Three Advantages to Emphasizing Story over Strategy

To a cynic—and yes, everyone in the advertising business does get cynical from time to time—the difference between ‘strategy’ and ‘story’ may seem a matter of semantics.  As a writer who earns a living on words, that makes a good argument right there.  But adopting a story-centric mindset opens up marketing in many powerful ways.  Because ‘many’ is a bit nebulous, here are three reasons to start thinking story.

1.  Strategies Centralize, Stories Travel. Any media expert will tell you that the biggest upset of our advertising applecart has been Web 2.0 and the emergence of social media.  This game-changing development changed the way consumers gather and share information.  Moreover, it is frequently mistaken for ‘free media,’ which intrigues resource-strapped clients.

People use social media to share stories, about their lives, their interest, their opinions.  A traditional strategy-driven ad only goes as far as the media plan, and then it disappears.  A story starts with that same media plan but when defined correctly, extends far beyond those finite GRP’s, riding the waves of social media and word of mouth as people spread their own versions of your brand’s story.  We don’t need consumers to create the story, but simply build on them and pass them along.  In an increasingly advertising-resistant society, using story to further recommendation is good business.

We should work brand stories to spread virally, but viral is not a tactic: it’s an outcome.

Clearly, There's a Story Here...

2.  Stories Serve Integration Better than Strategy. Because strategies are centralized, one agency inevitably takes responsibility for it.  They ‘own’ the strategy.  But in a social media-powered world, no marketer really owns how people consider their brands, we can only influence it.  Because consumers have such a hand in defining and sharing brand stories, no one marketing entity can claim dominion: everyone has a hand in defining the story.

A story is not owned, it’s shared.  And that simplifies everything.  For years, each discipline brought separate planning resources to interpret the strategy for their particular specialty, a divisive exercise which more often than not, really amounts to defining tactics.  When everyone knows a brand’s story, the integration process simplifies tremendously.  A promotion either reflects the story or it doesn’t.  A user experience either fits or not.  Instead of an intellectual exercise, integration becomes simpler, more human, more obvious.

3.  Stories Reflect Brands Better than Strategies. Both strategies and stories define their audience.  Both use conflict to build drama.  And both communicate a POV.  But stories go further to embrace tone.  In a parity marketplace, an emotional perspective, a tone, can be a big differentiator and make the story far more compelling.

Strategies largely avoid tone or consign it to a bullet-point at the base.  But the right tone is fundamental to a story’s success: Poe didn’t crack jokes and Hemingway never asked for a hug.  Powerful feelings can drive sales just as much as rational reasons to believe.  In fact, I would argue they are more compelling.  Logic and reason do not trump passion and emotion: we don’t get married or go to war for logic.  This may not hold up to quantitative analysis, but if the ultimate goal is predicting in-market success, consumer research is a rather suspect science at best.

So there you go—three thought starters for the first workweek of the new year.  I will be working with this thought and how it applies to the advertising business over the next few weeks.  If you have any additional points—or counterpoints—I’d welcome them.  Because I have a feeling we share a similar story: advertising professionals seeking answers in a changing industry to help our brands thrive.

Oh, and our careers too.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79