The strange story of story

This isn’t exactly a new observation, but something weird has happened to the word ‘story’ in the last few years. Watching the recent TSB: The Story ad brought it home to me.

First, some background. 

I’m not sure what triggered the trend, but at some point in the last decade, storytelling was adopted by brands as a technique for connecting with people and communicating a message – understandably, because stories are one of the most ancient tools we have for transmitting values encoded in a memorable form. 

As inevitably happens, a valid insight quickly turned into a bandwagon, and the definition of ‘story’ has subsequently become so broad as to become meaningless.

Increasingly, it doesn’t matter if something is a story or not, as long as you can call it a story and signal that you’re in tune with that particular trend. Mention ‘story’ in a pitch or presentation and people will generally nod approvingly. (I’m not averse to using it myself – I can think of two projects I’ve worked on in the last four years that feature the word ‘story’ prominently, although I’d argue it’s a justified use in each case.)

TSB: The Story is the latest example. None of what follows is a criticism of the ad, which is beautifully made. It’s also well written from a commercial point of view – it tells a sanitised version of the TSB story, but that’s what you’d expect from an ad.

What I find interesting is the strange new sub-genre of ‘stories’ that this trend is creating. Here’s a transcript of the ad:

In 1810 the Reverend Henry Duncan, a man who believed deeply in the dignity of ordinary working people, wanted to do something of real and lasting value to help those struggling to overcome poverty.

And so he did something revolutionary.

He built a bank whose sole purpose was to help hard-working local people.

He believed industry could be encouraged and a sense of pride and independence fostered only when a bank served the community with the people's interests at its heart.

The groundwork had been laid for ordinary people to thrive along with their neighbours, to build communities together secure in the knowledge that their money was safe and working for the benefit of all.

 And then a storm came.

 In the turbulent times that followed, it was easy to think the ideals that Henry Duncan held so dear had been lost forever.

 But they hadn’t gone.

 They’d always been here, just waiting to be found.

Imagine presenting that story in a non-advertising context – maybe in a creative writing workshop. After an awkward silence, the response would surely be, ‘Tell me more about the storm’.

It’s not that the ad isn’t a story – it gestures toward a recognisable story-telling arc, opening with the set-up (hero establishes a bank), then the challenge (the storm), then the resolution (rediscovering hero’s values).

But look how heavily it’s weighted towards introducing the hero, before skipping through the storm to arrive at the resolution. It’s all set-up and resolution, with only the briefest moment of action in between. In any normal form of story-telling, it’s the in-between bit that matters. The storm is the story. The turbulent times are the story.

It would be interesting to apply the same approach to other narratives. Die Hard would presumably open with an hour-long backstory setting up John McClane as a nice guy, before a 30-second montage hinting at some vague trouble in a high-rise, followed by half an hour of McClane with his feet up drinking a beer. It’s story-telling hollowed out to a bizarre level.

Of course, there are good commercial reasons for the TSB approach. The ad uses the storm as a way of fast-forwarding over a century of complicated history. 

Henry Duncan did indeed form the first trustee savings bank, before lots of other people did the same. Those banks gradually almagamated before floating on the Stock Exchange in 1986 (all sense of localness now notional at best). The TSB Group then merged with Lloyds in 1995, before hitting the bordering-on-criminal mess of 2008 and the subsequent government bail-out. Now it’s become a stand-alone brand after LloydsTSB was ordered by the European Commission to sell off 600 branches.

All of that would be essential information in any standard ‘story’ of TSB, but it’s compressed here into a vague storm metaphor. (And a questionable one, because storms are external events over which people have no control – the victims are by definition innocent. Many would say it’s not the most accurate comparison with LloydsTSB.)

The result makes for a good commercial but a bad story. And that seems to be the problem with so many brand stories – the commercial imperative to gloss over negatives and promote carefully defined ‘values’ inevitably trumps the narrative imperative to tell a good story. Real stories require tension, conflict and, most of all, an ending. Brand stories understandably shy away from all three, existing in a permanent state of riding heroically into the sunset.

TSB is far from the most extreme example – at least it shows some signs of being a story. Many brand stories are just a weird series of disembodied values statements, with only the dimmest sense of a beginning, middle and end – and usually characterised by a strange insistence on how ‘simple’ the whole thing is. 

I’ve had some fun with this (this post had to be going somewhere), rewriting various fairy tales as ‘brand stories’. I’m not sure any of them are an improvement on the originals, but they certainly have a better chance of being signed off.

The brand story of Little Red Riding Hood
At Little Red Riding Hood, we believe that grandmothers are special and should be visited as often as possible. 
That’s why Little Red Riding Hood is all about visiting grandmothers who are real and not wolves. 
And it’s why our passion for grandmothers will always be at the core of our mission, no matter how big the eyes, ears and especially teeth of the wolf. 
Little Red Riding Hood: we want to make it easier to visit grandmothers, not wolves. 
Simple, isn’t it?

The brand story of Peter Rabbit
Peter Rabbit is a restless explorer of new possibilities – crossing boundaries, taking risks and doing what it takes. 
We are a challenger brand to the established players and that means life won’t always be easy. 
Sometimes we may lose a shoe among the potatoes. 
Sometimes we may hide in a watering can. 
It’s what we do. 
But sometimes we spot a solution that others do not. 
And when we do, we run. 
We run as fast as we can, home to our mums.
We believe in tired. 
We believe in camomile tea. 
We believe in bed. 
Simple, isn’t it?

The brand story of the Three Little Pigs
We Believe In Bricks. 

Toy Brand Story
It all began when we defined our Values around two contrasting pillars. 
We Over-deliver in Order to Delight You. (W.O.O.D.Y.)
Let’s Innovatorially Go Higher Together Yet Empathetically And Realistically (L.I.G.H.T.Y.E.A.R.)
Of course, these Brand Values are much more than words on a page. They come to life in unexpected ways and embark on what we call our Brand Journey.
At first sight, our twin Values may appear to be in competition, but it is a productive synergy where the whole is greater than the sum of its ever-changing parts, a bit like Mr Potato Head.
Both Values ultimately exist in support of our Brand Promise:
To Infinity. And Beyond.
This is the first iteration of our story – versions 2 and 3 will be released when someone new joins the Brand Team and decides to refresh the story to justify their existence.
Simple, isn’t it?

The brand story of Chicken Licken
Chicken Licken was founded on the belief that the sky is falling down. 
Since then, we have worked hard to spread our message far and wide, engaging partners as diverse as Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey and Cocky Locky. 
We are delighted to announce our recent alliance with Foxy Loxy, who was very keen to join us. We look forward to moving forward together to tell the king about the sky situation.
Simple-Limple, isn’t it?