It has now come to the point that brands have started stretching storytelling too far, turning it from a good way of thinking about themselves into a bad way of trying to connect with consumers, says Malcolm White.

Every day, people all over the worId, and in every culture, are engaging in one of the most familiar of human activities. In one way or another, their attention is focused on one of those strange sequences of mental images that we call a story.

When you think about it, we human beings spend an inordinate amount of time focusing our attention on stories. We consume them in the form of novels and plays, films, operas and musicals, comic strips or TV ‘soaps’. In everyday conversation, we tell stories about people, events or things to make connections with each other. We all like a good story.

The ubiquity of storytelling as a human phenomenon is the reason why a book called The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, by Christopher Brooker, is such a good read. In this hugely impressive work, the author attempts, and largely succeeds, in telling the story of all stories by examining a dazzling range of source materials from Beowulf to Jaws, by discussing ‘authors’ as different as Disney and Dostoevsky, and by travelling through time from the Neolithic New Stone Age to now. No wonder it took him 34 years, or half a lifetime, to write. It is a magnificent work.

It seems to me that over the past five years or so, more and more brands are engaging with storytelling. When I Google the words ‘brand storytelling’ I get 73,700,000 search results (in 0.41 seconds!) including a company that specialises in ‘storytelling for brands’, an article called ‘4 Fantastic Examples of Brand Storytelling’ and another which points out that ‘storytelling is all the rage’. I remember that a couple of years back, there was a whole issue of the magazine Marketing Week devoted to storytelling for brands.

More and more brands comprehend the power of storytelling to communicate their presence and identity. In fact, just the other day a prospective client asked us whether we could help them to ‘define their brand’s story’.

I think that this is all, generally, a good thing because it shows that brands are thinking hard about how to communicate their history, about how to put across their mission and values in an engaging and compelling way, and recognising that consumers are interested in finding out about the brands they are doing business with.

However, in my view, brands – or rather their marketers and their agencies – have started stretching storytelling too far. They’ve started turning it from a good way of thinking about themselves into a bad way of trying to connect with consumers. Recently, during just one average day, I noticed a poster campaign from UK supermarket giant Tesco called ‘Food Love Stories’, a press ad from Canon cameras that encouraged me to ‘Find a new story to tell. Up to £250 cashback’, and an advertisement from Nokia mobile publicising its ‘Dual-sight mode’ camera by suggesting that it would help me ‘share both sides of the story’. And that was just on my journey into work.

When I got in, and while researching sofa brands for our biggest client, DFS, I came across a sofa manufacturer called Sofas & Stuff who say ‘It’s your story. So it’s tailored to you’, and the clothes retailer Simply Be which hopes that its customers will ‘+add to your summer story’ by buying its clothes. What happened to words like ‘sofa’ (instead of ‘story’) and ‘wardrobe’ or even ‘collection’ (instead of ‘story’) in the above two examples? And, unless I’m mistaken, aren’t Tesco’s Food Love stories really ‘favourite recipes’ or ‘favourite dishes’?

One thing that’s wrong with strange word choices like these is that they sail dangerously close to nonsense, which is never the most effective communication strategy. But worse than that, using ‘story’ in such a strange way makes it seem as though it is being used euphemistically, and we all know why we use euphemisms. Euphemisms are a way of not calling a spade a spade. They are a way of saying something in an intentionally indirect, obscuring or obfuscatory way, usually because of issues of taste, decency or politeness. But, as far as I know, there are no issues of taste, decency or politeness around the choice of words like ‘sofa’, ‘wardrobe’ or ‘recipe’ in the examples I’ve given.

So, isn’t the possible unintended consequence of using story in the wrong way that the brand in question seems to be concealing or hiding something? Surely that tells quite a different kind of story from the one that was intended.