July 8, 2016

Why “Brand Storytelling” is a Waste of Your Time

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Attend the tale of every SaaS startup you’ve ever known.

First, the vision: to make the world a better place — to change the way people work . . . or maybe just the way salespeople work, or maybe just the way salespeople send prospect emails while they’re at work.

Then, the platform: a solution so earth-shattering and innovative, it attracted 20,000 users (never mind paying customers) in six months. Is that good? Maybe. We’ll never know.  

Then, company culture: a culture “built on people” and dedicated to “driving growth.” That couldn’t possibly mean anything, but somehow it does.   

Conflict: there is none, unless you count the endless agony of using spreadsheets and sticky notes instead of this innovative solution.

Climax and resolution: your business buys the platform and works happily ever after.

The Brand Storytelling Renaissance

Anyone who has ever shopped for B2B products or services knows and has seen this story dozens of times. And yet, brands insist on repeating it, like so many kindergartners who brought the same object to show-and-tell and are all equally enthusiastic.

Why is that?

Herd mentality. 

Somewhere along the line, the term “brand storytelling” was born — probably coined by some industry thought leader to promote their self-published Amazon masterpiece. Based on a Google Trends analysis, this happened around 2005.

After brand storytelling emerged from the primordial soup of its hype cycle, the analysts and content creators of the marketing world gave it legs. It sounded nice. It sounded more honest and authentic — qualities for which traditional marketing has historically missed the mark.

Maybe this was/is a way to redeem ourselves.

The hacks and tips listicles on brand storytelling poured in as if they’d been waiting just behind the curtain, as if this were a truth we’d always sensed, but never articulated. People started adding “brand storyteller” to their Twitter bios, calling CEOs “chief storytellers,” and repackaging every element of marketing and advertising as part of a digital narrative. “Isn’t it wonderful?” We said.

As someone who spends a lot of time researching B2B products and writing about them, I’ve started to notice that brand storytelling is really not that wonderful, because (1) most brands are telling the same stories, and (2) buyers don’t care about them.

Buyers have a hard enough time understanding their options in a vast sea of competing products, with new vendors appearing daily. The last thing they want is to be deflected by equivocal language and an uninspired origin story. They want to know about your product — what it does, how much it costs, and how it can benefit their organization, not how it came to be (or any one person’s involvement in the process, for that matter).

ALSO READ: 7 of the Worst Ways to Describe Your SaaS Product

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to correlate the rise in brand storytelling with the precipitous plummet in buyer trust. A 2014 study by the Alternative Board, for example, found that only 6 percent of B2B buyers are “very trusting” of vendor content. In an effort to find unbiased reviews and advice, many buyers turn to third-party research organizations on the web (like TechnologyAdvice). By contrast, 61 percent of enterprise buyers say they value independent, third-party reviews over a direct conversation with the vendor.

How can you tell someone a story if they don’t trust you enough to sit around the same campfire?

The True Claims of Brand Storytelling

Of course, brand storytelling isn’t some malicious plot invented to destroy the economy. It has positive aspects, and the motivation behind it is mostly admirable.

You should treat all of your messaging, campaigns, and channels as part of a single, unified effort. You should strive to write copy that is relatable and authentic. You should focus your marketing not just on the technical details of your product, but on its latent value proposition, even emotional impact (think Febreze).

These are all good and necessary ideas. But do they constitute a story? A story has a (human) protagonist and compelling characters. It is honest, insightful. A story has setting, desire, conflict, character arc, rising action, climax, and denouement. As esteemed author and Harvard professor Bret Anthony Johnston once wrote, “Stories aren’t about things. Stories are things.”

Is marketing “a thing,” or does it have an agenda? Isn’t marketing about persuading and winning and selling?

The False Claims of Brand Storytelling

Brand storytelling advocates (many of whom have built their empire/company/book/personal reputation on the concept) paint it as the Sistine Chapel of marketing. The divine hand of creativity meets the prosaic hand of business, and out flows a river of happiness and money.

sistine chapel

But that’s not an honest portrayal. At best, brand storytelling is a small, nugatory reinvention of traditional branding. At worst, it can mislead marketers and turn brands into ego factories. Here are some of the false promises that have been stated or insinuated in recent years:  

Brand storytelling is more noble than regular old marketing.

The most powerful stories are marked by authenticity and honesty — the narrator laying bare every thread of conscience, every nuance of pain or guilt or love or fear. Think The Pianist, Into the Wild, or Angela’s Ashes. If we associate branding with stories like these, it lends nobility and moral fiber to an otherwise commercial process (unless, of course, you run a nonprofit).

Does marketing deserve that association? Whether through a brand story, an ad campaign, or an “about us” page, the objective is still to persuade people to like your brand and products, to win their trust, and, after a few degrees of separation (sales), win their business.

Brand storytelling makes your product better.

Tiffani Jones Brown, the head of content strategy at Pinterest, once remarked, “Good writing and content strategy makes products, and the marketing of those products, much better.” I disagree. The more accurate claim is that good writing and content strategy makes products seem better, but at some point, customers have to use the product (or service) and decide for themselves.

A brand/brand story is sometimes just an outfit your company wears — hence the prevalence of “rebranding.” Does a compelling brand story make your SaaS platform or B2B service function higher and deliver faster ROI for the customer? About as much as polar bears improve the taste of Coke.  

Brand storytelling improves customer experience.

If, as a B2B brand, you can present yourself as credible, relatable, and relevant, it will certainly lower the barrier to building trust and rapport. But trust and rapport are only meaningful when the issuing party follows through on their promises.

You can weave an amazing story about your brand, but if your product stinks, that story will only intensify the recoil of poor customer satisfaction. You’ll raise expectations only to disappoint. Customer experience extends far beyond your home page and drip marketing tracks. It requires proof.

Buyers care about your brand story.

If building a “brand story” helps you sleep better at night, go for it. Just know that your potential customers (speaking to B2B vendors here) aren’t out there looking for the product with the most compelling story. They’re looking for the best product that meets their needs.

That’s why companies like Slack, Salesforce, and Atlassian have become immensely successful — because they work. Their “stories” are interesting to fellow founders and entrepreneurs, but they grew their customer base by building an excellent platform, by listening and responding to feedback.

Brand Truth-Telling

Here’s a tip for growing a successful B2B company: build a good product, and tell the truth about it. With a clear value proposition, show buyers how your features and functionality can improve the way they work, save money, save time, and so on.

If you want to tell stories, tell the stories of your satisfied customers. Your buyers will be much more interested in the candid opinions of their peers than in any story you could spin. That’s why Slack’s homepage is simply an animated slider of customer profiles (charity: water, NASA, the South Pole Neutrino Observatory). It’s also why 71 percent of buyers consider case studies the most important type of content during their initial research process.  

If you’ve been trying to figure out what brand storytelling is all about, now you know: it’s a buzzword created by people who wanted to reinvent marketing without reinventing marketing. In the B2B world, you’re better off investing in product development and customer advocacy.

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2 Comments

  1. Jim

    Pshew, that’s quite an indictment Aleks. But believe it or not, you just told a story about your brand. Stories are the things that people read between the lines – the beliefs they conjure up about what to expect that are more implied than explicit. Someone once said that storytelling reveals meaning without making the mistake of revealing it. In other words, people don’t like to be told how to think. Stories allow people to come to their own conclusions. Now, if you’re saying that fictitious storytelling is meaningless, I wholeheartedly agree with you. But show me a brand, B2C or B2B, that shares an important belief or value that I subscribe to AND walks its talk, at the very least, it will probably be fit into my consideration set.

    • Aleks Peterson

      Hi Jim. Thanks for your comment. I think you might be conflating plain old “communication” with “storytelling.” People will always read between the lines, whether they’re consuming a novel, a news article, a personal text message, or a page of marketing copy. That is a natural function of intellect and discernment. Sure, not every story begins with “once upon a time,” but storytelling is a distinct, recognizable medium — dare I say, an art form — not a latent side-effect or a category we can apply to every word out of a brand’s “mouth.” The point of this article was not to suggest that brands sterilize themselves and deny the existence of stories, but that they avoid making themselves protagonists. It’s also to remind people that “marketing” isn’t a swear word.