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Jessica MillerMarch 15, 20134 min read

Content Marketing 2.0: Story + Narrative Connect People & Brands

Family StorytimeThis week a few members of the PR 20/20 team ventured to Austin for SXSW interactive—a conference that features the latest in marketing, development and technology. Listening to speakers share lessons learned is an inspiring retreat for our team, and we’re always looking for fresh ideas to bring home to our colleagues, clients and peers. 

This year and last, content marketing and the importance of storytelling were central themes throughout the conference. In his session this past Monday, Moving from Story to Narrative, Deloitte chairman John Hagel (@jhagel) counted more than 100 SXSW presentations focused on content. His presentation, however, went deeper by examining the differences between story and narrative—and how the latter has inspired movements that shape the world.

In this post, we’ll examine the differences between storytelling and narrative—and share tips for brands to use both to better connect with the audiences they care about most.

Tell Your Story

The art of telling brand story has been a central content marketing theme for some time. In Content Marketing Storytelling: Secrets from the Big Screen, Robert Rose (@robert_rose) writes, “The customer is not your hero … Your brand should always be the hero that will be transformed.” Rose gives additional advice in Brand Storytelling: 10 Steps to Start Your Content Marketing Hero’s Journey.

Both articles above include a resolution, or a solution. In his SXSW presentation, Hagel listed two attributes that define stories:

  1. Stories are finite, or they have beginning, middle and end resolution.
  2. Stories center on a central character—you're meant to hear these stories and identify with the main character. 

This line of thought makes sense for marketers writing content meant to show value of a product, brand, thought leader or industry.

Inspire with Narrative

Narratives move beyond storytelling. Hagel listed two differentiating attributes:

  1. Narratives are open-ended and without resolution. They include something that's in the process of unfolding. 
  2. There's an invitation to all to participate and determine the outcome. It's up to "you" as to how the narrative will unfold and/or resolve.

To paraphrase Hagel’s point: Narratives are hugely powerful, and often ignored. They represent the pull-mechanism that draws out people and resources, despite the uncertainty that exists in the world. They shape the world around us.

3 Levels of the Narrative 

People use narrative to describe everything from their personal story, to that of an organization, industry or changing society.

  1. Personal: Describe your life quest. What are you aiming to discover, what motivates you, and what do you strive to personally learn to make an impact? Your life is a continually unfolding narrative, through which your aspirations and decisions guide you.
  2. Institutional: “Think different.” Apple’s tagline captures the powerful narrative technology enables, and begs the industry—and its followers—to break out of conformity and commit to excellence. Hagel notes that here Apple is a catalyst; the narrative still targets us.
  3. Social: Hagel listed a few examples of social narratives, including the American Dream and Christianity. You can, “go west, do anything and be successful in America,” or you can “follow a faith with belief in a world beyond this one.” The points in both examples are that the outcome is completely up to the audience, and both require buy-in on a deep and intrinsic level.

Humans identify with cause and the “whys” of decision-making. Some say it’s why Apple is such a successful brand: it communicates and inspires from the outside in—leading ads and messaging with belief rather than product. How Great Leaders Inspire Action, a TEDTalk from Simon Sinek, dives deeper into the Apple example, as well as some of the neurological science behind deeper inspired actions. From Sinek: “The goal is to sell to people who believe what you believe.”

Story + Narrative = Brand Content

Now take a look at your brand’s content. Whether a corporate marketer or evaluating your own personal brand, ask:

  • Do you have the ability to think long-term and be clear about communicating a far-reaching vision and opportunity that includes others? This is your narrative.
  • Can you demonstrate the power of that opportunity with shorter-term messaging that inspires action, shows strength, and aligns collaborative efforts? This is your story.

For most marketers, the winning recipe is a combination of both.

Lead with a narrative that captures the community and the heart of your brand. Gather brand love and commit to your cause so you can tap into that internal motivation, enable others to identify with a more internal purpose, and establish a sense of community around your narrative. Take advantage of monitoring technology and social media to find others committed to a similar cause or your own cause, and connect.  

Supplement powerful narratives with story. Show smaller wins, identify with challenges, and present mini-solutions that lead toward the greater (narrative) goal.

For summaries of the SXSW session, check out Moving from Story to Narrative by Dane Hartzell (@ItsDane), or Forget Stories: Your Brand Needs a Narrative., from Sarah Skerik (@sarahskerik).

What’s your narrative? How do you tell stories to support it?


photo credit: jaaronfarr

Jessica Miller

Jessica Miller is VP and managing director of PR 20/20, where she guides strategy and performance, and champions the ongoing pursuit of building a great marketing firm. For more than a decade, Jessica has built lasting partnerships that connect marketing strategy to bottom-line business outcomes. Jessica joined PR 20/20 in 2011 with global agency experience. She is a graduate of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. Full bio.