Sunday, September 12, 2010

Story Time

With the blurring of the boundaries between art and commerce, youth and maturity, even fantasy and reality, telling stories has become an accepted part of the business lexicon. Hence the Chairman of the British Horseracing Board, for example, can attribute disappointing attendance at racecourses to the "need to tell racing's story better" and no one bats an eyelid. Meanwhile organisations from bakeries to binmen rush to share their stories with the wider public through the numerous TV shows cashing in on viewers' willingness to seek the profound in the mundane.

Various business and marketing notables have attempted to strategise the art of storytelling in this context. All you need, they reason, is a central character/hero (that great intangible the brand), supporting characters (customers, competitors, influencers) and the classic story structure - a beginning, a middle and an end. But there is one key ingredient missing from the recipe - plot.

Plot is not the same as storyline, and independent from characters, albeit that it may be shaped by them or, more likely, shape them itself. Lose the plot, and there is no story, just a random sequence of events, and a cast of characters who may be memorable but are fundamentally lacking in direction.

In storytelling lore, there are seven basic plots, and the most successful storytellers in the business world are those that have, consciously or not, embraced one of these. Overcoming the Monster, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, Rags to Riches, The Quest, and Rebirth: these are the phenomena that lie behind the stories we tell, giving structure and momentum, ingrained in our consciousness by millenia of repetition.

Many brands, by placing themselves in direct opposition to a well-known competitor, have successfully conformed to the Overcoming the Monster tradition: Virgin, Apple, The Body Shop, Spar and Gu are several that spring instantly to mind. Beyond that, it gets trickier. Rags to Riches? Well, the Lottery, Mecca Bingo and such games of chance that offer extravagant rewards, but that's not storytelling so much as just stating the facts. Numerous cosmetics products - Clearasil, Just For Men - tell stories rooted in the Rebirth plot. But it would be stretching the point to claim that travel agents are credible examples of Voyage and Return plotlines.

Are brands and businesses missing a trick here?