Wake up, marketers: storytelling is not a strategy

Chris Ott reflects on the history of storytelling, and what the buzzword of 2014 really means for marketers. 


There’re only two types of ad-people: You’re either critical of the storytelling phenomenon, or you’re gullible.

To the latter: Storytelling is not a strategy, or a business model, or manifesto, or corporate vision. What storytelling is: is a creative tactic. That’s all.

Thanks to American writer Joseph Campbell, we’re all comfortable in the knowledge that, for time immemorial, humans have used stories as a tactic to keep the tribe alive.

The tribe chief quickly learned that ‘telling’ his people to not go wandering off at night, or to steer clear of strangers, was simply not powerful enough to influence their behaviour.

The chief had a dilemma – the same met by ad-agencies and marketers everyday: “How do I get my messages to stick?”

Enter storytelling.

Storytelling made the tribe stop and notice, become emotionally wired to a moral, and then, next time they were in a decision-making situation, make the decision that would save their life.

Advertising aims for the same things. Similarly, to work, it has to firstly get noticed and then it has to make sure the branded message is remembered when it counts, in a buying situation.

So, as you can see, the reason stories were told is the same reason ads are made – to be noticed and remembered and ultimately effect behaviour.

(That’s why creatives have added this time-tested tactic to their creative tool-kits.)

What happens when the word ‘storytelling’ is in a headline? Like agency juniors to the catering leftovers, people can’t help but eat it up. It’s been the buzzword of 2014.

But let’s leave it here. Storytelling is only a means to and end, not an end unto itself. It’s just another creative tactic; not an all-encompassing strategy.


Christopher Ott is a copywriter who wrote this bio himself and thinks it’s creepy talking in the third person, so I’ll stop. I graduated from the Ehrenberg Bass institute at UniSA and went on to become an awarded creative. In search of the meaning of a ‘good idea’ these are my musings. Find more at serviettescribbles.com.