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Sell the story, not the product

People are far more likely to remember stories than product features. The best marketing focuses on storytelling and creating engagement, rather than focusing on the product itself.

Marty Drill

By Marty Drill, 13 March 20238 minute read

In the early days of the internet, websites were largely just brochures and product catalogues. The agency would take the marketing collateral available and essentially digitise it, making it available online. It was fairly rudimentary. As the number of people online grew and technology evolved, communication became more sophisticated. The advent of high-speed internet, Facebook, smart phones and later Instagram, changed the game. Today, marketers need a digital strategy before the design or content is produced. For some, this strategy relies on product features, while the most effective strategies rely on stories.

Successful campaigns tell stories. Yet so much of advertising is problem/solution focused. Practical but not very inspiring. We want brands to connect with us, to inspire us. We do that with storytelling. 

Throughout history, stories have been the basis of human communication. Indigenous paintings in Australia were designed to tell stories to future generations. Many lasted thousands of years and today are among the oldest stories of humanity. Stories are how we communicate and ultimately what connects us. We engage with and remember stories. 

Often the sales teams want to highlight the features of the product. The problem/solution model seems to be an easier sell.  However, it's less effective than creating something that connects with people. The content market is saturated and selling the outcome is far more likely to get engagement than selling the product. Probably one of the most famous quotes in marketing comes from Harvard Business School Professor Theodore Levitt: 

"Nobody wants a quarter inch drill, instead they want a quarter inch hole."

The job of marketers is to tell stories about their brands and products that connect with their audience. Defining and understanding that audience is key, because if you are talking to everyone, then you are not really talking to anyone. 

What is the narrative arc that connects stories? A simplified version of storytelling creation is:

  • What is the desire of the main character?
  • Identify the obstacle
  • Set them up to win (the resolution) 
  • and if possible, finish with something surprising. 

Digital storytelling provides us with the opportunity to tell richer stories and have a greater impact. Your brand is part of the resolution. It is not the main point of the story. 

Yet creating impact has never been more difficult than it is right now. Attention is a finite resource. There has never been a more saturated content landscape than right now. Think about how much content you now have access to. So many streaming services, Instagram, YouTube and the increasingly pervasive TikTok. Remember not so long ago when TikTok was for teenagers and yet you now text your friends TikTok links (the fact that you text still makes you old).

Video content is definitely king. However, the time you have to capture people’s attention is very small. How fast do you scroll up on a TikTok video? The video has possibly three seconds to interest you (possibly less) or you move on. So advertising your product features is probably not going to cut it. We need to focus on what the audience wants. 

Now, imagine you are the marketing manager of a power tools company like Ryobi and you want to focus on the quarter inch hole. Creating a short video about a hole doesn’t sound very interesting and a quarter inch largely limits you to hooks for picture frames. Not very engaging. The brand is about people being able to do home maintenance themselves and you are looking to focus on a group of people that may have been underrepresented in home maintenance scenarios – people in wheelchairs. 

Imagine this as visual story: 

  • There is a knock on a yellow front door.
  • Camera scans up to the viewer (peep hole) in the door, but the person doesn’t use it.
  • Someone calls out to the person approaching the door “Who is it?” The answer is “I don’t know”.
  • Door opens and the pizza delivery person is there and hands over a pizza.
  • A hand grabs the pizza and the door closes.
  • There is a scene of a family sitting around a table eating the pizza together. 
  • Then lights out (they have gone to bed).
  • Sunshine of a new day and the same yellow front door of the house is shown and you hear a drill. Suddenly a drill bit punches through the door creating a hole. You see the Ryobi drill for just a moment.
  • The woman instals a viewer (peep hole) in the door about halfway up – below the existing peephole – as the door closes you see the wheel of her wheelchair and the audience draws the conclusion that she has installed the viewer for herself.
  • The doorbell rings again and you see the viewer being used.
  • The door opens and the pizza delivery boy hands the pizza to a 10 year-old boy.
A peep hole in a door

The content is engaging and focuses on the hole, rather than the drill. The woman in the wheelchair is empowered to fix the accessibility issue for herself. The customer is championed rather than the brand. And her wheelchair is no impediment. In fact, in that moment you realise the peep holes in front doors were not designed for either children, or people in wheelchairs, and you are a little shocked. You now associate Ryobi with fixing a wrong and what they stand for comes through in the messaging: their products empower people. 

Most importantly, the content got you to feel something. You had to confront that you had never thought about someone in a wheelchair answering the front door and not being able to see who it was. By now you are thinking more broadly about the accessibility of the door for kids and you don’t focus on the wheelchair. Which is actually the aim of the content, and you start to wonder what else is not accessible for people, rather than people in wheelchairs. The brand got you to think, it got you to feel and possibly it gave you a new perspective. Now that is engagement. 

Comic about accessibility and snow-clearing - clearing a ramp good for all, clearing stairs not
Nobody reads advertising. People read what interests them, and sometimes it's an ad.
- Howard Luck Gossage

The observations of Howard Luck Gossage, an ad-man from the 60s have never been more relevant than they are today.

Gossage, who is also affectionately known as "Socrates of San Francisco," was renowned for doing really interesting advertising that turned heads. His focus was on creating something interesting rather than creating advertising. 

Steps to move from communication to engagement

  • Tell stories rather than sell products
  • Understand and know your audience
  • Know your brand and tell stories that align with values and audience
  • Make your audience feel something
  • Your brand is not the hero
  • Measure engagement rather than conversion

As marketers, we need to move from simply publishing content (or communication) to engagement. People watch content that is interesting. This written storyboard above is short, cheap to produce and is impactful. However the focus is not on the product or its features. Drills create holes, big deal. It's what the hole represents that is more important. Associating a brand with empowering people and the punch line being about the woman giving access to her child that is not in a wheelchair, makes you see the person, a Mum, not a person in a wheelchair. 

At SXSW this week in Austin, Brent Anderson, Global Chief Creative Officer at Apple’s dedicated creative agency, TBWA\Media Arts Lab said: We used to hang out with friends who liked what we liked. Now we find the things that we like and hang out with that community. 

Why was Apple’s marketing so successful? It spoke to the aspirations of its audience instead of focusing on product specs. 

Apple redefined what brand expression could be. It rarely, if ever, talked about product features. By focusing on aspirations and characteristics of the people in its target audience, it spoke for that audience. Apple focuses on what the brand stands for and what can be achieved with the product. This requires a deeper understanding of both the brand’s value and its values. 

Brent got to create work that speaks to Apple’s values. When Australia allowed marriage equality, Apple released an advert that Anderson and Media Arts Lab created, entitled ‘First Dance’. It celebrates the moment when equality was possible in the eyes of the couple’s community, the first dance of newly married couples. Apple uses film to tell stories, break down barriers and create belonging for its audience. 

Shot on iPhone strategy map (from SXSW 2023)

The ‘Shot on iPhone’ marketing strategy by TBWA\Media Arts Lab at SXSW 2023.

You may not have the budget that Apple does, but creating both a content strategy and content can be quite affordable. It starts with getting the strategy right (Luminary has content Strategists that can help) and the ideas flow once the strategy, the values and the audience are clear. Consider the written storyboard above focusing on the outcome (door view hole), not the drill, it would be fairly inexpensive to make and as the Apple ad says, it could be shot on an iPhone. 

Tennessee Tourism did this campaign with VMLYR to showcase the colours in autumn, encouraging people to experience them. It created a way for people who are colourblind to see the colours of the trees and filmed their reactions. The piece is moving and creates connection with the characters as the audience sympathises with characters about the impact of colour-blindness on something they themselves may take for granted, being able to see the colours of the leaves. This realisation is likely to lead to a positive view of Tennessee and for some it will become a holiday destination that they had never considered. 

Digital storytelling creates impact. To have the greatest impact, it can’t be about your brand or product. It definitely can and should include your values but rarely your product features. To capture any attention, you need to move beyond communication to engagement. Create something that is interesting and people will be interested. Create something engaging and people will more likely align to your brand/product. Stop broadcasting and start storytelling. 


SXSW is coming to Sydney in October which will be the first time the conference has ever been held out of Austin, let alone America. Luminary is locked and loaded to attend SXSW this year, expanding our knowledge of the tech sector and hearing from global leaders in a variety of niches. Read more about Luminary attending SXSW.

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