storyteller Steve Jobs appear at a slight loose end without ‘his Johnny’ passing him designs to sell? Was a Spitfire any less of a product for lacking a narrative? Or Colman’s Mustard any less of a brand for the want of the product storyteller? Indeed was it not ever thus? Brands from Marmite to Marlboro have long told stories within the conventional agency and corporate framework.
I don’t know why I am being so circumspect – as someone who does brand and design planning I guess I live in the storytelling camp. By rights I should be re-defining myself as a plotter of branded narratives to catch the zeitgeist. Perhaps I just get edgy when I read a quote from Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule The Future which states “We’ve progressed from a society of farmers to a society of factory workers to a society of knowledge workers. And now we’re progressing yet again—to a society of creators and empathizers, of pattern recognizers and meaning makers. We’ve moved from an economy built on people’s backs to an economy built on people’s left-brains to what is emerging today: an economy and society built more and more on people’s right-brains.”
I read this and think of those lotus eating fools whom the morlocks quite properly cart off for sacrifice in “The Time Machine” (actual illustration below). The morlocks here I suppose representing ‘proper’ engineering and suchlike. I’m (clearly) no expert on economic science, but sooner or later does someone not need to make something (even if that something is the code for a website) in order for the money to get generated? Storytelling, surely, should not be an end in itself.
As the CEO of new agency Aesop has said, there is a pragmatic aspect: “The real benefit to clients is more coherent and effective brand activity across channels, and more cost-effective co-ordination of brand stakeholders, which includes different departments, or partner agencies.” I guess my personal view about the way forward is to consider the wider integration of design within other channels and use it as a catalyst for change. But, as yet, ‘storytelling’ is unproven to be the cat’s pyjamas as a methodology, or indeed the second coming of brand communication.
Personally I prefer the crisper but more appetizing definition given by Seth Godin below. And if I have to get a fancy new title, rather than ‘product storyteller’ I would prefer, to paraphrase the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band, to be ‘on vibes’…
Thanks to Ted Hunt of ‘This is Helpful ” for the article and Seth Godin quote.