If you’ve been following the marketing conversation on Twitter lately, you’ve probably seen a short video interview with artist and designer Stefan Sagmeister. In it, he makes a bold declaration that brutally squashes a popular modern marketers-as-storytellers trope. In no uncertain terms, Sagmeister reserves the title of “storyteller” to the elite ranks of novelists and other suitably laureled authors. And we had some mixed feelings.
Here to weigh in on the hot topic are a few of our own office storytellers. We’d love to hear what you think, too—is everyone a storyteller?
Josh, Art Director:
In marketing I think there are three ways to think about whether or not designers are also story-tellers.
First, not all design solutions tell a story. For example, someone designed the fuel injector (notably by a local entrepreneur whose name you may have heard—Clessie Cummins). It was designed to increase engine performance, to make something better and enhance user experience. Ultimately, however, it (the design solution Clessie created, not Clessie’s life itself) tells no story. It exists as a system in engines that most users never think about.
Second, not all stories in marketing are told by the designer. In some advertising campaigns, the characters are nameless and faceless. The locations unidentifiable. There is no resolution or climax. There doesn’t need to be: because it’s about your story, not theirs. You will fill in the gaps. The goal isn’t to tell you a story, but to give you enough pieces to have you tell your own and to have you remember positive times associated with their product. (“Mmmm. Real coffee.”)
Third, sometimes we’re story tellers. Sometimes telling a new story is compelling, whether the story is an absurd but memorable narrative from Old Spice making them seem edgy and fun and keeps their product relevant, or it’s a brief history of hard work and patriotism that convinces you Yeungling is the beer of choice.
Sarah, Content Director:
In the are-we-or-aren’t-we-storytellers debate, here’s what I do know: I’m a storyteller. I have been loving and creating and sharing stories* in one form or another for as long as I can remember. To me (and Joan Didion), stories are the most basic and necessary way of making sense of the world. They’re the most effective way of connecting people. And in our hyper-social society, I do think there’s more occasion for storytelling than ever before, and there has been a renaissance in the value and desire for storytelling in everything from vending machines to television dramas.
However, my personal reaction to marketers claiming the “storyteller” taxonomy is to cringe. Sure, there is a lot of storytelling that goes on in branding and marketing (and in any kind of communication, for that matter). But I think this marketer-as-storyteller fantasy is just that—it’s the story that we marketers tell ourselves to make sense of what we do (and, don’t get me wrong, it does help) and to make it seem more well intentioned. Because, let’s face it—being a storyteller sounds a lot nicer than being a brainwasher.
*What is and is not a story—that’s a conversation for another day.
I am torn. This rebellious, anti-buzzword part of me really wants to agree with Sagmeister. He’s right. The marketing world is over saturated with “brand storytellers.” It’s a thing right now. And it seems a big thing right now to use storytelling as a framework for everything, from brand development to Sagmeister’s example of roller coaster design. I want to slap people’s hands and say, “Stop it!”
But I also believe in storytelling—in the power and the history of it. We’ve been telling stories since we lived in caves and cooked over campfires. I believe everyone is a storyteller. Not everyone is a good storyteller. But everyone tells stories. From the professional novelist to my wife telling me about her day over dinner—it’s all stories. I came across this Terry Pratchett quote once, “There’s always a story. It’s all stories, really. The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything’s got a story in it. Change the story, change the world.”
That’s what advertisers and marketers are trying to connect with when they call themselves storytellers. The best of them want to change the world. They want to create the story that does that. That’s what I want to believe. That’s what I want to believe I’m doing, or at least trying to do. And if that’s truly the intention these companies have when they call themselves storytellers, then I can’t fault them for that. The only thing I can fault them for is jumping on a trend.