THE BLOG
07/21/2014 12:14 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2014

Storytelling Returns to Marketing

What do every great movie, book and marketing campaign have in common? The answer: a great story. Now this may seem like an old mantra, but as Internet marketing dominated our agendas in recent years, we focused our energy heavily (and a bit too much in my opinion) on keywords, tags, short-form posts, tweets, etc. While it's OK to be brief in your communications, we can't let our story suffer because of the medium. And with the continued fragmentation of media, we need to return to telling stories because it sets our message apart and helps our meaning ring clear amid the noise in the marketplace of attention.

Part of the beauty of the Internet is that it democratized marketing. Anyone can write a blog which is easily searchable and findable. We can make our own videos which can "go viral" and reach millions of eyeballs. The Internet is the world's biggest "open for business" sign and has profoundly changed how we market. But as the Web has found its way as a tool, it also influenced how we communicate. For a period of time, we were blasting out as much information as we could to build awareness -- and the story suffered. Every SEO company would write "press releases" which said virtually nothing and distribute them to "article farm" websites that published them. No story, no message, just keywords and gobbledygook which somehow improved search results. The smart folks at Google figured it out and have since implemented ongoing changes which favor, yep you guessed it, original, meaningful content.

We need to return to telling our stories and engaging our audience with interesting information. The good news is you need not develop thousands of pieces of content, but you must be smarter about what you are distributing.

I have been noodling over this topic for a while but a couple pieces of communications caught my attention in the past week which are prime examples of the power of storytelling. The first was LeBron James' "essay" in Sports Illustrated. I found it to be a strong piece of PR communications that explained James' position in a way that was believable and authentic. That piece has been analyzed to death in the past week, so I'm not going to get into the details about it -- but I liked it.

The second is an exceptional article written this week by Chip Bergh, CEO of Levi Strauss & Co., who generated a ton of buzz back in May when he suggested that you should never wash your jeans. The story was picked up by news outlets across the country including Good Morning America. While the buzz has little depth, the response published this week tells a real story.


ABC News | ABC Sports News

In an essay that first appeared on LinkedIn as The Dirty Jeans Manifesto, Berg goes into detail about how jeans ought to be washed (infrequently, by hand, in cold water and dried on a line) but also seizes the opportunity to talk about sustainability. Now, jeans that are never washed and last for years meet a lot of my sustainability tests, but Berg also explained how Levi's has dug deep into this issue - and because it was part of a compelling story, I listened. Here's a little bit of it:

...In 2007, [Levi's] conducted an extensive "lifecycle assessment" of a pair of jeans to understand the carbon footprint of one pair of jeans and just how much water and energy a pair of jeans "consumes" in its lifetime, from "cradle" (growing the cotton) to "grave" (recycling, reuse, or worst case, to a landfill).

... An average pair of jeans consumes roughly 3,500 liters of water - and that is after only two years of use, washing the jeans once a week. Nearly half of the total water consumption, or 1,600 liters, is the consumer throwing the jeans in the washing machine. That's equivalent to 6,700 glasses of drinking water!

The piece goes on to explain what Levi's has done to reduce water consumption in its manufacturing process and also how the company offers guidance to consumers on how to reduce their carbon footprint -- by washing jeans the way Berg professes. He says he washes them himself and that his wife can attest.

By weaving the sustainability message into the story about how often one should wash your jeans, Berg made a lot of people aware of the company's positioning. Before the other day, I never thought for a second about the sustainability of my favorite skinny jeans, but it's now on my radar -- though I don't think I have ever worn any brand other than Levi's.

Berg posted his "manifesto" on LinkedIn, and it was later published on The Huffington Post. The story drove it to wider circulation.

Of course, writing something compelling and posting it on LinkedIn doesn't guarantee it will get viral legs, but that's where professional communications comes into play. Specific tactics are best left for another article, but primarily we need to look at all options, paid and otherwise, to get our "stories" in front of larger audiences. More on that soon.

Have you seen examples of great storytelling lately? And how often do you wash your jeans?