Don't let Bank of America's line of business fool you. The financial institution has proven that creative digital storytelling can come from any industry.
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3 Digital Storytelling Lessons from Bank of America

6 Minute Read

Tell more stories. Tell better stories. Tell new stories. Tell old stories in new ways.

Marketers have been hearing this refrain for some time now, and they get it. Brand storytelling is an integral part of any content marketing strategy, because it solves the greatest problem modern brands face: engaging audiences that are tuning out traditional advertising messaging, audiences that will happily engage with brands but only on their terms, and audiences who still pay attention to a good story.

But telling a good story is more challenging for some brands than others, and it requires more creative thinking. If you’re marketing an innovative tech company like Google, a lifestyle brand like Whole Foods, or a do-gooder brand like TOMS, the stories practically write themselves. But what if your brand is less cutting-edge and more cut-and-dry—less tear-jerker and more brain-teaser?

Let’s say you work in banking. You have plenty of great how-to content on financial planning, saving for retirement, small business tax prep, and other money matters. It’s important information that your audience will appreciate if and when they go looking for it. But it’s not exactly the stuff viral campaigns are made of—unless you can wrap it up in a good story.

That’s exactly what Bank of America has done.

How does the 26th largest company in the United States use storytelling to engage its 47 million customers? By using these three winning strategies:

1. Tell a story about your brand.

Digital storytelling isn’t a new concept for marketers at Bank of America. They recognized its value long before it was a hot topic.

In 2001, when the company launched its second-ever national TV ad campaign, it used a storytelling approach to communicate the brand philosophy of “ingenuity.” The campaign included two 30-second stories. The first, “Swimming Hole,” featured a boy preparing to jump off a ledge into a lake, while his friends waited to see how he fared before jumping in themselves. This scene is overlaid with text reminding the audience about instances where Bank of America was first to do something, such as launch a credit card or build a national ATM network. The ad, according to a company press release, was meant to be “a simple metaphor for the courage and foresight that is required for an individual, or a company, to step forward and break new ground.”

Dan Roselli, then serving as Bank of America Brand and Communications executive, explained:

Bank of America has a long history of ingenuity that spans 200 years. We were one of the first banks to offer services to immigrants; we helped develop one of the first computers ever used in business, and we created the first coast-to-coast bank. Today, we’re pioneering a new type of Prototype Market banking center in Atlanta, and we recently created an innovative mortgage solution for teachers, the Teacher Flex/Teacher Zero Down. The new spots—and our new tagline ‘Embracing Ingenuity’—convey with intriguing stories our history of innovation, as well as the spirit of ingenuity that is thriving within Bank of America today.

At that time, the Bank of America brand was only three years old. But the company behind the name was originally established in 1904 in San Francisco, by an Italian man—Amadeo Giannini—who called it Bank of Italy. And many of the organizations that eventually became part of the Bank of America brand were even older.

So, Roselli was right. The brand does have a long history. Not only that, but it played an interesting role in many historical events—from helping Chicago rebuild after the Great Fire of 1871, to preserving the National Anthem, to financing some of Hollywood’s oldest and most popular films.

screenshot from Bank of America About Microsite

Audiences can read or watch these stories and more on Bank of America’s “About” microsite. The first navigation tab is entitled “Our Story,” which makes perfect sense given the company’s track record as a digital storytelling pioneer.

The lesson for marketers: When telling your brand’s story, think bigger than your brand. Where does it fit into history? How has it affected popular culture? How has it reshaped an industry or changed how consumers go about their daily lives? These are stories worth telling.

2. Tell data-driven stories.

Creativity might be a little harder for banks than for some other industries, but financial institutions certainly have one advantage: great data. Not only does that data tell a story about trends and human habits, it also uncovers needs that the brand can help to address—roles that the brand can play in customers’ own stories.

For example, Bank of America’s data shows that Millennials aren’t doing enough to plan for their financial futures, and that many don’t have all the information they need to do so.

To help give them this information, Bank of America is exposing younger audiences to both financial news and financial advice in its YouTube series, “The Business of Life.” Presented in a talk-show format, each episode brings together personal finance gurus, writers, thinkers, policy experts and scholars to discuss “everything Millennials need to make financial sense of the most complicated topics of our time.”

The series is produced by Vice Media, a team of documentary storytellers who created a groundbreaking news magazine for HBO. And both Vice Media and Bank of America are using Pinterest to promote it.

Meredith Verdone, Enterprise, Consumer & Wealth Management Marketing Executive at Bank of America, acknowledges that the three-way partnership with Vice and Pinterest is unusual. “It’s a little bit of strange bedfellows, and that’s intriguing,” she says. “To say, ‘How can we tap into the relationship—the storytelling that Vice does with their audience—and then to tell the story about better financial lives on Pinterest?'”

Yes, it’s unusual and intriguing. It’s also kind of brilliant.

The lesson for marketers: Think about all the big data at your disposal. What stories does it tell? What needs does it uncover? And how can you share that data in a compelling way?

3. Help others tell great stories.

Bank of America doesn’t just tell stories; it sponsors them.

When the Discovery Channel aired BBC’s popular “Planet Earth” documentary series in 2006, Bank of America was the presenting sponsor. It’s been 10 years, but I still remember the emotional and visually-stunning series, and I still remember seeing Bank of America’s logo before each commercial break. (And that’s saying a lot, considering I don’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday.)

In more recent years, Bank of America has teamed up with Ken Burns and Florentine Films to produce more than a dozen documentaries—including biographies of the Roosevelts and Jackie Robinson, historical films about the Civil War and World War II, and a visually-stunning journey through America’s national parks.

Ken Burns Film Promos on Bank of America Website

The lesson for marketers: You don’t always have to be the storyteller. Sometimes you can endear your brand to customers by simply helping worthwhile stories be told.

Bank of America isn’t the only great brand storyteller out there, and there are certainly portions of its marketing that have opportunity for improvement. But it serves as a powerful example that you don’t need a flashy product, an emotional corporate mission, or a whimsical brand voice to tell compelling stories. You just need a strong understanding of your customers and a little creative thinking.

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Taylor Mallory Holland is a freelance writer, editor, and content marketer specializing in technology, healthcare, and business leadership. As a content strategist, Holland contributes thought leadership content for some of the world's top brands, including Samsung, IBM, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, and UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine. She has been a contributor for The Content Standard since 2014.

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