Not Buying It, The Disconnect Between Authentic Storytelling and Marketing

Once upon a time, advertising thought stories were a great way to get consumers to buy stuff and fall in love with brands. The idea, on the nose, seemed to have potential. Humans love to share stories. It has been a part of our cultural heritage longer than writing. It is a part of what it means to be human. Tapping in to this powerful part of humanity in order to entice people to buy, support, or do something, should be easy. Yet, as people demand more authentic storytelling, the ability to control the message becomes more slippery.

Recently Chipotle Mexican Grill, under fire for food contamination, published the adorable short film, A Love Story. It plays like a Pixar short and hits several emotional touchstones. The story, probably as it was pitched to a Chipotle ad executive, follows two characters who go down the dark path of Big Bad Corporate Fast Food with Additives and Made-Up Flavors only to rediscover the joy and passion of local, fresh food, you know, like Chipotle. The project was green lit and what was delivered is a cautionary tale against the fast food industry and a call to support small, local restaurants. Simple, authentic storytelling, completely undermining the corporation that paid to make it.

The short has over 7 million views on YouTube as of the publishing of this article. A short stroll through the comments section reveals the slippery nature of storytelling when trying to sell a message. Many people feel as I do about the video. The irony of Chipotle creating and promoting this short is that they ARE BIG FAST FOOD. Recent sales studies have shown places like Chipotle and Panera Bread are becoming the new McDonalds and Burger King, out performing the fast food of the last century. The short ends with the corporate executives opening a small, local restaurant.

The ad was beautiful. It was heartfelt. It made me want to go grab a taco or burrito from a local taco stand. I didn’t feel any more desire to go to Chipotle because of it. In fact it made me question why I would buy a corporate burrito in a strip mall versus going to an older part of town to get some good grub. I’m sure this was not the intention of the ad person who green lit the project. I’m sure they were following what many people in marketing are doing more of, telling authentic stories as a way to get people to love their brand. The thinking goes, people love stories, we tell a great story, people will love us. The trick, however, is to not be too authentic. When a story is filled with meaning, emotion, and relatable elements, the more likely the message will take on new and unintended definitions.

Contrast the storytelling of Chipotle’s video with other types of ads. Older commercials were simply a command given by a celebrity or jingle, “Drink Coke, This Bud’s for You, Double Your Pleasure with Double Mint Gum, etc.” More recent ads shy away from telling stories or giving commands completely, rather, they manipulate an emotional response to get what they want.

The Pfizer Corporation released, “Before It Became a Medicine” in May, and it had a narrator taking a pill and talking about its history, how it was researched, developed, etc. The ad ends with a plea to our emotions when the narrator hears his son, picks him up joyfully while narrating that the drug benefitted him a happy, healthy dad [Now, reimagine how different the ad would be if the narrator was taking Viagra (a Pfizer product) and a lover was whom the male narrator turned towards. The message is still the same, but the emotion is very different.]. The ad as it aired is a totally inauthentic narrative but delivers a clear message: we make our drugs and they help people. The underlying message, however, is to tell the consumer that, “a lot of work and infrastructure goes into that drug, so you should understand when we charge huge sums of money for it.”

Authentic storytelling will always undermine a classic approach to marketing. Authentic stories are like wild things, they go where they want to go. Emotional manipulation is less messy and more likely to stay on message, though it my lose a generation of viewers who hold inauthentic things in contempt. So what should those who have a message to share do? Give up? Go for the easy to control emotional pitch? Can authenticity be achieved as well as marketing goals?

I think authenticity can be beneficially achieved, but it will take a massive shift in thinking for most in traditional marketing. Humor and irony, two staples of the ad industry, are easier ways to portray an authentic story and market something (see the Squatty Potty and FiberFix). There are risks involved with this form of marketing, like the risk of becoming a joke, or the risk of failing to resonate and coming across as fake.

Another nontraditional approach to marketing, in order to create authentic stories, would be to hold one’s brand more loosely. A brand’s marketing team would act more like curators than tour guides, cultivating a space/place/identity where people are free to interact in their own way with the stories being told, trusting them to remember the curating brand. It’s a scary place and it may mean taking the risk that the likes and shares generated may not be a net positive for what the brand thinks of itself (more contemplation on branding in a future post). Cultivation not coercion will be the mantra of successful brands in the first half of this century. We will see if it can produce better products, better brands, and better stories.


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