How to level up your marketing with storytelling

Behind all great consumer startups is a formidable marketing team. But getting caught up in the minutiae of performance marketing can come at the expense of utilising a more powerful weapon...storytelling.

This article was written by Duncan Allan, a Strategist at Google and member of the AfterWork community.

“The power and resources of our intuition and unconscious are greater than the rational mind can imagine” - Robert Burns

Odds are, when the brilliant poet Robert Burns was pioneering the romantic movement, startup marketing wasn’t what he had on his mind. That said, as someone who was a radical, disliked authority and spent much of his life challenging traditional expectations of how things should be done, it’s not hard to imagine him fitting right in today’s startup ecosystem.

Deep in heart-wrung tears, I'll pledge thee

And while it’s a shame that he’s not with us (he died in 1796), there is no reason we can’t learn a thing or two from Burns and his writing. Burns understood something that we marketers, despite the rise of behavioural economics and countless boring (and unimpactful) marketing campaigns have largely forgotten: in marketing, as in life, it’s the storyteller who has all the power.

In such a data rich world, it’s easy to prioritise the measurable over the meaningful, and difficult to separate true value from all the numbers. There’s a real danger of optimising towards whatever works best, using data (as David Ogilvy eloquently put it): “as a drunk uses a lamp post - for support, rather than illumination”.

Startup marketing is by nature performance-focussed in the early stages, but getting caught up in the minutiae can often come at the expense of the most powerful weapon you have in your marketing armoury - your brand. Ensconced in reams of data, emotionally-charged marketing matters more than ever.

Amidst the spectre of rising sea levels, melting ice caps, and starving polar bears, the climate crisis debate illustrates well the severe limitations of numbers. Take the following statement:

Humans are the cause of climate change, the single biggest threat to modern society.

If you agree with the statement, skip paragraph (1) below and just read (2). If you disagree, just read (1) and skip (2).

  1. 97% of scientists agree that climate change is caused by humans. That’s a stronger consensus than doctors who believe in vaccination. Nine of the last ten years have been the hottest ever recorded, the rate of Antarctic ice loss has tripled in the last decade, sea levels have risen four inches in the last twenty years, and every year we experience more extreme weather events than ever before.
  1. The hottest day recorded was in 1934, the Arctic was warmest in 1940, CO2 levels were higher in the 1980s, and in the last 20 years large sections of Antarctica have increased their volumes of ice. The climate has always changed - each year volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans. Scientists haven’t come to a true consensus and many have been caught falsifying their data, casting serious doubt over any of their models.1

Now reread original statement: Humans are the cause of climate change, the single biggest threat to modern society.

Did either paragraph change your mind? Make you question for one second your original view? I doubt it. And that’s the point. Numbers are only useful if you can make your audience believe them; and as humans, we have a nasty habit of filtering information to support our own preconceived narratives.

Numbers alone don’t sway us; we are very good at ignoring information that challenges our (often narrow) personal worldview, no matter how many scientists might tell us we are wrong. Worse, with the abundance of data, it’s easy to find figures somewhere that feed our existing biases, and easier still not to question their validity.

When it comes to swaying human behaviour, you compete on emotion, not logic. As Kahneman and others have proved, and the great poets like Burns understood, human decision making makes about as much sense as invading Russia in winter (twice), wearing ties – a literal noose around your neck, and paying to watch Adam Sandler movies. If you want to encourage or change a behaviour, or sell more products, attaching an emotion to your message has always been the best strategy.

What does this mean for how you market startups? Well, it’s almost 2022 and data is the world’s most valuable commodity. It has been for some time. Every self-respecting startup has increased their analytical capabilities tenfold in the last few years. Data sophistication is no longer a differentiator, it’s par for the course – table stakes to competing in the modern economy. But there is an inherent problem with this: because everyone is smart and data savvy, everyone has ended up in the same place. Having a sophisticated data driven performance marketing engine will only get you so far. It’s not that it isn’t useful, it is! It’s just no longer a competitive advantage.

The Madmen vs Mathmen debate has come full circle and we are back to where we started. Creativity. The last legal competitive advantage. You’re unlikely to find a Founder who doesn’t believe in the importance of data and measurement, but with marketing science and effectiveness research becoming increasingly prominent, the Founders that separate themselves from the pack will be those who find ways to layer on their brand and play both long and short simultaneously. Those brave enough to depart from pure rationality and get comfortable with using creativity as an issue solving instrument and not wrapping paper. Because it’s no longer a secret that prioritising building your brand is how businesses succeed in the long term, and at the heart of this is creativity. For while we are talking about logic and data, about rationality and decision making… we’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic.

Magic is Simon Griffiths sitting on a toilet for 50 hours to raise funds for Who Gives A Crap and in doing so generating millions of dollars worth of reach and awareness while laying a stake in the ground around what the brand stands for.

Who Gives a Crap

It’s Liquid Death marketing their sparkling water as if it were a heavy mettle brand.

Cutie Polluties From Liquid Death are Here, and ADORABLE

Reddit doing a better to job at fighting Hedge Funds than the US Government post 2008.

Reddit really did run a Super Bowl ad -- and it referenced when its users  disrupted Wall Street - CNN

Tontine putting an expiry date on pillows to get people back in the market and redefine the category.

So, while we understand our customers better than ever, and can reach them in more ways and more efficiently, it’s the idea behind the message - the story - that is and always will be the most important part. The idea that evokes an emotional response, that captures someone’s attention just long enough for the message to stick, to remain subconsciously floating in the back of their brain only to resurface at the right time, when correctly signalled and nudged.

Burns understood the importance of storytelling and hoped the right story, told properly, would inspire us to live better lives. For startups, using data as the support act and refocusing on the story will allow us to break free from a commonality of thinking that’s been the death of many aspiring companies.