From Shady Tales to Ethical Narratives – Evolution of Storytelling in Marketing

The power of storytelling in marketing and advertising is indisputable. Research shows consumers are more likely to purchase from brands that use stories in their messaging than those that don’t.

From cave drawings depicting animal hunting to campfire tales, stories have existed for as long as humans have, used to connect us in our shared experience. 

Captivating audiences with a well-woven tale is an extremely powerful method of onboarding audiences onto your vision and influencing them to take action. However, it is also something we must wield with caution. From greenwashing to the tobacco industry, stories that have the ability to inspire and persuade have been used to manipulate and deceive. 

As awareness of these shady practices increases, the demand for transparency in marketing has grown, leading to brands beginning to recognise the importance of ethical narratives that can help them form genuine connections with their audiences. 

In this article, we will explore the dark side of storytelling in marketing and how we can use these methods to connect with, and not manipulate, our consumers. 

Shady Tales – The dark side of brand storytelling

Using storytelling that relies on misinformation can be dangerous not only for consumer health but for society as a whole. Here are a couple of examples of inauthentic brand storytelling where the brand got its comeuppance:

Is diesel not that bad?

Volkswagen is desperate to make diesel cool and sexy again. 

In 2015 they faced the “Dieselgate” scandal after installing software in their diesel vehicles that manipulated emissions tests, making the cars appear more environmentally friendly than they actually were. The cars were omitting 40 times above the nitrogen oxide legally allowed in the US. This issue spread globally and required them to recall 1.2 million cars in the UK alone. This issue affected the consumer’s trust and had a detrimental impact on the well-being of people and the planet. 

In 2018, Volkswagen claimed to have conducted an experiment involving the exposure of monkeys to diesel exhaust fumes to downplay the harmful effects of emissions. The experiment involved placing ten monkeys in a chamber with cartoons while a car was placed on a treadmill. They aimed to demonstrate that their new engine technology was environmentally friendly and healthier for the monkeys than traditional engines. However, in Volkswagen’s typical fashion, they manipulated the results by programming the car to recognize when it was being tested and to reduce emissions accordingly. As a result, Volkswagen pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges and was fined over 26 billion dollars.

Nothing like testing on monkeys to get my motor running. 

Lose 10 pounds a week with our fitness thing.

Oh, did you assume we meant weight? Oh no, we meant lose your money. Lose weight fast techniques are the definition of “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is”. 

Most consumers by now are wiser to old-school adverts that show gorgeous people claiming they were once overweight *gasp* (we can talk about how the BMI is totally bullshit another time) before drinking some magic tea. However, our toxic diet-pushing overlords are wise to us being wise to it, and now they use the power of influencers with their own PTs and plastic surgeons to sell their made-up products. 

If you’re ever unsure about whether a product might work – Take a look at their lawsuits.

  1. In 2020 the Cardi B-endorsed product Teami was sued by the FTC for weight loss claims, amongst other things, with no scientific evidence.
  2. In 2011, the FTC sued Reebok for claiming their Easy Tone shoes could increase toning by 11% more than your average shoe.
  3. BowFlex were sued by the NAD for airing an advertisement with actors claiming they lost weight using their product, while those scientific claims could not be substantiated.

Storytelling in marketing holds immense power to influence consumer perceptions and behaviours. Fortunately, there is an ethical revolution taking place. Consumers are becoming more discerning, demanding transparency and authenticity in brand communication. 

The Ethical Revolution: Embracing Transparency and Authenticity

Imagine if we could use the power of brand storytelling for good. 

The good news is that consumers are more skeptical about unrealistic claims and demand ethical and authentic communications in brand messaging. Brands embrace ethical storytelling that prioritises genuine communication and social and environmental responsibility instead of manipulation.

Patagonia’s Commitment to Sustainability

Patagonia, an outdoor apparel company, has been a leader in promoting sustainable practices and environmental conservation. Through their storytelling, they emphasise the importance of protecting the planet and actively work to reduce their environmental impact. Patagonia’s transparency and dedication to ethical manufacturing have earned them a loyal customer base that values sustainability.

Snag Tight’s Victims of Fashion

Snag Tights reiterates its commitment to inclusivity for people of all shapes and sizes through its various communication channels. “Victims of Fashion” serves as their online hub, amplifying the stories of individuals dedicated to dismantling harmful and toxic beauty standards prevalent in the fashion industry. By sharing poetry, thought pieces, podcast episodes, and style tips, they effectively employ storytelling techniques to promote the message that fashion should be accessible to everyone.

It helps that their product is damn good too. 

Ben & Jerry’s Social Activism

Ben & Jerry’s, an ice cream brand, has become known for its outspokenness on social and political issues. Through their marketing campaigns, they highlight their dedication to causes such as climate change, racial justice, and LGBTQ+ rights. Ben & Jerry’s storytelling aligns with its mission of using business as a force for good, attracting consumers who appreciate its socially conscious approach.

These examples demonstrate how brands can use storytelling to promote ethical values, inspire positive change, and engage with their audience meaningfully. By prioritising authenticity, social responsibility, and transparency, these brands have built strong connections with consumers who share their values.

So what now?

As marketers, we can harness the power of storytelling to create positive change, build trust, and foster genuine connections with our audience. By embracing transparency, authenticity, and ethical practices, we can shape narratives that inspire and empower, contributing to a more ethical and responsible marketing landscape.

Together, let us use the power of storytelling to inform, engage, and uplift, leaving behind the shady tales of the past and embracing narratives that genuinely connect with our audience and create a positive impact on society.

Want to use brand storytelling to galvanise audiences and encourage them to join your cause? Get in touch. 

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