15 Storytelling Techniques for Boring Brands: How to Create an Effective Ad Campaign

Not everyone has the privilege to create advertising for exciting brands like Red Bull, Old Spice & Nike. The truth is that most people in the advertising industry face clients who sell soap to retirees. What storytelling techniques will work here?

Not everyone has the privilege to create advertising for exciting brands like Red Bull, Old Spice and Nike. The truth is that most people in the advertising industry face clients who sell soap to retirees. What storytelling techniques will work here? In this article, you will learn how to use storytelling techniques that work for every brand.  Edit: This article was updated on June 26, 2018 to add 3 more useful storytelling techniques. You may also be interested in: How to Write a Storyboard and Free Storyboard Template (PDF + PowerPoint).

Why Storytelling Basics Techniques are Effective in Advertising Campaigns

Allow me to present to you the longest, professional commercial in advertising history: The LEGO Movie. Yes, that’s true. The LEGO Movie sells LEGO products. But, I don’t mind. Why? Because the movie is amazing and I enjoyed watching it. It all comes back to a basic human truth: We all love stories. And that’s why you should use the technique of storytelling in advertising. Let’s dive in.

Free Download of Storytelling Methods

By the way, if you want to have all your storytelling tips at one glance, you can download this free checklist right here:

“People are 22 times more likely to remember and internalize a story than facts or bullet points.” Jerome Brunner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds

1. Understand Expert Storytelling Techniques

The first step you have to take is to understand what makes a great story. Everybody is a storyteller, but the truth is, most of us suck at storytelling. If you are familiar with terms like “The hero’s journey”, you are already an expert. For those who aren’t: Don’t worry! We will discuss a lot of elements in this article.

Shortcut to the Mechanics of Great Stories

Sadly, there is no shortcut to the mechanics of great stories. If you are serious about learning the storytelling concepts, I recommend reading The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. I will give you a few introductory points to start with. The key to every story is a character’s unfulfilled desire. If there is no desire, there is no story. The plot is simple: It’s all about the needs and desires of a character, and what he or she is willing to invest to get it.

2. Come up With a Colorful Idea

When you know how stories work, it’s time to get creative. Take everything you learned about brainstorming, grab two friends, get a lot of coffee, pick up a notebook and a pencil and start thinking. If that doesn’t help, you can get inspired by watching the videos mentioned in this article on YouTube. Just make sure you don’t end up laughing at cat videos for two hours. To avoid the latter, I encourage you to read 1,000 Character Writing Prompts. It delivers exactly what it promises.

3. Write a Premise

Once you have got the perfect idea, you should write a premise. A premise is your story in one sentence. It helps you ensure that your story is interesting enough. Some examples of great story premises: Nike Football “The Last Game”. An ex-football player assembles the greatest football stars to battle the clones that have taken over the football world. New Bell’s South Africa TV Ad. An illiterate father takes classes to be able to read his son’s bestselling book. Dove® Men+Care® Mission. Dove helps to reunite a US soldier who has been away for seven months with his family. Guinness basketball commercial. A group of friends make a disabled man feel part of the team by playing basketball in wheelchairs. Now, these are stories I want to see! When you write your own premise, you will figure out, whether yours is a story people would love to watch.

4. Use Key Storytelling Ingredients: Heroes and Desires

Nike is taking storytelling serious. They even renamed their corporate officers “brand storytellers”. In “The Last Game” they tell the story of men versus clones. The story of humanity versus accuracy. Long story short: A scientist creates clones of football players who can play football perfectly. They don’t take any risks, and so it’s not fun anymore. This kills the spirit of football. Now the hero steps onto the stage: He has the desire to save football. The video hit +88 million views on YouTube. A hero doesn’t have to be a single person. It can be a cause, a company or a group of people – just to mention a few. If you take a look at the premises above, you can sense the hero and his desire. For example, in the Bell’s TV Ad: The hero is the illiterate father, who has the desire to read his son’s book. The story shows what the hero will do to make his desire come true.

“Humans are wired for stories. It’s part of our evolution as a species. Therefore, you want to create a memorable story to support your brand in a real way that makes sense to the audience members. Advertising of any kind without the proper investment in brand story only makes sense to the myopic client who thinks people already care. People don’t care about your brand, until you use story as a way to invite them in.” David Burn, Writer, Strategist and Brand Builder, Bonehook

5. Don’t Sell Your Product

Nowadays, people can sense advertising immediately. When they do, the story is over. They close the tab and forget about you. Of course, you can’t leave the brand out completely, so the secret is to hide it from the surface. The fast-food chain Chipotle did this in their campaign “The Scarecrow”. They didn’t advertise their brand. They advertised an app-based game.

6. Deliberately Hide Information

“Withholding, or hiding information is crucial to the storyteller’s make-believe. It forces the audience to figure out who the character is and what he is doing, and so draws the audience into the story. When the audience no longer has to figure out the story, it ceases being an audience, and the story stops.” John Truby, The Anatomy of Story

The Guinness commercial perfected this technique. In the first half of the video, you see friends playing basketball in wheelchairs. The surprising element, the fact that only one guy actually needs a wheelchair, is only revealed in the end. This whole story only works because Guinness decided to hide this key information in the beginning.

7. Be Tremendously Human

Greeting cards are not the most impressive things these days. People don’t get excited when they see them. A tough place for storytelling? Let’s take a look at a commercial by Cardstone. The best stories address the basic human needs that are easy to relate to: Like the fact that your mom is amazing. So Cardstone created a fake job description, named it “director of operations” (aka. mom), published it in newspapers, interviewed every applicant on Skype and made a video about it. The got +24 million clicks and +1,5 million social media shares.

“When we are talking to our friends and colleagues, how are we talking to them? It is in stories. Stories are our way to communicate. That makes storytelling so powerful.” Oliver Schwamb, Concept & Production, Grabow, Bartetzko Filmproduktion

8. Be Authentic

I seriously thought about writing this article about storytelling techniques as a frustrated ad guy, who wants to learn how to tell great stories. Would that have been authentic? Absolutely not. Make sure your story is real. The best way to do that is to base it directly on real life experience. The Cardstone commercial “World’s Toughest Jobs” did so well because the Skype interviews look so real and authentic. Aim for the same in your story.

9. Go for the Laugh

DIRECTV is a direct broadcast satellite service provider. Their advertising is a great example of how humor can reach millions of people. They tell stories about people getting into weird situations because they used cable TV. The story has a simple structure, where situation A leads to situation B and so on. Their stories are kind of pointless but they drew millions of people into watching it. Why? Because they are extremely funny.

10. Make it as Visual as Possible

Did you notice that every single example I showed to you was a video? Close to 80% of Internet users remember the video ads they watched online. Nowadays websites are overfilled with ads and alleged quality content. Nobody can – or wants to – read everything. But if your ads are moving images, they stick. Also, it’s a good idea to review videos with co-workers to improve the quality of the visual style.

“Storytelling is the key. You can indeed tell the whole story in just one frame. But it’s within people’s DNA to listen to the storyteller around the fireplace. He told the village people what is “new in town”, and what the hunters found coming back from traveling the unknown parts of the world. Nowadays media technology turned the consumers into hunters and marketing professionals into storytellers – but video-marketing represents the moving flame at the fireplace on all our devices and screens around us. Danilo Klöfer, Senior Video Producer, Goodgame Studios

11. Stand Out

Remember when Avatar was the first movie ever to use 3D in cinema? Now it’s the most commercially successful movie in human history. Why? It was new. It stood out. When you use storytelling in advertising, it’s a good idea to make something unique. In 2011, the agency BUZZMAN had the idea to create uncommon digital experiences on YouTube for their client TippEx. They allowed viewers to rewrite the story of a hunter who is going to shoot a bear. The results? Over 45 million views and +1 million shares on social media.

“You must aggressively go to the edges and tell a story that only you can tell” Seth Godin

12. Make it Easy to Relate To for Your Target Group

Every amateur soccer player loves to imagine himself as his role model. I remember playing soccer in the backyard thinking I was Ronaldinho. Nike addresses this belief in their commercial “Winner Stays”. It’s about young football players, who envision themselves playing football as stars like Neymar. The video hit +13 million views on YouTube. You need to speak your customer’s language. The story has to fit into the existing worldview of your target group. The best way to get into the head of your target group is to use buyer personas. A buyer persona is a fictional character that represents a segment of your customers. You can use it for brainstorming story ideas. The easiest way to quickly create a buyer persona is to use this template. You just have to fill out the boxes and print it.

13. Be as Specific as Possible

When telling a story about your brand, you need to be specific and concrete. That means you should integrate interesting examples and valuable anecdotes to allow people to dive into your story. Make it as easy as possible to follow your narrative. Show people how your brand is making their lives better, not only tell them.

14. Include Failures

It sounds counter-intuitive but it works: Start with a failure to get your audience’s attention. Failures will make your brand approachable. Of course, the failure should be well selected but if your audience recognizes that you were trying and failed your brand becomes human. Now, your audience is engaged. Use this opportunity to present what you’ve learned from your past failure and how you did it better the next time. They will love your journey presentation.

15. Finish With a CTA

At the end of your story, make sure that you don’t leave your audience alone. Provide a positive learning and tell them what to do next. They’re engaged and ready to “get things done“. Don’t be too salesy here but offer a possible action they can take. A suitable CTA could motivate people to download an app or another ebook. For example, Nike finished his “Ronaldinho Crossbar Remastered” video with a CTA to download the Nike Football app.

Key Takeaways

Brands are complicated and in most cases they are replaceable by other brands. So people need stories to remember what the company is all about. Storytelling makes people believe that one product is better than another. When people believe that your product is superior they are more likely to buy it. Use these storytelling techniques to generate great stories even for the most boring brands:

  1. Learn the mechanics of great stories
  2. Brainstorm and develop ideas
  3. Write a premise
  4. Include a hero and a desire
  5. Don’t sell your product
  6. Hide information
  7. Be human
  8. Be authentic
  9. Use humor
  10. Make it visual
  11. Stand out of the crowd
  12. Make it easy to relate to
  13. Be as specific as possible
  14. Include failures
  15. Finish with a CTA