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Why Brand Storytelling Is the New Marketing: An Interview with Robert McKee

By Jon Simmons on September 6, 2016

Who is Robert McKee? According to many, he's the world's foremost educator on story form and brand storytelling.

McKee's students have collectively won sixty Oscars, 200 Emmys, and hundreds of other prestigious awards. John Cleese has said of his seminar, "It's an amazingly important course that I've gone back to do three times," and marketers from brands such as Kraft Foods and Pepsico have credited McKee's seminar, Storynomics, with transforming the way they reach and engage their audiences. Alex Paufler, CEO and president of Mercedes-Benz Thailand, recently told me the value of McKee's doctrine: "Customers, business partners, and employees do not remember numbers or bullet points well, but they remember stories. Thus, talk in stories."

But how do brands actually "talk in stories?"

I spoke with McKee about the shift marketers are beginning to take from investing in traditional advertising to telling stories people want to hear, as well as learning story craft.

Today, brand storytelling is being talked about more and more in the marketing industry as a strategy. How can companies do it well?

This strategy has grown enormously. What do they do well? First, they stop bragging. They stop promising, and they tell story.

The classic advertising technique, that literally goes back to Benjamin Franklin, has been bragging and promising. What [successful companies] have smartly realized is that the millennial generation and generation Z coming up behind them have an adverse reaction to bragging. They're annoyed by [assertions like] "We're the biggest, we're the best, we're the shiniest, we're the newest, we're better than the competition."su They find those claims doubtful at best.

They also believe that the promises brands make may or may not be kept. If they're going to purchase the product or hire the service, they'd rather wait to see the performance of it. Then they'll go online and they will rate it. They're not going to let marketers tell them something they don't necessarily believe.

The way to persuade the buyer is to get their attention with a story, and that is very difficult in this day and age of distraction. Story is the most effective way to get attention because what attracts human attention is change. As long as things are moving on an even keel, you pay attention to whatever you're doing. But if something around you changes—if the temperature around you changes, if the phone rings—that gets your attention. The way in which a story begins is a starting event that creates a moment of change. When someone is watching a story, something happens that turns the situation, usually to the negative. (It could be to the positive, but even if it turns to the positive, it's going to become negative in a moment.)

Naturally, this arouses curiosity: how is this character going to put their life back into balance, to the positive? The change gets [the audience's] attention, the fact of things going out of balance arouses their curiosity, and then if you tell the story well, this protagonist, this core character, has within them some essential human quality that the audience recognizes and thinks, "that is a human being like me." Once they make the connection that this story is about someone like them, they're personally invested. Now, curiosity becomes suspense . . . [Once] you have them in a state of empathy, curiosity, and suspense, you can hold them for thirtycu seconds, a minute, or more. And hopefully, if the climax is well done, it will trigger them to take an action: to remember your product next time they're in the store, or to go online and look it up.

That, in a nutshell, is the process a well-told story puts an audience through.

This aversion to bragging—does it cross generations, or is it exclusive to young people?

Everybody has always been averse to bragging, but now they're not being polite. There's an accusation today that millennials have short attention spans, which they blame on iPhones and all the rest of that. This is nonsense. In order for people to have shorter attention spans, there would have to be a change at the genetic level.

People have the same attention spans they've always had—the difference is interest spans. In the past, people would put up with commercials out of politeness and some modicum of interest. They felt that a polite human being should look at a piece of advertising, simply because: [the brand] made an effort to contact me, and so I'm going to respond and be polite and give [it] a chance.

That's gone.

The millennial generation will not sit there pretending to be interested in something they are not—and I admire that. I think it's a wonderful cultural shift that people will no longer let advertisers consume their time and attention, when deep inside they're actually annoyed.

We know to some degree that bragging is false and promises are not going to be kept. We know that. But it doesn't stop advertisers from trying, even today. I still see automobile commercials that promise some kind of ecstatic, transcendent, emotional experience behind the wheel of a car. In fact, if you're law abiding and driving at 65 [mph], there's nothing of a kind of uplift, you're just killing time to get from here to there. (That's why we're all hoping for self-driving cars as soon as possible!)

Those appeals fail for a certain demographic. So what are you going to do as a marketer? Get their attention through a story, hold that attention, and then pay it off in a way that motivates that consumer to take another step. A traditional entertainment-told story satisfies at the ending. You have an experience, and you say "that was a good film, that was a good TV show." The experience is complete at the climax of the story.

The purpose-told story is the marketing story, and it, too, holds attention—which is the definition of entertainment. You're entertained when time goes by and you don't notice. But when it climaxes, it has to trigger an action. It has to cause the consumer to think: Well, I've got to look into this. This could be the answer to my problem. This could improve my life. And so they take a step then to buy that product or hire that service.

In other words, what marketers have discovered is that the mind is a story-making and taking-in machine. The natural way in which people think is to storify their experiences. This is how you remember, this is how you try to anticipate the future. You put the past or future into story form in order to make sense out of life and try to understand what your life has been like, to try to prepare for the future. The mind is constantly storifying its experience. That's the way it works.

Consequently, by telling story as a marketer, you're inserting, like a Trojan horse, a story into a mind that loves stories. And now you've got a chance to get [your audience] to do what you need them to do.

Two Millennials sitting by the water

Do you think all brands have an opportunity to tell stories, or do you think it only applies to some of the sexier brands like Red Bull and Apple—brands with interesting products. How can boring brands use story to fuel their marketing?

First of all, they have to use imagination, [and think], this product [or] company only seems boring. If you dig into something, anything offers some sort of positive contribution to civilization. It cures some ill. It fixes some problem. It performs some kind of service.

Companies that perform a service, their natural core character—the centerpiece of their stories—is the consumer in a very natural way. When you perform a service, there's a consumer who uses that service to actively benefit themselves. Therefore you can tell a story about the consumer's experience with the service. That's the natural thing to do. The hard thing is getting an audience to empathize with a product and/or a corporation. When a story stars a consumer, there's a kind of natural empathy. That character is a human being, just like me. The human connection is easy.

But what do you do if you want to tell a story about a product? How do you make the audience recognize that that product is "a human being like me"? Products are inanimate objects, so the typical solution is to personify the product. We do that a lot—the Geico Gecko [for example], and on and on it goes. Sometimes, they will create a fantasy world in which the products come to life and talk. So if the product is the core character, then you need to find a way to get the product to act and make choices. That is not easy. The easy thing is to have a spokesperson for the product, but then it degenerates into bragging and promising.

The hardest thing of all is when the logic of the material says the correct protagonist for this marketing story is the corporation itself. That is a branding story. Corporations do have consciences, and corporations do make decisions and take actions; therefore, you can portray corporations as thinking, acting, and being. But the problem is, in the modern world, how do you make a corporation empathetic? People have antipathy toward corporations. This is one of the reasons why so many companies like Starbucks, like Tide, have missions. You can tell the story about a mission—about what Tide is doing for people living in disaster areas, what Starbucks is doing to help educate its employees—you can dramatize it. The corporation comes alive, has a heart, and is out there on a mission.

I have a client down in Costa del Mar, FL, whose mission it is to clean up the ocean. They do a lot of good work that way. They're a sunglasses company, and they no longer make their sunglasses out of plastic. They found a way to make high-quality sunglasses out of biodegradable materials. They go out to college campuses and do all kinds of events. They're very expensive—$500–$600 sunglasses, and they've built a substantial clientele based not on the quality of their sunglasses, which is really superb, but on their mission. Turning a corporation into a story's core character is a special task, as is with a product.

You only have three choices in a marketing story for who the story is about: it's either about a corporation, about a product, or—if it's a service—it's about the consumer.

There's a big movement in the marketing industry to make all your stories about consumers, but the logic is not always possible. The way you make products and companies consumer-centric is to make them empathetic. The companies that are doing it best are the ones that understand this.

Many marketers use very short-form content—on Twitter, Facebook, etc. Does storytelling fit into those channels?

Of course it does. But, the shorter it is, the more difficult it is to write. You've got to throw life out of balance [quickly]. Without that, there's no curiosity. There's no interest in how balance will be restored.

But if your marketing is really good, you realize you don't necessarily need to put all the elements of a story in front of the audience, because the audience's mind is a story-making mind. If you give them certain elements, they will supply the rest.

For example, Nike tells a story in three words: Just do it. And the story goes like this: I'm a lazy-ass, overweight couch potato, stuffing my face with potato chips. I finally make the decision that I'm going to change my life, and I go out and buy a pair of Nikes, and I try to jog and it hurts like hell. But I keep going, and every day I manage to jog another block farther, and it hurts like hell, until I get to the point where I'm actually losing weight and getting in shape, and I can go farther, and I can do a 5k. My life changes. I feel better, I look better, and I've got energy, etc. "Just do it" implies the story of the transformation of the couch potato into an athlete. That's how brief it can be.

On YouTube, or wherever, you've got even more time than that. It's not question of "can it be done?"2—it's done every day. It's a question of whether the talent, the creativity, and the imagination of the storyteller can hook interest, involve people emotionally, hold people for that time, and then pay it off.

You've taught story form to many audiences: producers, playwrights, novelists, business leaders, etc. What are some core challenges that everyone faces, across roles and industries, when it comes to story form?

They all have this one big problem: they have to realize there is a craft that underlies this and they have to master that craft. Writing is not instinctive. Your instincts are important, your talent, your creativity is essential, but then you have to sit down, take your characters and their world and shape scenes and, beat by beat, build scenes into sequences, sequences into acts, and acts into a whole story. You have to understand the difference between text and subtext. You can't have characters walking around saying everything that's on their minds. You have to build progressions.

There's this whole world of study that [all people] have to accomplish. They have to have an author's knowledge of the art form. That's the hardest thing for them to get through their heads: here they are, at age twenty-five, thirty, and they thought they'd done all the schooling they needed to do. That they could just sit down and be a writer, a businessman, and that they didn't have to start learning from the beginning.

If this was music, and not story, you would have to master music theory. You'd have to master the form of it—whether it's classical, jazz, or rock—musicians are technicians who know the structure of music. They recognize that there's a technique—there's a craft. It's the same thing with writing, you have to be able to compose.

That's a big step: to knuckle down and realize, I don't know. I have to learn. I have to study this. Once you get them past that—when they realize it's a profession and not a hobby—who knows where it will take them.

Do you think that industries like technology, that are used to moving quickly and trying new strategies, are better prepared to take on brand storytelling, as opposed to legacy brands?

I don't think so. No matter what industry you're in, it doesn't prepare you to look at a human being the way a writer looks at a human being. All I know is that the shift from thinking like a storyteller from having thought like a scientist is a huge leap.

One of the most important things I teach business people in my Storynomics lectures is to change their logic. They are used to thinking in terms of inductive logic. They make a PowerPoint presentation, which is inductive logic. They gather evidence—this point, this number, this authority, this that, therefore—and they draw a conclusion. That is of no use in telling a story. They have to shift from inductive logic to causal logic. And that is a categorical change. They've got to think in terms of cause and effect in a human way, and they've got to think in-depth, since most of human life is subconscious and irrational and based upon needs and desires that rise up out of people in various contradictory ways. They've really got to understand human nature. That takes wisdom. Science does not necessarily prepare you for that shift.

Robert McKee Lecturing in Amsterdam

What is the best research for business people to understand humanity? Is it possible?

The subtext of that question is, tell me the short answer. You want the one book that the business person can read on vacation and understand human nature. There is no such thing. There is no shortcut. The answer is, you've got to want to do it to begin with.

One of the examples that I use in my lectures is Dove. They do this brilliant campaign—Dove [Real] Beauty—which is based on the insight into human nature that women in particular are excessively critical of their looks, and that women don't understand how attractive they are because they are so fault-finding in every little detail of their heads, faces, bodies, clothes. That is tremendous insight. They based the whole campaign on how Dove can help you overcome that, and how Dove can help you appreciate your natural good looks. That campaign saved Dove from extinction, and they repeated it for men and teenagers. It's a perfect example of what a great marketing/storytelling campaign can be, but it begins with an insight into human nature. Without that substance, it doesn't matter how skillful the storytelling may be.

Robert McKee and Skyword CEO Tom Gerace will be teaching the Storynomics seminar across the country in 2017.

Register in your city today:


Jon Simmons

Managing editor of the Content Standard, writer at Monster, Sound of Boston, Trill, and others. Hip-hop producer.