The New Heroes of Storytelling


By Andrea Nienstedt, Storytelling Manager, Gongos, Inc. 

As storytelling researcher Jonathan Gottschall bluntly puts it, “we are, as a species, addicted to story.” Beyond just entertaining through cinematic tales or fictional (and non-fictional) works carefully crafted by authors, stories are how we explain the world to ourselves and each other. They’re fundamental to the human experience.

Since the dawn of the internet, stories have experienced a widening influence and permanence. Not only can they reach people across cultures and languages; they can be searched in an instant, yet live on forever. But in a historic moment like this, there’s a profound feeling of gravitas to storytelling and a deep sense of responsibility for the storyteller. A sense that history is taking note and that the bar for effective communication is being raised for humans and corporations alike. This is particularly true for organizations striving to connect with consumers in meaningful ways. Now’s the time for brand storytellers to swiftly yet strategically reassess their recipe for resonance as they script the characters and heroes of today’s storylines.

Reframe your story

We’ve all found ourselves in situations that are simply out of our control. But we also know that we have the power to control the narratives. Regardless of what your brand’s story was before, this has shown to be a chance to rewrite it. And we’re already seeing a few companies doing this.

Month ago, Uber launched what appears to be an anti-commercial. The advertisement documents snapshots of quarantine life through the technology that has brought us together. The focus isn’t cars or ridesharing, but humanistic content—people waving, crying, laughing, dancing. The message? “Thank you for not riding.” Thank you for not using our service.

Frito-Lay took a similar, if slightly more aggressive approach. “The world doesn’t need brands to tell us how to think or feel” the ad’s introductory text tells us. “The world needs brands to take action.” Frito-Lay then lays out an impressive list of what they’ve been up to in recent weeks including creating jobs, funding clinics, and providing meals. “It’s not about brands. It’s about people. And it’s just the start.”

Regardless of their corporate purposes, in those moments, they were reframing their message to be about what was happening in the world around them—they used the idea of story to help make sense of the world around us, and it worked.

Reidentify your hero

Frito-Lay sees what’s to come. The days of the product or brand hero story are over. Storyteller Jonah Sachs has been foretelling this shift. “The stories that spread today empower us and give us belief in our own heroic potential,” Sachs points out—not the ones about the inadequate consumer and the magical product. People deserve better stories; they deserve to see stories with themselves as the heroes.

In our current environment, we’re surrounded by stories of heroes, everyday heroes. Stories of life-saving heroism, stories of quiet, seemingly ordinary heroism. What if brands told stories of real heroes?  What if brands helped people find their own heroism? The challenge to brands going forward will be; tell that story.

Reembrace the old

From a marketer’s perspective, storytelling has become somewhat short-sighted. Despite the goal of building long-term loyalty, the work has been reflective of short-term gains like quarterly sales and seasonal discounts. Its shelf life has become viral, but brief. Brand storytelling has certainly included people, but it’s often product- and brand-centered. But soap opera commercial breaks and sponsored programming are no longer vehicles for most modern brands to sell their wares, let alone tell their stories.

We have more mediums and technologies than ever to connect. But, when we look at what’s resonating with people right now, what’s really moving them, it’s old-fashioned, ancient even—it’s authentic moments of sorrow, family, connection, friendship, love. It’s the human experience. We’re using the latest technology to tell stories, but the “content” is as old as time. If we put people back at the center of our stories, we can be endlessly creative in the telling, but these everlasting elements will always ring true.

Recharge your stakeholders

Times of crisis issue new challenges to storytellers. This is a time for storytellers of all kinds to dig deep; brand storytellers are no exception. Our challenge is both to go back to basics—to the fundamentals of the human experience—and to push past how we used to bring those stories to life.

None of us will be the same after this experience. But we can take these old pieces—these fragments of the human experience—and tell new stories of heroism to help consumers see themselves in new ways and help put their lives back together again. While no one can know what’s ahead, storytellers can help imagine what’s possible. For those of us who use stories to frame the world we live in, we have an unprecedented opportunity to reshape the tomorrow we’ll all share.

As published in Brand United.