The End of Brand Storytelling

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Hemispheres Magazine on 1 August 2014

Let me tell you a story. Actually, let me spare you the story, especially when it comes to brand marketing. Don’t you feel better? I certainly would. Just the anticipation of having to sit through a company’s story fills me with dread. Not a lot, but enough to make me turn the page, change the channel, or click on a different link.

Stories just don’t work anymore. But it’s proving difficult for some CMOs (chief marketing officers) to accept the demise of traditional narrative. Even here in this column a couple of months ago, when I suggested that brand mythology had lost its power in our increasingly digital age, I ended up receiving some angry emails from CMOs who thought I was undermining their entire industry. All I said was that—thanks to the factual bias of social media—genuine competence had moved front and center. Rather than marketing a brand’s mythology (which likely had been created to hide the product’s unattractive industrial origins), it was time to market a company’s real attributes. The job of the CMO was becoming less fictional storyteller than brand ombudsman and communicator: to help a CEO and his company gain the confidence it needed to tell the truth about itself. And, if necessary, to change said truth—by reducing carbon footprint or improving labor conditions—in order to have a good truth to tell.

The marketers who wrote me had two major complaints with this logic. First, what about products that really aren’t good? Don’t those need good fake stories? My answer to them: too late. The Internet is like truth serum. It slowly dissolves the artifice. The second concern boiled down to “but people love stories.” True enough, but not the kinds of stories that marketers are telling. Traditional stories—the kinds on which ads are based—have beginnings, middles and ends. Beginning: A girl is invited to the prom only to discover she has a pimple. Oh no! In the second act, we squirm as the girl tries all sorts of things to get rid of the zit—hot compress, squeezing, camouflage—only making it worse. Finally, the girl discovers the right brand of acne cream and dabs it on. The zit’s gone, and we have a happy ending. An ad like that may have worked when I was a kid, when escaping the uncomfortably squirmy second act meant having to walk up to the TV and turn the dial. But today, the moment we feel the tension of the story rising, we change the channel with a remote control, fast-forward with a DVR or click a window closed. Especially when we know the storyteller is trying to sell us something. Today, submitting to the story is optional.

Besides, the entire digital world is one big mashup—a deconstructed mix of everything by everyone. You can’t put a story out there without it being cut and pasted and recontextualized. One person’s plot point is an element for someone else’s Internet meme. Put a brand story out there, and you don’t know what’s going to come back. For example, take Coca-Cola’s “America the Beautiful” ad during this year’s Super Bowl. Suddenly a soft-drink company was the flashpoint for some ugly viewpoints about immigration and multiculturalism.

Television has already adapted to this new landscape. The most successful shows aren’t stories dependent on beginnings and endings, like “Leave It to Beaver” or “I Love Lucy,” but satires and mash ups like “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy.” We don’t need to know if Homer Simpson survives the nuclear power-plant disaster to laugh at the various pop-culture and current events being satirized along the way. The pleasure has nothing to do with getting to the end, and everything to do with making associations.

On the other end of the spectrum are epic sagas like “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones.” Again, we have less concern with how things are going to end up than keeping track of all the people and subplots along the way. It’s less about learning the big lesson in the finale (“The Sopranos” just ended with no ending, remember?) than exploring the fantasy world. If anything, the shape of narrative has become much more like today’s first-person video games, where the object isn’t to win, which justends the play, but to keep the game going.

For brand storytellers to enter this new paradigm, marketers have to stop telling stories to their constituencies and invite their constituencies to build a story with them; not the story of your brand but the story of your actual product and processes. The successful app company invites users to share what they’ve actually created with the app. The food company’s story is no longer about a Green Giant but about the original recipes shared by chefs using their products on social media. These are the sorts of contributions that are tweeted, retweeted, liked and followed, earning your customers—and your company—the social currency you’re both looking for.

Branded storytelling no longer involves purchasing media time to tell your saga, but rather offering up your product as the medium about which—and even through which—to create new stories together.