The Four Elements Of Storytelling

Last week we delved into how to tell a brand story. Like the four elements of nature – earth, wind, fire and water – there are four elements that make up the core basis of storytelling. Ever since we were children we have been told stories. Now even as adults, we continue to hear a multitude of stories every day; over the breakfast table with our families, from our colleagues at lunch, from friends over a coffee, or through the media and the many commercial messages that deluge us on TV, radio and Internet at any given time. So it is easy to spot a good story when we hear one. But it is this same instinctive understanding of storytelling that causes confusion when we speak of storytelling and branding.

Because it is often assumed that we have a shared understanding of what makes a good story, the fundamental premises for storytelling are often left unexplained, and this can cause confusion as to what the concept of storytelling actually entails. What constitutes a story in the first place? And what is it that makes a story good?

Unfortunately, there is no fixed formula. And it would be naïve to assume that a narrow interpretation of what makes a story good will help us to become better storytellers. Storytelling encompasses so many different factors that need to be fine-tuned to a specific audience and a given situation, that it is virtually impossible to lay down a hard set of rules. However, there are some basic guidelines that can be used. These elements can be mixed, matched and applied in a variety of ways depending on the context in which the story is told, and its purpose.

Storytelling as a branding tool is not about telling stories just for the sake of it. Rather, for most marketers storytelling is about using stories to communicate messages that reflect positively on the brand. But first you must develop a clearly defined message. Without it, there is no reason to tell stories – at least not with a strategic purpose.

Conflict is the driving force of a good story. No conflict, no story. But why is this the case? The answer lies in human nature. As humans we instinctively look for balance and harmony in our lives. So, as soon as harmony is disrupted we do whatever we can to restore it. When faced with a problem – a conflict – we instinctively seek to find a solution. Conflict forces us to act. As storytellers, we get our message across through conflict and its resolution.

Another basic element is your characters. We have seen how conflict marks the turning point in the story, but in order for this conflict to play out, you need a cast of interacting and compelling characters. In order to get personally involved with a story, we must be able to identify with the characters. Here it is important to keep your target audience in mind. The audience must be able to identify with both the hero and the problem. Based on our need to have balance in our lives we will usually emphasise with a person faced with a conflict.

Once your message, conflict and cast of characters are all in place, it is time to think about how your story should progress. The flow of the story and its events are vital to the audience’s experience. Given the fact that we can only tell one thing at a time, and that a story exists only as a progression of events within a given time span, the sequence of events needs careful consideration. It must have a precise structure to propel it forward and maintain audience interest.

Having discussed the four elements of storytelling, we are now ready to delve deeper into the relationship between branding and storytelling and shed light on how storytelling can be applied by marketers. Each element will form the basis of the next four weekly blogs. An example (aka story) can be found at the four elements of storytelling

CMO Perspective – Nestle

Up until 1987, English commercials for Nescafe Gold coffee had focused entirely on the product, emphasising the golden coffee bean as a symbol of their high quality coffee. But Nestle was up against a challenge

Even though NESCAFE Gold Blend was doing well and had gained a position in the market as a gourmet coffee, the brand was not accessible to the majority of the buying public. It was really only known among coffee connoisseurs, and the rational product-focused message was only interesting to this limited audience. Nevertheless, NESCAFE Gold Blend was widely recognised: a fact, which Nestle turned to their own advantage. The objective was to keep the brand’s position as a gourmet coffee, but to reposition it as a coffee with a broad appeal that was accessible to everybody. The solution was to tell a story that would get consumer emotionally involved in the brand.

The change from a rational product focus to an emotional universe resulted in a romantic everyday drama with wide public appeal. The Nestle commercial serial, Love Over Gold, was the closest a commercial had ever come to being a soap opera. The commercials introduced two main characters – a man and a woman – who were neighbours in an upper-class apartment complex. From the onset it was clear to everyone that they were made for each other, the script oozed sexual innuendo. But each time you thought the couple were going to get together over a cup of NESCAFE Gold Blend, small occurrences kept interrupting them and getting in their way. Each episode ended on an emotional high with an unresolved ending, and as the chemistry and the flirting increased, the audience were likewise, left wanting more. The curiosity soon turned into addiction as audiences followed each episode to find out if the flirtation would ever blossom into an actual romance.

The English public took this small every day drama to heart, especially women. The secret to its success? Emotional involvement. The actual product – instant coffee that tasted like the real thing – was a natural element in the story, but it was love and romance that communicated the message. The first series was so popular that Nestle decided to make twelve episodes instead of the original six. They ran for five years. It culminated with a bonanza showing all the original commercials and a fairy-tale ending in which viewers saw the happy couple disappearing into the sunset. More than 30 million viewers turned in to see our hero finally utter the words “I love you”. The next day, the two main characters were on the cover of The SUN. The story of the campaign led to two CD’s and a video, and in 1993 a new series was aired, introducing a new couple that repeated the success

More importantly, since 1987 NESCAFE Gold Blend has increased its sales by 60%.

The campaign for NESCAFE Gold Blend was cleverly structured on the four elements of storytelling, and this example clearly shows how storytelling can make a difference in traditional marketing, provided the story has a solid structure and directly addresses the target audience. Taking its starting point in the values behind NESCAFE Gold Blend – “good taste” and “passion” – an entertaining story was told which got viewers’ attention. The focus was on the characters and the action while the product took a back seat, though it still managed to play a crucial role in the development of the story.

For a more recent, localised example look no further than the award winning AAMI series.


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