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Ideas. Insights. Inspiration.

Dear Harley...

To Harley Finkelstein, President of Shopify

RE: Your Twitter Post

Dear Harley:

Last week, you asked the Twittersphere an interesting, important question that, as a passionate marketer, I wish more senior business leaders would ask:

My friend Lisa tagged me in your post, and while I could have used Twitter's 140 characters to simply provide you with a list of "storytelling brands", I felt more context was appropriate.

So this blog post is for you, and I hope you enjoy it.

To provide the most obvious answer to your question, the brand that's best at story-telling is, without question, Disney. That shouldn't be a surprise: their entire business is predicated on telling riveting stories, and they've been perfecting their craft for generations.

If you want their most recent example of a story well-told, watch "The Falcon and The Winter Soldier" on Disney+. Disney manages to draw viewers in using an action-packed superhero framework... then proceeds to tell a more important story about racial inequality in the United States. It's absolutely riveting, and it's a fine example of how great storytelling can be used to help communicate important lessons.

But Disney doesn't just showcase great storytelling with their movies and television shows; they also do it with their movie trailers, which I'd suggest is more relevant for the purposes of your question.

To use a recent example, here's the trailer for the upcoming Pixar film, Luca.

For the first 50-seconds of the clip, all we see is two boys running around, joyfully exploring a European town by the sea. But at the 52-second mark, we're given a twist: these aren't two ordinary boys. And just a few seconds later, we see why this is such a problem, punctuated with dramatic music.

Disney presents us with a setting, then sets up a tension... and the audience is left with a strong desire for a resolution. That's critical to all good stories, and it's something that all good storytelling brands have figured out.

Aside from Disney, there are five brands that come to mind for me when I think of those that have consistently told good stories with their advertising.

I'm going to share them below, then talk about what they have in common, and then suggest that, perhaps, you might have asked Twitter the wrong question when you asked, "What brand is best at storytelling" (and explain why that might be the case).

5. Procter & Gamble

P&G is a company that owns many brands, and many of those brands have told some exceptional stories over the years. But P&G itself is a brand too, and they've also run ads to promote the company as a whole. And one of my favourite campaigns of all time is the ad P&G created for the London 2012 Olympic Games, of which they were a sponsor. It's called, "Thank You Mom":

I've watched this commercial a few dozen times over the past decade, and it makes me choke up every single time. You don't need to be an Olympian to relate to this ad; if you were fortunate enough to be raised by parents who loved you, supported you, and made sacrifices for you... this ad will resonate.

That's key to a good story: it has to be able to resonate with the audience in some way.

As an aside, P&G subsequently created Thank You Mom ads to support their sponsorship of the 2014 (Sochi), 2016 (Rio), and 2018 (PyeongChang) Olympic Games, and they're all excellent examples of great storytelling. But the 2010 one is my favourite.

4. John Lewis

Some say the holiday season doesn't start until U.K. retailer John Lewis releases its annual holiday commercial. You can find all of John Lewis' terrific ads here, but I'll call your attention to Man on the Moon, their 2015 ad, which is one of my favourite examples:

An unexpected situation, an obvious tension, a resolution; we see this formula a lot with great stories... because that's what makes a great story.

3. Dove

Dove's The Evolution Of Beauty campaign, launched by Unilever in 2006 to promote their newly created Dove Self-Esteem Fund, was perhaps the first ad that demonstrated the brand's storytelling capabilities. But YouTube is filled with subsequent spots created as part of the brand's Campaign for Real Beauty that demonstrate a consistent talent for telling powerful stories to affect change.

The brand's most recent spot, though, is the one I found particularly powerful as a father of four young children:

You may have noticed that there aren't any words spoken in this powerful spot. In fact, you don't get any words at all until 48-seconds into the ad, when some text appears on the screen. Somewhat ironically, great stories don't actually need to rely on spoken words.

2. Google

Speaking of brands that can tell powerful stories without relying on spoken words, there is perhaps no brand that has mastered that art better than Google.

With Parisian Love, their 2010 Super Bowl XLIV commercial and one of my all-time favourite commercials, they manage to make me emotional using only a sequence of search queries:

They use the same "search story" technique successfully every year when they put out their powerful and often inspirational Year in Search videos, and they used it again recently to share an important message of hope for all of us who have had our lives affected over the past year by the COVID pandemic with their Get back to what you love spot:

All of these spots are wonderful examples of powerful storytelling in action, and also serve to demonstrate that you don't need enormous budgets to tell great brand stories.

1. Nike

Of course, when you do have big production budgets, you can release some pretty spectacular advertising... something that Nike has done time and time again.

Nike's epic Write the Future ad, from 2010, is one such example; it tells a story (several, actually) of how a single moment can impact your future:

Another example is Nike's more recent Dream Crazy campaign (2018), which shares stories of people overcoming the odds to achieve their "crazy dreams":

But it's absolutely critical to point out the fact that it isn't Nike's enormous marketing budgets (and the resulting access to some of the world's biggest celebrity athletes) that enables them to be great storytellers. In fact, one of my all-time favourite Nike ads, Find Your Greatness - Jogger, doesn't feature any celebrities at all:

The reason Nike is able to share powerful stories so consistently is that they've perfected the art of the insight: they consistently identify powerful truths that are highly relevant to (and strongly resonate with) their target audience... and then let those insights guide their creative efforts.

That's why I'll humbly suggest the answer to your question -- which brand "is best at story-telling"-- isn't nearly as important as the answer to "how do brands tell great stories?"

And the answer to that question is quite simple: by starting with great insights.

That's true in every example I shared above.

P&G understands the critical role parents have always played in the success of their children... and simply applied that insight to Olympic athletes.

John Lewis understands the tradition of giving gifts during the holidays is about so much more than the gift itself.

Dove understands that "beauty" is an artificial standard we've created over time, and that it needs to evolve because we, as a society, have evolved.

Google understands that there's a story behind every search.

And Nike understands their targets' desire to achieve their goals... and that sometimes they need a little push.

The advertisers I listed above may have each demonstrated considerable skill over the years in consistently telling great stories.

But they certainly don't have a monopoly on powerful storytelling.

Below are four more fantastic examples of great stories derived from great insights.

Doc Morris: Take Care of Yourself

Why should you bother taking care of yourself when living a life of sloth is so much easier? This tremendous commercial from the European pharmacy chain Doc Morris provides one answer to that question.

IKEA: Lamp

Can people get emotionally attached to inanimate objects? This classic IKEA advertisement answers that question definitively.

Kruger Products: Unapologetically Human

If you think the ability of a brand to tell a great story is category-specific, I dare you to not get chills after watching this spot for... household paper products.

Cineplex: A Balloon for Ben

Cineplex is dependent on great stories, but normally, they're sharing other people's great stories instead of creating their own. This spot perfectly captures not only the magic of the movies but also why the experience of going to the theatre is so special.

Harley, if you're still reading this... kudos to you! Because that would demonstrate a true desire to learn more about the power of storytelling, and that's something about which all business leaders should aspire to learn.

I hope you enjoyed this post; I certainly enjoyed writing it.

Truth be told, I could talk about great stories, great brands, great insights all day long...

... and if you're interested in having such a conversation, it would be my pleasure. (Just click here and send me an InMail.)

With thanks,



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