The Art of Transformative Storytelling, and Why it is Vital for your Business

The art of transformative storytelling

Transformative storytelling (TS) is, foremost, storytelling. But not the way you remember it from your childhood bedtimes―unless those bedtimes happened in the eighties and nineties, and you were into Choose Your Own Adventure books, I mean. What makes TS transformative today is its methodological dependence upon collaboration. Yes. Kind of like your old CYOA’s. Except now our technology is a whole lot better than it used to be.

With transformative storytelling, participants (and here I mean real live clients as well as actors and other creatives) along with business marketing experts work together to construct narratives that captivate. These can be personal. And/or they can be collective. And while you’ve seen story-telling as marketing strategy in the past, historically those strategies were single-layered, low tech dramatizations characterized by predictably feel good, don’t-rock-the-socio-political-boat discourses. Take a minute to reflect on this last statement if you need to do so.

Some of those past efforts to captivate with narratives were highly successful despite their simplicity and, dare I say, reliance upon platitudes. I admit this. Remember, for example, this 1990’s United Airlines ad campaign? Or remember when McDonald’s nailed storytelling as strategy in the 1980’s? Today, however, we can do more with storytelling, and we can do it better. Which is why we’ve appended as prefix the word “transformative.”

In short, transformative storytelling demands the weaving together of creative as well as s modern technologies in order to express messages that are authentic in their complexity while remaining clear in their communication.

I am reminded, in fact, of fifty years of anthropologists calling for multiple lines of evidence in their narrative-based and anecdote-riddled scientific arguments. While anthropologists remain known for the complexity of their methodologies (think: participant observation, interview technique, and the collection of oral histories to begin), they are, still today, largely bound by traditional commitments to communication via academic text. This is in contrast to those marketing professionals who have taken up the ethnographic cause, if you will.

Why transformative storytelling is vital for your business

Transformative storytellers borrow anthropological methods of investigation and then, unlike most contemporary anthropologists, they present their “data” (video producers call this footage while photographers speak of images, authors of storylines, potters of pieces…) in a rapidly growing number of formats. This flexibility and even dynamism in format, paired with real, socio-cultural research, is what today renders TS so very vital for your business.

cocacolaPerhaps you saw the costly Coca-Cola fail last December? The meticulously filmed and edited video advertisement in which a group of appropriately multicultural models bring coke to indigenous residents of Oaxaca, Mexico’s Mixtec highlands along with a message about bridging difference and/or uniting the world? The problem was marketers’ superficial commitment to context.

Critics were immediate in their responses, asserting loudly the fact that diabetes is currently the number one cause of death in Mexico’s indigenous regions, and reinforcing those assertions with statistical as well as ethnographic evidence correlating diabetes with coke consumption. In the end, as with other advertising fails, the costly ad was pulled from the air.

Juxtapose to this already iconic fail, the recent rebrand campaign for Betty Crocker, headed by Minnesota’s marketing firm Zeus Jones. That rebrand began with a confronting of the facts which read as follows:

“Since the brand got started in the first half of the 20th century, Betty Crocker has always served and supported families in a way that was progressive for its time. But for some people, Betty Crocker has become associated with old-fashioned value” (source here).

The campaign that followed was comprised of three prongs, or three lines of evidence if you will allow me to continue to borrow from the anthropologists, all intended to convey a single,transformative story. Those prongs were:

  1. An industry-academia collaboration which involved partnering with the sociologist best known for alternative family studies in the US today (Dr. Stephanie Coontz), thus ensuring scientific legitimacy;
  2. A film series to document the strengths of four “unique” (their words) families, reinforcing a commitment to sincerity/authenticity; and
  3. A calendar of pro-family events sponsored by Betty Crocker.

bettyZeus Jones mixed old and new forms of not only communication but also sociality. They spoke via science and via emotive, documentary video at the same time. And finally, they invested in bringing people together at a moment when journalists bemoan our lack of belonging, the disintegration of group formation, and more. In short, marketers rebranded in a manner that simultaneously responded to and perhaps even mitigated a media moral panic, one that resonates with Betty Crocker’s key consumers, ie anybody who shops at a grocery store in the present and reads the news (in print, via facebook, etc.).

Transformative storytelling allows your business, be it Betty Crocker or Coca-Cola or something radically different from these, to construct multi-layered, inter-disciplinary dramatizations that can be high and also low tech in their efforts to most effectively convey meaning today.

Because today is postmodernist and neoliberal (which is to say, we, the old and young alike, are in search of meaning and swimming in contradictions) and because we are nearing saturation when it comes to multi-media exposure, we now respond best to those endeavors which are dynamic, evolving with us and our concerns. We respond to statements and to stories that are action-oriented and even socially transformational (consider Kix “championing creativity in Kids” rebrand) as well as humanistic (think of Dove’s recent successes around women and self-image).

In the words of blogger, here, transformational storytelling is, by definition, “not solely about reflecting an aesthetic sensibility, but also about the embodied articulation of how change can happen.” This means the kind of change that is qualitative and quantitative and a part of your clients’ daily lives.

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