Telling tales: the power of a good brand story

Cleansheet's Neil McOstrich on how the great brands embrace storytelling.

By Neil McOstrich

In the stampede to social media, mobile media, shopper marketing and all things shiny and new, many have forgotten the important detail of having something worthwhile to share at the other end. A truth well told. To wit: a good story.

Not so the great brands. They embrace storytelling because they understand its unique value in moving minds laterally, not literally. And by means of getting there, they create communication that is neither exclusively rational nor exclusively emotional – but the best of both worlds.
While it’s surprising how many brands fail to embrace this obvious notion, it shouldn’t surprise that the greatest brand on earth does. With so much being written about the genius of Steve Jobs, I was pleased to see him acknowledge the importance of Lee Clow, his creative muse, in creating Apple’s story:

“Clow looks at Apple from his heart and that gives him the ability to see us as we should be, to see us as we have trouble seeing ourselves…”
In a literal sense, all brands are in the business of selling. But the storytellers know conveying powerful meaning indirectly creates something even better – happy buying. Canadian advertising veteran Allan Kazmer described the essence of stories that achieve that happy approachable place as delivering two gifts: the first being something about the product (innovation essence) and the second, something about ourselves (human essence).

When we won the CASSIES Grand Prix years ago at BBDO for creating the classic Canadian minivan commercial (where two snowball-throwing kids were surprised when both van doors opened and they ended up hitting one another with their respective snowballs), we proved the worth of a good story. The second sliding door was the gift of innovation. Looking at ourselves – the human essence – was delivered by recreating the mischief of our childhoods.

As the cornerstone of storytelling is sharing, I was recently moved to share a few of mine, resulting in a book full of marketing stories written at 36,000 feet between Toronto and Dusseldorf. It was a bit like speed chess. I wrote from the hip and from the heart. Between wheels up and wheels down, I had managed to write out 50 of my most memorable marketing stories – and, importantly, the lessons learned in each.
Among my favourites was a story from the early days of Cleansheet, when our company stole a packaging assignment right out from under several of Toronto’s top design packaging firms, having never created a package design in our lives.

On the day of the pitch, a potato chip company called The Chippery showed up, only to see blank white packages on the table. They were predictably perplexed, until we turned the packages around to reveal the brand story we had written on the back.

Our pitch to them was this challenge: if you like the story on the back of our package more than the pretty pictures on the front of theirs, give us the business and we’ll create a more meaningful design on the front. They hadn’t expected that. We moved their minds laterally and were rewarded with the business.

If I had it my way, all brands would be storytellers. They’d get that insights that inspire the internal stakeholders as well as their external audiences, consistently presented though artful storytelling, actually accelerate growth.

But I’m not holding my breath and suspect we’ll continue to see more commercials that look like brochures on film. Not just because these clients don’t realize the power of storytelling, but perhaps more sadly, because they haven’t the foggiest idea what their story is to begin with.
That’s my story. And I’m stickin’ to it.

Neil McOstrich is founding partner and chief storytelling officer at Cleansheet. His first book, Once Upon a Plane, is available at, Books for Business and will soon be available, fittingly, at airports across Canada.