The end of 'storytelling'?

When companies stop pretending that everything they publish online is a ‘story’, they clear the way for genuinely engaging narratives to shine, David Bowen says.

A few years ago, ‘storytelling’ was about as fashionable as it could be in corporate digital communications. It was almost compulsory to say you communicated by ‘stories’, as if they were the key to all effectiveness.

That was nonsense then, and it still is now. Communicating effectively online as a company means using many different editorial formats, only one of which – although an important one – is the ‘story’.

When used properly, stories are indeed a powerful way of putting across corporate messages, but to be fully effective at it, companies need to avoid two mistakes. One is an issue of labelling and the second is a failure to work around the risk-averse tendencies of big organizations.

First, a story is not a story simply because it is labelled as such. A story is a narrative, with a beginning, middle and an end. It is the most powerful form of editorial because it is the most natural structure, and answers our natural curiosity to find out ‘what next?’ There is a reason almost every novel is a narrative: it by far the best way of getting people to the end. That is not to say ‘non-narratives’ cannot be engaging; but it is harder work to make them thus.

PepsiCo used to have a ‘stories’ section that consisted mainly of press releases. Indeed the current pepsico.com has ‘stories’ over its home page – most of them are pretty much news releases. Danaher, the US conglomerate, has ‘feature stories’ in its news section; a similar problem. Coca-Cola took the idea even further by trying to convert its whole corporate site into a magazine. By launching the ‘Coca-Cola Journey’ site, it aimed to become a ‘media company’ taking on – and bypassing – traditional media by going directly to customers it wanted to woo. The site today still has much impressive and engaging editorial, but I doubt if ‘old media’ publications feel too threatened by it.

The second mistake is a failure to recognise that corporate risk aversion is a barrier to good storytelling. As my colleague Jason Sumner pointed out last year ‘large companies rarely want to publicise the elements that make for good drama – such as conflict, complications, or a “hero” trying to accomplish something difficult’.

It is very likely (pretty much certain) that there will indeed have been drama – hurdles, arguments, maybe even violence – in the course of every corporate achievement. But I have yet to see such stories told by companies themselves. Look to independent storytellers – such as Steve Coll with his gripping Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. But do not look to ExxonMobil. Mr Coll’s book is not all dirt by any means; but it is the gritty bits that give credibility to the rest. To resurrect another over-used word from the past, corporations find it very difficult to be ‘authentic’ – and so will struggle to match the credibility of independent sources.

However, the ‘authentic’ problem is not insuperable and corporate storytellers should not give up. Coca-Cola has been monitoring which pieces are most popular on its Journey site, and discovered that the best ones are those about itself. Special bottles for Star Wars, a Coca-Cola cake recipe (honest), a history of Coca-Cola advertising slogans (they should definitely revive ‘The Great National Temperance Beverage’). You get the idea. There may not be any drama or violence, but at least a company is likely to get the facts about itself right, and presumably has better access to insiders than anyone else.

Two more elements help. First, where you can, write about individuals. They might be employees, customers, people in a local community, but humans are generally more interesting than companies, products or trends. Second – and most important – stories can only work if they are well written. Use experienced feature writers or copy editors; they will have a feel for language that it is hard for others to match.

Here are some other examples – not all have all elements, but they cover my points.

I come back to PepsiCo. Among the non-stories on the home page, there is one that really is one. ‘New home, new hope’ leads to a video in which a Colombian woman tells how she brought her children from a violence-wracked region and found a job in a Pepsi-owned plant. It feels real, and probably is.

Siemens’ careers section has ‘Our Stories’ – some are, some aren’t – but ‘Taking on the seven biggest mountains in the world’ has a beginning and a middle, and promises to have an end. It is about an employee who decided to become the first Kuwaiti woman to do the climbs, and tells us what she has done so far.

Pharmaceutical companies often tell patient stories, but Novartis also uses narrative well to bring its scientific investigation to life. ‘Investigating the myopia mystery’ lays out the tale of a scientist couple investigating the spread of short-sightedness.

Novartis also understands the power of a good headline – on a magazine front cover, it makes you turn to the piece; on a website, it makes you click. How about ‘Giraffes have high blood pressure. Why don’t they drop dead?’ Or indeed ‘How I built a mini-gut with next to no biology training’ – how can you not read on? These headlines may seem simple, but a lot of thought has gone into them.

AbbVie, another pharma company, has at least one powerful writer on its books. Here is a story about a doctor helping after the Puerto Rico hurricane. The writing is simple but strong.

None of these, sadly, has any violence or even arguments in them. But given the reality of bosses being bosses, they are doing as good a job as we can hope for. Don’t give up on storytelling; just do it well.

- David Bowen

The Bowen Craggs Index of Online Excellence 2019 was published last week. Visit our website to see the ranking of the 30 best corporate digital estates in the world and download a free PDF publication.