How to Tell Better Stories

In 2015, The New York Times published a recipe for Katharine Hepburn’s brownies. Amid the usual comments featuring recipe successes, failures, modifications, and questions, a woman named Sydne Newberry left this comment:

“This has been my go-to brownie recipe for 30 years. In the ’80s, an acquaintance in Germany to whom I brought some of the brownies, and who considered herself a great cook, asked for the recipe but was never able to get it to work. She kept asking me what she was doing wrong and I was never able to solve her problem. Eventually, she moved to the U.S. and stole my husband!”

The comment went viral. Two years after it was written, The Times named the comment their moderators’ all-time favourite out of more than 16 million reviewed. One Twitter user said it was written by “the greatest living short story writer.”

In 73 words, the comment introduces you to a problem – an acquaintance “who considered herself a great cook” is unable to make the brownie recipe work. While the reader would expect the problem to be resolved somehow at the end of the comment, Newberry instead introduces a twist no one saw coming.

What makes this story great?

Like all the best stories, it features a problem, a plot, and a main character – a “hero” if you like. In storytelling, a hero doesn’t have to be “good”; the best stories often feature a hero who changes as the narrative unfolds.

See, for example, Walter White, the protagonist of the tremendously popular and critically acclaimed series Breaking Bad. Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator and lead writer, intentionally wrote Breaking Bad as a story where the hero transforms into a villain. It’s a compelling story because of the “hero’s” transformation.

So what does this have to do with marketing?

A compelling brand story features a hero, but it’s probably not the brand itself. Having your brand as the hero usually doesn’t make for an interesting story. The real hero of your brand story is your customer. How will your company or product change your customers’ lives?

Google addressed this very question head-on with their 2013 “Reunion” ad. Created for audiences in India and Pakistan, the ad tells the story of two childhood friends separated by the India-Pakistan partition in 1947. With help from Google, the Indian man’s granddaughter is able to track down the long-lost friend and reunite them for her grandfather’s birthday. (Turn on subtitles to follow along with the story in English.)

Part of what makes this ad so successful (it has over 14.5 million views on YouTube) is the fact that Google wisely keeps the focus on the story, allowing their product to play a supporting role. The people in the story, representing Google’s customers, are the heroes. Google plays a key role in this story (it is, after all, an advertisement), but ultimately the focus is on the people whose lives were impacted.

We’ve talked before about why storytelling is such an effective marketing tool. Stories are more memorable and are capable of connecting with audiences on an emotional level. However, to be successful, they must be well-told. Listing out a bunch of facts and awards related to your brand? That’s not very interesting. Picking a few choice facts, using a story to illustrate why your brand is superior, and adding a hero who changes with the narrative? That’s a recipe for content that will keep people talking for years to come.

(P.S. You can read the full backstory of the brownie recipe comment in this article on The Cut.)

Aleisha Bosch

Aleisha Bosch is an Account Manager at Bonfire.