Storytelling in the era of Social Media

Written by Viktoria Rédey

Storytelling is a popular branding concept. The business community is more and more aware of the impact a good story can have on its customers. It is said that telling a catching story about your company can path your way to a winning future. Therefore storytelling can be seen as an effective tool to achieve a desired brand concept (Fog et al. 2010). The secret of stories is to connect with the customer on a personal level (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). That stories are a a powerful communication tool is even proved by anthropologists, as they claim that 70% of what people memorize is learned through stories (Martin, 2010). The effectiveness of stories is also confirmed by Psychologist Susan Weinschenk and supported by neurological research (Martin, 2010). The recognition of the power of storytelling in the business world comes along with a long history and finds its origins in different cultures and languages. Its development is an ongoing process that currently found its new challenges and opportunities in social media (Martin 2010 & Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012).


The purpose of this paper is to introduce storytelling as a branding tool in social media. It will further show the opportunities and challenges that come along with the inclusion of social media by illustrating Unilever’s Dove “The real beauty campaign”.

Development of Social Media

When looking at storytelling in a social media context, one has to consider general shifts in the world of marketing through the web 2.0. Since the invention of the internet the online presence of companies has become a fundamental basic in branding (Enonbun, 2010). In the early stages of the World Wide Web, the internet served as a one-sided communication platform in favor of the brands as all information provided to customers was possible to be controlled by the brand manager. The latter regarded the internet as an influential tool to spread a desired image of the brand out into the world without fearing negative public reactions (Christodoulides, 2009).

However with the growing interaction of users, major shifts have been taken place in the online world and initiated the era of web 2.0. The social media was born which developed to an all-way; interactive online communication tool that is no longer controlled by Brand Managers but dominated by individuals. Today the online world is regarded as an ideal platform for brands to listen to desires, opinions and recommendations of consumers (Barwise & Meehan, 2010). Yet with the strong influence and dependence of customer opinions, hierarchies and power relations shifted from brand to consumer side and companies are not only facing opportunities but also challenges in their marketing strategies (Barwise & Meehan, 2010). Barwise & Meehan (2010) argue that a strong online presence and right behavior of companies become essential in order to achieve the desired branding strategy. Furthermore it is crucial what type of content and information companies are sharing. Likewise authenticity and trustworthiness is considered as key elements for a successful online performance (Barwise & Meehan, 2010).  

Storytelling in Social Media

The developments in social media naturally affect and widen the possibilities of storytelling as a branding tool. With a diversity of communication channels in social media, storytelling reaches a new dimension and provides the opportunity to spread the brand story in a much faster and easier way. A successful story should always contain a catching beginning, an engaging middle and should ideally have an ending that evokes the desire to hear more (Martin, 2010). A story becomes more powerful, the more it touches the listener’s emotions and the closer the connection becomes between the narrator and the listener, or in a business sense between the company and the customer (Martin, 2010). The narrator-listener relationship finds its turn-around in social media as now roles are unclear and both are narrator and listener at the same time (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012).

As mentioned the ideal brand story delivers content that invites people to dream or to identify on a personal level with it. Whereas earlier the process of projecting own experiences onto brand stories by consumers happened apart of the company’s knowledge, social media provides a platform where common experiences with the brand can be shared with others and be discussed in public under observation of the companies. Therefore a story that supports a connection with the brand leads to conversations between consumers and brands and also among customers themselves (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). Discussions in social media online communities such as blogs, social platforms as well as video- or photo sharing sites lead to user generated content. In turn the number of networks, relations and interactions are increasing which represent at the same time the three main elements of co-creation (Vargo and Lush, 2004). Co-creation is a fundamental term when it comes to storytelling in social media. It describes not only the fact that consumers provide useful and valuable insights about their feelings and opinions, it gives also the power to the customer to spread consumer generated brand stories that are out of the control of brand managers. Therefore brand managers have not only to function as the inventors of a brand story but should navigate later the brand content generated by consumers in order to ensure that the brand story remains as close as possible to the originally desired brand story (Singh & Sonneburg, 2012). As co-creation represents a main part of storytelling online it becomes essential for a brand to keep the consumers engagement alive and ensure the continuation of the brand’s story. A supportive key factor in co-creation and the motivation of participating in online discussions and conversations is tension. Tension is easiest created with subjects of general high involvement or by reaching customers on a personal level (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). The following case will give an example for the above described theory.

Dove case: “The real Beauty Campaign”

A remarkable example for storytelling in social media is “The Real Beauty Campaign” of Unilever’s brand Dove. It went through the media like no other campaign in social media history. The following paragraph will reflect in a nutshell the story and the content of the campaign before discussing why it can be regarded as a paradigm of branding through storytelling online - with all its opportunities and challenges.

When the first so called beauty bar of Dove was launched in 1957 the branding strategy was focused on pointing out the benefits of the product. Since then it was known for being a moisturizing soap. When in 2000 Unilever decided to make Dove its Masterbrand, the brand managers agreed on a new branding strategy that should display more than just functional advantages. The goal was to evolve Dove into a brand that is standing for a whole point of view (Deighton, 2008). Soon the idea of “The campaign for real Beauty” was born which was dedicated to the idea to change the way society views beauty. The brand had its kick-start by introducing the Tick-Box ad which displayed initially an oversized woman. People were then asked if the woman is “outsized” or “outstanding” which evoke great interest of the public. The campaign continued displaying six ordinary and happy women in underwear which once more fueled the desired public debates about real beauty. The campaign reached its peak point when Dove run an ad featuring a little girl with freckles together with the headline “Hates her freckles”, during the Superbowl in 2006. In the same year Dove used the video sharing platform Youtube to post a video named “Evolution” which showed the transformation of a young woman from a normal person to a supermodel with the help of make-up and photo-shop. The video went viral and reached 3 million views within the first three months (Deighton, 2008). Next to other marketing activities about real beauty, the campaign created a huge buzz on social media platforms, forums, blogs and chat-rooms where people discussed topics several issues caused by the beauty industry (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012).




Discussion of Storytelling in Social Media

The Dove case is a prime example for branding through storytelling in social media. When Dove was about to rewrite the brand’s history, it chose to use all available multi-media channels including social media communication tools such as social networks, Facebook, Youtube and so forth to spread the story out into the world. The brand further decided to build up the brand story on a view of beauty contrary to the one provided by the beauty industry. Additionally the campaign was launched at a time when the normal woman felt more and more helpless against the power of ideals produced by the beauty industry (Deighton 2008). By pointing out many issues connected with this sensitive subject, Dove successfully created tension and touched women who felt the same way on an emotional level. The tensions and emotions involved to this subject led to huge public interest. Normal women finally felt understood and got motivated to participate in public discussions to share their opinion about real beauty. Dove had successfully paved the way for the most important criteria of storytelling: The co-creation of the brand story with consumers which is also known as user-generated content. This element includes opportunities as well as challenges for the brand. The opportunities definitely include the immeasurable value of online buzz and media’s attention that was created by the Real Beauty Campaign (Deighton 2008). A strong online presence in forums, social networks and other community platforms created immense brand awareness and comprehension. Discussions with and amongst consumers helped to build up a personal relationship with the customer and become more than just a brand with functional benefits (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). Co-creation further supports the development of the brand performance by getting insights of the consumers’ inner world, as they interpret the brand story in their own words and images. However user-generated content brings also challenges to the brand: Brand Managers give up main parts of their control over the brand. Co-creation can be distinguished in different types. Very simply speaking there are those consumers who speak well about the brand and give worthy feedback and those who critic and challenge the brand or even try to harm it. Dove’s campaign was for example often criticized for ignoring the product itself during their campaigns and for turning into a brand for “fat girls”. Therefore a main challenge is to handle negative publicity and critics in a right way and to interfere where necessary (Deighton, 2008).


The conclusions that can be drawn from the Dove case and its challenges and opportunities are that storytelling as a branding tool in social media provides not only an easy and fast way to spread the brand’s story. Brand Managers have to be aware of the fact that their role as a narrator reverses as they are not the only ones anymore creating the brand story (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). Storytelling in social media becomes more an on-going, collaborative process together with the customer. Stories are built on each other and are not exactly repeated by consumers as they were initially told by Brand Managers. In order to remain in control of the plot of the brand story it becomes essential that Brand Managers keep an eye on online discussions and story developments (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). That includes to lead the story into the desirable direction and interfere where necessary but also to encourage positive improvisation. That means for the brand to not only be a good storyteller but also to become a good story listener who helps developing the brand performance and keeps up and interesting conversation which provides the customer with added-value (Muniz & Schau, 2011). 


As storytelling in social media is yet a new and rather inexperienced topic more research on similar social media campaign should be undertaken in order to proof the above findings.




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