Using Storytelling in Marketing: Characterization and Plot


You may have heard chatter about the importance of storytelling recently. Content writers and digital marketers have both come to realize that there’s one thing which holds an audience’s attention like nothing else—a story.

You can keep on producing pages and pages of content with how-tos, lists, bullet points, bold subheadings etc. You can follow all the rules of search engine optimization, including the judicious use of keywords.

Even when you’ve done all this to enhance your content, it’s possible that your audience will find something missing. This is because they’re not getting a story. Most people get hooked onto stories in a way that they don’t with other types of writing.

This doesn’t mean that the story has to be fictional. In fact, some of the best stories are the ones that actually happened. The truth is that any story can be made into a good one. This is because a story is not technically about what happened but the way in which you tell the audience what happened.

The trick of telling a story well is something that storytellers have known since time immemorial. And that’s why ancient stories, such as the ones told in the Iliad and the Odyssey, still affect us today. On the other hand, there are many modern stories which we read or watch on the big screen and forget about immediately.

So what exactly constitutes a good story? And how do you use good stories to enhance your marketing efforts?

A Sympathetic Character

Let’s take a story that everyone knows—the story of Cinderella. Even though she has done nothing wrong, Cinderella is still being ill-treated by her stepmother and stepsisters. As a result, everyone feels sorry for her from the get-go; we find her a sympathetic character. We all want the love of friends and family, so we sympathize with people who don’t get it. Similarly, when you’re marketing your product or company, you need to tell a story with a sympathetic character.

  • Stories in Commercials: A lot of people tell stories in TV advertisements. When you watch these advertisements, you’re likely to find the girl who always got passed over because she had blemished skin. There’s the mother whose work is never done. There’s the man who worked so hard he never got to be adventurous.
  • Identifying with Sympathetic Characters: The above characters are sympathetic ones that everyone identifies with, to some extent or the other. We want to hear their stories. We want to hear how they managed to beat the odds. We want to see them in their moments of triumph. We want to share that triumph.
  • Creating Sympathetic Characters: So when you start a story, for a TV advertisement, a print advertisement or for website content, make sure you have a sympathetic character. That character can be a customer who had a problem, the business owner who was discouraged from setting out on his own or the company itself, which ran into problems from people who didn’t understand its vision. Once your character is sympathetic, your story is bound to grab your audience.

Taking Action to Change the Situation

Just having a sympathetic character isn’t enough for good storytelling. That character also has to be able to take action in order to change things. Or else, they’re likely to sink into victimhood. We may all sympathize with victims but, after a while, they become tiresome to us. And we can’t help thinking, “do something to change your situation.”

So it’s important for your character to take action in order to become who they’re meant to be. They need to find some kind of solution for their problems. They need to fight it out, accept the good luck coming their way or work hard to find a way out.

  • Famous Protagonists Who Took Action: In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara has to scheme, plot and connive in order to achieve the high social status which is so dear to her. In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie Bennett has to keep an open mind to get over her preconceived notions about Mr. Darcy. In The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes has to put his acute powers of observation and analysis to the test to find wrongdoers. All these characters have to take action to get what they want.
  • Stories of Customers Who Took Action: Just as the above fiction-writers created protagonists who took action, you need to create marketing characters who do the same. For example, if your marketing character is a mother whose work never ends, you can show how she uses the product you’re marketing to make her life easier. This product could be a readymade meal, a cleaning aid or a day at the spa that helps her to have some me-time.
  • Stories of Entrepreneurs Who Took Action: If your marketing character is the entrepreneur of your company, you can show how they worked hard to become a success. Or you could show how they were innovative enough to build a product that would help many. Either way, you need to remember that it’s important for the protagonist of your story to take action and change the situation they’re placed in.

Telling Small Stories and Big Ones

It’s always nice when you can sell a warm and fuzzy resolution to your audience. They’ll love it if your protagonist can have a happy ending. And when you’re using a story for marketing purposes, a happy ending is generally inevitable. But remember that this ending doesn’t necessarily have to be earth-shattering. It can also be subtle.

The girl who got rid of blemishes on her face with your product isn’t necessarily going to be happy for the rest of her life. But she’s at least going to have that temporary moment of happiness and joy. She’s going to get rid of one problem so that she can go on to another. Similarly the entrepreneur of your company may not have gotten rid of all their problems when they started their company. But they got rid of the ones that were facing them in that moment.

  • Small-Town Protagonists: Consider all the small-town stories of Nicholas Sparks, such as The Notebook. The characters of The Notebook aren’t rich or famous. They’re just regular people who met and fell in love. But they managed to stick with each other despite all the problems they had in the past and present. Similarly, the protagonist of the Clint Eastwood/Meryl Streep movie Bridges of Madison County is a housewife in a small town.
  • Grand Stories vs. Humble Ones: It’s not the scope of the story which makes it memorable. There are grand stories about war and revolution that don’t stick in people’s minds. On the other hand, there are humble stories about regular people that you just can’t forget.
  • Stories that Evoke Emotion: You need to tell the story that rings the most true, the story that most people will sympathize with, the story that will evoke some kind of emotion in your audience. And the best way to tell if a story will resonate with your audience is to think about whether it resonates with you. If you feel that your story moves you, then it’s likely to move your audience as well.