Storytelling as Effective Advertising


By Toni Kan

Advertising, as we know it, has undergone a sea change in recent years.

What has changed? Well, there has been a blurring of the lines that separate advertising from public relations but that it a story for another day.

In a cluttered digital world where the viewing audience is daily bombarded with images and texts that constantly compete for his attention, the advertising MO is moving more and more from closing a deal by making an emotional connection between a brand and prospective customer to making an emotional connection and leaving a lasting impact which would then lead to closing a deal.

This is where STORYTELLING is signaling a paradigm shift in advertising. With storytelling, the advertiser is working on connecting with its audience with pieces that are usually longer, more nuanced and more emotional charged.

To be fair, storytelling is not new. We are introduced to the magic of storytelling right from childhood when …”once upon a time” often signaled the willing suspension of disbelief as words transported us into magical reals. The savvy advertiser of today is simply applying old methods to meeting contemporary needs.

With story telling the advertiser can choose between different formats. Compelling stories can be conveyed via blog posts and/or through press releases and even short social media posts on twitter or Instagram. A compelling story on Instagram or twitter can be a series of related posts or threads which catch the attention of your followers and make them follow through to the end where the story is truly compelling.

But videos are king when it comes to storytelling and this is because it offers a lot not just in terms of content but also visual appeal. In using words, images and colours, videos create a more powerful impact. Add to that also the fact that they can be shared or embedded in materials with ease.

With social media, the dominant monopoly of television has been broken and today streaming sites like YouTube and other social media platforms offer newer channels not hamstrung by the 45 seconds to 1 minute rule of television commercials. What this means is that storytelling ads can now be a lot longer than usual.

But how do we measure the impact of storytelling in advertising? In telling a story through an advert, the advertiser must ensure that the subject matter and content adheres to what I have chosen to call the “TRUE and Memorable” template. And by this I mean that it must be Timely, Relevant, Useful, Entertaining and Memorable.

In Nigeria, Sensodyne launched an advert about four years ago where dentists told the stories. By bringing medical practitioners to talk about dental hygiene, they gave their adverts a documentary flavor that appealed to our emotions by offering expert opinions thereby helping us make that buying decision.

Much recently, Airtel has been at the forefront of this move. They have managed, over the past three years, beginning with the Robinson Crusoe themed advert which starred Gabriel Afolayan as a castaway who finally discovers super-fast data.

Even though that ad was clearly targeted at their 4G customers, it resonated with viewers. Airtel struck a more emotional chord with the Bimbo Manuel ad where two fathers meet on a journey and forge a friendship which helps the estranged father reconnect with his estranged son.

But their biggest coup has been the multiple scenario ad featuring the Igbo and Yoruba mothers in-law with both competing for dominance in the home of their children.

Glo has jumped into the fray with storytelling ads that riff on the binary tension between two women who are competing business owners with each trying to upstage the other but competition is, as always, a metaphor for superior telecom services and network and a means of selling their Glo Oga SIM proposition,

These adverts can pass as short films or comic skits if not for the brand logo and pay off at the end. By taking away the focus from “Buy Superfast 4G bla bla” they are banking on making a connection that is less direct and more subtle with a message that targets our purse strings in a subliminal manner.

We know they are selling telecoms services. We know they want us to buy. But in giving us an emotionally charged story, they are deflecting the crass marketing technique of old adverts by saying – enjoy this first and then decide.

A few weeks ago, MTN joined the fray with a visually appealing as well as timely and relevant material that connects in a visceral way with viewers on account of its emotionally charged content and visuals. Their “Stay Woke” ad which was launched to support their corporate social initiative, Anti Substance Abuse Programme (ASAP) has been the talk of the town since it made its debut.

What is the “Stay Woke” One Chance ad all about? A young man on his way home receives a video call from his sister who asks him to hurry home for dinner. Just then a bus stops in front of him. The door is pulled open and what the boy sees is a smorgasbord of temptation for a young man his age.

Hanging on to his moral anchor, he refuses to get into the bus and while he is still being enticed another young man pushes past him and boards the bus and the last shot we see is of him screaming before the bus turns the corner.

And with that short video, MTN has taken ownership of the conversation around Nigerian youth and the debilitating hard drug epidemic. Until the problem was brought into sharp relief last year via the critically acclaimed BBC Codeine documentary, many Nigerians were not aware of how much of a scourge the drug epidemic was.

By tapping into the conversation, MTN has brought us an advert that ticks all the boxes mentioned at the beginning of this write up– It is Timely in addressing an issue that affects a huge swathe of our youthful population.

It is Relevant because it speaks to an issue that affects more people than we care to admit. The drug problem is relatable and the ‘One Chance’ bus is an urban malaise that many people can relate to.

It is Useful in fostering behaviourial change among the youth by helping them avoid the ‘One Chance’ bus of peer pressure.

It is Entertaining in its playful opening which then acquires a noir-ish accent at the end. The emotional connection is strong too.

It is Memorable because this is the kind of video that young people will share with each other and ask: “Guy, have you seen that MTN One Chance video?”

But what makes the video such a hit is the fact that it is demographic agnostic in the sense that it has a cross generational appeal. Watch and you can just imagine a grandmother calling out to her grandchild – “Oya junior come and watch o. I have told you to stop following those bad boys.”

Writing in, Ana Gotter in her piece “Storytelling: The Key to Effective Advertising” has this to say “When it comes to storytelling in marketing, there are two big things you want to focus on: emotional impact and relatability. In other words, when you’re telling your brand’s story, you need to tell it in a way that will connect you with your target audience. The more people connect with a story, the more they remember it, so creating connections with your stories will help create lasting bonds and loyalty between your customers and your business.”

MTN’s Stay Woke ad is spot on. It is that rare thing that manages to, as we say “sell market” while doing good. It is relatable and it strikes a strong emotional chord with its viewers by addressing the most topical issue affecting the youth of Nigeria today – drug abuse and misuse.

Kan, a Marketing Communications expert, writes from Lagos