Great Marketing is Built on Stories

Silhouette Photo Of Mountains

We live in a world filled with endless options, a surplus of marketing, and countless stories. Some of those are good, while many are bad; many are awesome, yet some are stupid; few are great successes, and some are epic failures. There will always be some new advertising campaign or popular brand dominating the attention of the masses. This reality won’t change because humans are curious, impressionable creatures who yearn for novelty and intrigue. As long as humans continue to crave more of something new and different, our world will be littered with marketing.

Unfortunately, most of these marketing efforts come and go as mere reminders of some ephemeral product or service that was once glorious before sliding into oblivion. Yet, there are a few immortal examples of great marketing successes that have transcended the bounds of time. These are instances of not just brilliant execution but rather timeless stories that are forever remembered.

In this lesson, we cover three examples of great marketing built on telling a simple, yet powerful, story.

1. Think Different – Apple Inc. (1997-2002)

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

-Steve Jobs narrating the Think Different commercial, 1997

Before Apple rose to the top of the tech world, it was near the brink of collapse and absolute failure. The company was running out of cash, its runway was quickly disappearing, and Steve Jobs was trying to save his own creation after his ouster in the mid 1980s. Fierce competition from titans like Dell and HP, among others, threatened to wipe Apple off the map for good. It was a dark age.

Shareholders were desperate to pull out their money from the sinking ship in Cupertino. And Apple was in the midst of a strengthening storm that had weakened its competitive position to all-time lows. As new obstacles and waves of adversity came crashing down, the struggling tech company needed a plan, a new strategy, anything that could save it from its own tragic demise.

It’s said that Steve Jobs initially rejected the advertising plan presented by Craig Tanimoto, the art director for Chiat/Day which created the Think Different campaign. It’s rumored that Steve Jobs didn’t like the idea at all. He believed the notion it spread was one of egoism, arrogance, and elitism at a time when the company was already struggling. Yet, something magical happened, something within the mind of Jobs told him that the Think Different campaign was exactly what Apple needed. Such an idea provided a new story, a powerful narrative that went far beyond its computers deep into the heart and minds of a world yearning for meaning, purpose, and guidance.

The story of Apple following the launch of its Think Different campaign played a key role in making one of the greatest corporate turnarounds in history. Apple was saved. And its future seemed surprisingly bright. Of course, the rest is history because we all know about the many innovations and successes that Apple has since brought into the world. From computers, to iPods, and iPhones, all the way to the promise of augmented reality technology, digital smartwatches, and even self-driving cars, the future of Apple continues in alignment with its Think Different brand identity.

What’s important to understand from the success of the Think Different campaign is how a struggling company from California managed to win over the masses by meshing its identity with some of the greatest minds in history, including Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, John Lennon, and several other legendaries. By positioning its brand in a way that is represented by humans that appear greater than life, people who undeniably changed the world in some unique way, Apple compelled millions of people around the world to identify with its story, with its narrative to not just simply buy its products, but rather to join a global movement that transcended computers. This was no longer a campaign about selling computers; it was a purpose-driven ideology which posited that the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century thought differently. And that Apple is the place for those who Think Different.

Taking inspiration from this marketing success, we challenge you and your startup to not just think different, but to also find the courage to be different!

2. The Most Interesting Man in the World – Dos Equis (2006-2018)

“I don’t always drink beer. But when I do, I prefer Dos Equis. Stay thirsty my friends.”

Dos Equis leveraged the power of hyperbole to drive its message in a thoroughly captivating and amusing way. Its short video commercials featuring cinematic-style shots across the man’s lifetime portrayed him in a mythical, almost larger-than-life manner. “The Holy Grail is looking for him,” “When in Rome, they do as HE does,” “His passport requires no photograph,” are among some of the many lines used in his iconic advertisements. Now, before we lose sight of the product here, we’re talking about beer. Not an action film, not a best-selling adventure novel, not a real war hero, but just beer! Recall this was a marketing campaign for a rising brewery from Monterrey, Mexico.

So how does this growing beer brand from Latin America manage to create a global identity of intrigue and allure? By building its marketing campaign on a great story. And the success of this approach was evident not just in its continuation for over a decade, but also in its pop culture fame. There were memes, GIFs, parodies, there were even fan stories created to uphold and extend the overarching narrative that Dos Equis created with the introduction of its mysterious, grandfatherly man, one filled with extraordinary stories and unbelievable experiences that provide people with an imaginative escape from ordinary life. That is the power of story.

The power of this marketing campaign stems from the seemingly widespread journey that it promises its audience. At the time when this advertisement came to life, most beer advertisements focused on a rather generic approach to marketing. Think of the usual clique watching a sports game, grilling in the backyard on a hot summer day, or at some trendy bar with attractive people. The narrative of the status quo was predictable and bland. It all amounted to nothing more than a basic suggestion that if you drink this brand of beer, you’re cool, or sexy, or fun. That was all. But then again, this was just beer advertising.

In an effort to penetrate the American beer market, Dos Equis knew that it had to differentiate its product from all other competitors. It could have just focused on creating ads that featured the usual clichés and tropes of beer consumption. Instead, it sought to build a brand identity that reflected worldly, refined, and macho values. In other words, Dos Equis created an aspirational product that provided consumers with a narrative that they could adopt for themselves. This also allowed them to position their beer at a higher price point that aligned with the air of exclusivity and class that its brand extolled. As such, its consumers adopted a brand narrative that made them feel as if they were partaking in the exotic journeys of the Most Interesting Man in the World.

As a startup, you too will face many challenges in building a unique brand that resonates with its intended audience. Remember that taking a risk by rethinking how the competition markets itself provides you with an opportunity to challenge the status quo and establish your own narrative.

3. Thank You, Mom – Procter & Gamble (2010)

“It takes someone strong, to make someone strong. Thank you, Mom. P&G, proud sponsor of Moms.”

Procter & Gamble (P&G) has been around for almost two centuries. Its product portfolio encompasses a diverse umbrella of thirty-four brands and consumer goods ranging from cleaning products to shampoo, toothpaste, makeup, diapers, razors, and more. With such a broad reach, one might wonder how the multinational conglomerate could possibly unite its brand marketing identity into a simple, cohesive, yet powerful narrative that summons an extraordinarily strong emotional bond between its products and the world. The answer is simple: storytelling.

Back in 2010, P&G was trying to reposition its global reputation in such a way that the world would identify with its brand values and identity. Such an endeavor would seem to be rather straightforward since P&G makes household products, or things that are often used in the context of family life. However, in connecting with the world in a way devoid of traditional push-advertising tactics, P&G understood that it would win the hearts and minds of consumers if it tailored its message in an emotional way that struck a deep chord and resonated with people everywhere, including those who may have never heard of P&G.

To pull this off, P&G partnered with an advertising agency that understood how to evoke emotion and could help spread the narrative that P&G was a brand whose purpose is “to touch lives and improve life.” Moreover, P&G was strategic about its marketing campaign launch by limiting the timeline of this period to the Olympics. Initially, this was a challenge for P&G because its products had no particular link to the Olympics itself, but the notion that it upheld was that every athlete in the global tournament has had a mom. And that was the underlying thread through which P&G built its story for Thank You, Mom.

This approach was extremely wise and unfathomably strategic for P&G since it tapped into the core of its prime market right down to the key decision makers who ultimately purchased most of its products: moms. Of course, P&G products are purchased by countless people other than moms but the company knows that the driving purchasing power for such items has traditionally been represented by mothers. Thus, it made perfect sense to craft a marketing narrative around the admiration, respect, and gratitude we share for our moms. The effect of this was that more moms chose to purchase P&G products as well as other consumers who felt an emotional connection to the P&G brand through the story that its marketing shared.

Be warned: the Thank You, Mom advertisements are designed to make you cry. They are designed to tap into that deep reservoir in your mind called Past Memories. They are designed to make you remember those childhood days when mom was always cleaning up after your every mess, staying up late to care for you, and picking you up whenever the growing obstacles of life brought you down. In short, P&G wanted to remind you that mom was always there for you because she loved you and would do anything to protect and propel you to new heights. P&G injected this narrative into the context of the Olympics by chronicling the ups and downs faced by all Olympic athletes as children and teens in the long years that led up to their eventual glory as world-class competitors. None of the Thank You, Mom videos featured P&G products. Instead, they focused on the story behind motherhood and its many sacrifices and struggles. As such, the resulting impact was a story that worked perfectly every time because each video evoked a powerful connection which the majority of humans share: a love for their mother.

Thank You, Mom was P&G’s most successful global marketing campaign. The conglomerate announced that its emotional content translated into $500 million in global incremental P&G sales, 76 billion global media impressions, 74+ million global views, and 370+ million Twitter interactions in 2010 alone.

If there is anything you should remember from this lesson, it’s that stories undeniably form the foundation of good marketing. Without a narrative to share, people will be unable to identify with your brand’s mission in its earliest stages or even in the future when your company evolves into something bigger or different. That’s why your brand must share a powerful mission that tells a story, one that shows why your company does what it does for the world.