How You Can Use the 4 Cs to Tell Better Marketing Stories

December 7, 2016

If you pay attention at all to the latest marketing techniques and tactics, you undoubtedly have heard the importance of telling stories. Tell your brand’s story. Tell your customer’s story. There’s been advice on what kind of stories to tell and when. But there’s something you may have been wondering – how exactly do you write a story?  

Writing stories for marketing purposes can be thought of as like writing short-short or flash stories, whether in several hundred words or 144 characters. Most elements of short stories can be characterized as falling under one of four C-word descriptions. (“Most” because there is always evidence of breaking writing rules effectively.) They are character, conflict, change, and context.

Your Customer is Your Main Character

You may be tempted to make yourself or your brand the hero or heroine of your story. Don’t do it. Make your customer your story’s hero. He or she is who the story is about and your brand is what comes in to resolve the story’s climax. For some examples of captivating stories about a brand’s customer, listen to the On Brand Podcast with Paul Smith. One of the most important things to know about a main character in a story is what does he or she want? But it can’t be just any want.

The Want Needs to Lead to Conflict

What a character wants in your story can’t be some mundane, every day want that doesn’t matter much. Readers will be turned off. Instead, you need the character to want something with high stakes. He or she needs to want it bad, and the reason must make sense. Not only should the character want something so bad that it will nearly ruin him if he doesn’t get it (at least in his own mind), but it must be extremely difficult for him to realize this want. She needs obstacles; as many as you can fit in considering the story’s length. Then you bring in your product or service to help him get what he wants or solve the problem.

Solving the Conflict Leads to Change

When the conflict your character is facing is resolved, there should be a change that has occurred. In marketing stories, the change will likely be that the main character is happier, richer, more at peace, enjoying more free time, or something similar.

Context is the Backdrop

Context is another element found in most, if not all, short stories. Context encompasses the setting of the story and the time period, as well as who else is there and what’s going on in the world. Context grounds your story in a specific place and time, which will help make it more compelling and relatable to the reader.

Let’s examine an example in a television commercial I saw recently advertising a new edition in a popular video game series. The main character is a college-aged young man. He’s sick of politics for the upcoming election and he wants to get away from it. But he can’t get away– everywhere he turns he sees political ads, and he feels like he’s going to lose his mind if he sees one more. The video game then comes to the rescue. He remembers it and he gathers his friends to play, allowing him to visit space and blow off steam by taking out the bad guys, thus forgetting about politics, if only for a little while. At the end of the story, he is much happier.

In this short story, the main character or the hero of the story is the video game customer. He wants something badly and is going to suffer dire consequences if he doesn’t get it, but the video game saves him, changing him into a much happier person. This story is all told in the context of an election year in the final push for votes. We were likely all looking for an escape the beginning of last month when I first started seeing this ad. I don’t even play those types of video games, but I was tempted to give it a try.

Of course, there are many more nuances and elements involved in short stories than is contained in this simplified tutorial, but this may at least start to build your foundation. I’d love to hear your marketing storytelling how-to tips. If you have any, please share them in the comments section below.

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is a strategist, speaker, educator, and author of Brand Now: How to Stand Out in a Crowded, Distracted World and Get Scrappy: Smarter Digital Marketing for Businesses Big and Small. He is the Chief Brand Strategist at Brand Driven Digital, an educator at the University of Iowa, and host of the On Brand podcast. More about Nick.