Category: Creative

All visuals, no substance

Campaigns – whether political, commercial or societal – are only ever about one thing: action. Millions are spent every year on the art of getting people to do things. Age-old wisdom and a hefty supply of modern research tells us that the right messaging, wrapped in the right creative treatment, is a quick win to mass mobilisation, from purchasing new products to saving for retirement. So why are we still so bad at it? A recent report found that the UK government’s £46 million ‘Get ready for Brexit’ ad campaign only influenced 34% of citizens to look for preparation information about Brexit. With a staggering budget and mass advertising campaign you’d expect dramatically better results. The campaign was dubbed “mystifying in its utter uselessness” by the Guardian’s columnist Suzanne Moore and received over 200 complaints (Guardian, October 2019). The National Audit Office (NAO) suggested that the ineffectiveness of the campaign was down to the public’s awareness that the October 31st deadline was unlikely to be kept to (Business Insider, Jan 2020). The campaign’s major shortfall was that its core message had no clear narrative: people didn’t believe in the story behind it. Without the sense of an onwards journey, the slogans felt empty and meaningless. 

Bad campaigns matter because inaction is a death knell in these fast-moving times. Brexit has laid bare the national pain of delay and dither, but this is even more critical for businesses’ cutting speeds that far outstrip government through increasingly murky waters. Because we’re visual creatures, campaigns remain the highest-impact tool at our disposal for mass communication and collective gearshifts. People process visual information thousands of times faster than text, and retain 80% of what they see (CMS, 2019). But we’re also at saturation point. 

So what does a campaign have to do to get a little traction these days? 

The answer is not a question of catchier slogans or glossier design. We know that humans only act when they’re emotionally engaged, not rationally informed. The shortcut between rational information and emotional connection is storytelling – and this is what campaigns too often forget, at their peril. 

Image: Campaign Live

Pen your story

When building an effective campaign, the narrative should be clearly defined from the outset. To inspire people to join the journey you are setting out on, a solid place to start is by drawing out the map. Because people are neurologically hardwired to learn from the emotional impact of stories, a clear and defined narrative draws people in. And when your story is consistent and coherent, it can then be visually brought to life by the creative campaign.

Connect to the wider narrative

One of the most powerful political posters of all time was created by the Conservatives in 1978; it simply depicted a snaking queue of people outside an unemployment office. Visually, it couldn’t have been simpler or more understated. But when paired with its now-iconic ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ slogan, it tapped into the powerful wider narrative of the campaign and the zeitgeist. It wasn’t just clear, coherent, punchy nor bold. It was a work of visual storytelling: a body blow in the Winter of Discontent that immediately connected on an emotional and rational level and drove a landslide Tory victory.

Image: Campaign Live

At The Storytellers, we have found that businesses encounter similar problems when they need to communicate complex information. The wider narrative that the campaign is reinforcing needs to be reflected throughout its creative work. As with the ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ poster, it’s the symbiosis between the visuals and the narrative that communicates something powerful. When we combine rational and emotional language, then we achieve intellectual understanding and emotional connection, galvanising us to drive coherent action forwards. 

Build your insights

To build an effective creative campaign you need to start from a point of genuine audience insight. We often find that focus groups are a treasure trove of information: they hold the answers to building an effective creative campaign by revealing what makes employees tick or fall asleep. In 1997, Labour created the memorable ‘New Labour’ campaign that culminated in Tony Blair’s landslide victory in the election. This savvy political project used focus groups to guide the process, with the party conducting a staggering six-a-week before the election. New Labour took on a targeted approach that effectively communicated its optimistic and hopeful offer to voters.

 Cross-organisational steering teams, boards and champions are able to continuously test insights. Technology can also be harnessed to provide quantitative insights through simple measures such as surveys. These responses bring the sentiment to life with real, detailed human insight. Last year, we worked with an insurance company to help it dramatically improve its customer satisfaction scores. The creative work began not with the visuals, but in their offices, understanding employees and their workplace culture. This insight was pivotal: we discovered why employees didn’t engage with past campaigns and why communication channels weren’t effective. We used this research to create a vibrant visual identity and used playful techniques, such as energetic animations and branded merchandise. The visual identity has been fully embraced by the organisation and is now integral to their working environment and internal brand. 

Test it out 

We also know that an effective visual campaign needs to be tested out before it is implemented. The Director of Analytics for the 2008 Obama campaign has reported that the campaign was able to raise $60 million by simply testing out the sign-up page on the website (Optimizely). They tested out six different design variations of media on the website to convert page views into sign-ups. The success of this vigorous experimentation just highlights how an effective visual campaign works better with a strategy behind it. 

Bring your campaign to life 

The NAO concluded the Brexit campaign money would have been better spent on a ‘ground campaign’ as roadshows and stakeholder events might have increased the likelihood of getting people to act. When an organisation’s people first hear a strategic narrative, it needs to be memorable – and it’s only memorable when it’s moving. Opening films, events and roadshows all help an organisation make their campaign visible and deliver engaging storytelling experiences. We worked with a leading investment management firm on a major event that used visual storytelling to engage and equip all 7,000 of the business’s people. At the event, the slogan ‘Be the Change’ was visualised alongside spoken stories of powerful leadership, so that attendees were able to connect to the journey their organisation was on. 

Brexit was a complex and divisive topic, which needed more than face-value advertising to encourage people to prepare for it. If you want your creative campaign to drive action you need more than a flashy logo and illustrations. You need to understand your audience, learn from past campaigns, engage people through unforgettable moments and connect them to the narrative. 

You need an internal brand, and here’s why

In the last year we’ve seen major investment by organisations in their external branding efforts. A robust external brand identity provides ample opportunity for businesses from better reflecting our diverse society, creating a renewed sense of purpose to celebrating heritage in an uncertain world. 

However, consumer trust in external brands is falling. According to a recent study by HubSpot, 71% of consumers are more likely to make a purchase online if the product or service comes recommended by others. For businesses, this means that employees are now their most valuable brand advocates: they are the embodiment of the organisation, and they make the brand come alive for customers. Yet at the same time, investment in the internal brand that plays such a crucial role in creating this advocacy remains low: all this against the wider backdrop of a battle to retain talent and motivate employees during testing times.

“Success in business is all about people, people, people. Whatever industry a company is in, its employees are its biggest competitive advantage.” – Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin

The external brand cannot work visually for both internal and external purposes because they have two different audiences, messages and goals. Internally the goal is to encourage ownership and self possibility, yet a brand’s external identity is not sufficient to motivate employees. One size doesn’t fit all: what works for the customer, doesn’t always work for employees.


As with all great movements of change, a core part of any strong internal brand is its visual identity, which stimulates and sustains the change. Extinction Rebellion’s logo reflects the movement’s core message for people to take immediate action to halt mass extinction and climate change. The circled hourglass represents a warning that time is running out to take effective action to save life on earth. Bold typographic statements and colourful palette make their graphics clear and engaging. The visual identity carefully balances the movement’s message of urgency and peaceful protest. It’s easy to recognise and replicate, raising public awareness inviting participation. Two-thirds of people in the UK recognise there is a climate emergency partly due to Extinction Rebellion’s campaign. Like famous movements, a strong internal visual identity and rallying cry will give employees something to hold onto, create unity on all levels, and increase recognition of the campaign. 

“Design adds value faster than it adds costs.” – Joel Spolsky, creator of Trello


A recent client of The Storytellers invested in a visual identity and creative campaign alongside a narrative, which was rolled out across the business. The effect was an 80% increase of service scores within a two year period. We combined the feedback from focus groups and programme objectives to create a vibrant, fun visual identity, and creative campaign. The identity reached a range of touchpoints including leadership events, induction programmes, recognition campaigns, and environmental office graphics. The effect has been momentous, with employees feeling a sense of belonging to the business journey and motivated to play their part, all of which are essential to any brand advocate to change behaviours to benefit wider business goals.

How to paint the big picture

‘Can you see the big picture?’

You can imagine the scenario where this kind of question might arise. A discussion is happening about what a situation really means. We’re not talking about tactics any more, we might even be going beyond the current strategy. It’s not clear yet, but we’re probably talking about wider implications, ideas beyond the obvious and immediate. There’s an appetite to explore the global view, a desire for a holistic take on the matter at hand. The burning need is suddenly laid out…. “we just need to see the big picture…”

Why is it that we resort to talking about pictures at such crucial moments as these? 

Pictures are synonymous with total, intuitive, immediate understanding. According to scientists at MIT, the human brain can process entire images that the eye sees in as little as 13 milliseconds. The sluggish pace of reading or hearing words is simply no match for the electric power of our ability to understand images. We process information faster as images than we do as words. It’s a fact. 

So when we talk about seeing the ‘big picture’, we should perhaps consider this phrase literally. A picture can comprise so much at once. It is non-linear.  It has a non-sequential hierarchy. It can be taken in all at once, or individual details can be focused on – always with the context of its place in the larger whole. Essentially, it is holistic. It is analogous to the kind of complete view that is sought when a leader seeks to elevate understanding beyond tactical awareness – and especially when there is a need to re-engage with what we do at a new, fundamental level. Pictures are the big picture.

So when it comes to communicating a complicated idea like a business strategy… why is it that so few businesses consider the idea of communicating this level of complexity via images?

At The Storytellers, we have been advising our clients for years on this kind of ‘big picture’ thinking – to boldly paint the picture of the epic journey that a business is on, in words AND in pictures. Over the past 16 years, we have explored and imagined ways of visual storytelling for businesses all around the world – and the results have been astounding. For the first time in years, people say things like:

“I really get it now!”

The way we visually communicate our clients’ six-chapter narratives has become a mode of expression and storytelling in and of itself. But why is this form of communication, in visual terms, so effective? What is it about this seemingly simple format that delivers this ‘big picture’ understanding so intravenously, so powerfully, so lastingly?

Essentially, the advantages of visual storytelling can be understood through how audiences use a visual story to answer five key questions – and therefore how a visual story can preemptively respond to these needs.

“What is it?” 

I mentioned earlier that the marvellous human brain processes images in as little as 13 milliseconds. What if you could use those 13 milliseconds to convey the core idea of your organisation’s story? What if you could embed real understanding at that deep, intuitive level? 

When we work with our clients to come up with the right visual story, we often talk about the core message of a story. In other words, what is the essence of this story, the heart of the matter – and what do we want people to think, feel and do as a result of understanding this? It’s the tip of the pyramid – the clear understanding of what needs to happen, with all the reasoning, detail and context surrounding it.

By presenting a simple and complete visual story that encompasses the past, present and future of a business, we can effectively present this ‘big picture’. By working with brand and other key stakeholders, we can ensure that the resulting visual story feels both familiar (i.e. this belongs to us) and new (i.e. this isn’t the ‘same-old, same-old’). It’s daunting to think that it could be so simple… but this is both the challenge and the prize of painting the big picture.

“Where am I in this picture?” 

So, we’re 13 milliseconds in. Your audience have pretty much grasped the arc of the journey that the business is on. What’s going on in everyone’s brains now? The likelihood is that people are trying to figure out where they fit into this story.

The hero’s journey is a well-trodden path when it comes to storytelling – there’s no one reason for this, but perhaps one of the more relevant reasons for its use in business storytelling is that it covers so many different emotional states. 

At the beginning, we understand who a hero is, what they represent and what they have to be proud of. Then, we learn about their big challenge, the threat that it poses to their identity, and the negative emotions that this causes. Next, we are given a reason to believe – we understand how the problem can be solved, and what it will take from the hero to achieve this. We watch as they follow the path to the desired outcome, see how they deal with the final obstacles in their path – and, vitally, understand what it truly means to them when they make it to the end.

Now, all of this makes for a great story. But the big thing is this: all of your people will be on different points on that journey, which in many ways is simply a different kind of change model. So a visual story gives people the opportunity to find and recognise themselves against a positive journey of change, see the steps that are needed to move beyond their current state, and how good it will be to get there. I’m not sure how many more milliseconds this part needs. But if you want people to truly feel part of a journey, and that there is a place for everyone, no matter where they are on the change cycle – then it’s definitely worth it.

“Who am I?”

Pareidolia”. Another of those wonderful words that you may not know, but have certainly experienced.  Pareidolia is essentially the human propensity to interpret images and find something that is familiar to us in that image – and very often, that is ourselves!

We see ourselves in everything – and this is one of the more important yet counterintuitive parts of improving leadership through better storytelling. As any good storyteller knows, it’s all about the audience and how they put themselves in the story you tell – how the empathise and relate to it. This understanding is very much analogous to the business leader – you might love the plans that you’re setting out for a business, but it won’t mean much unless other people do too.

Visual stories especially allow us to put ourselves in the shoes of the hero before us, to walk the path that is set out, and to feel that. This represents a level of envisioning, anticipation and association is just not feasible in a rationally communicated strategy. 

The fact that this can be communicated by a static image, rather than an actual person, represents a greater opportunity for real association. If we’re looking at another person talking, we see another person and the immediate goal is to understand them. If we look at a visual story, our immediate goal is to understand how I would feel if I was in that situation. This is the kind of empathic experience that delivers real ‘aha’ moments.

“What’s next?” 

Whether you’re talking about the Bayeux Tapestry or comic books, ‘closure’ is one of the more important ideas to grasp. Essentially, closure is the idea that the reader will be able to jump from one static image to another and ‘close’ the gap. To mentally join the dots between those two points, and therefore complete the journey themselves. 

In terms of business storytelling, this idea is absolutely crucial – if we’re depicting the journey of a business that goes from good to great, the question is very simple: what does each of us have to do to get from here to there? In visual storytelling, the spaces in between are every bit as important as the images themselves.

This is another way in which storytelling augments strategy. It’s important for a leadership team to understand the strategy of the business, and to own this – but in many ways, their ownership of this is derived from the fact that they came up with it. If the strategy had simply been given to them, it’s hard to imagine that they would be similarly engaged.

The same is entirely true for an employee population – and therefore by giving employees the chance to ‘join the dots’ for themselves in the visual story, you give the opportunity for people to make the story their own, and begin to proactively imagine what needs to happen to get from A to B. 

“Why should I bother with any of this?” 

Ultimately, a visual story is a manifestation of an emotional journey. Our responsibility as storytellers is to first understand the emotional journey that an organisation is on, and then to tell a story that is meaningful with respect to that journey. 

We may be visualising the idea that ‘things will get better if we do x’. We may be visualising the idea that ‘if we do x, then we will really be the very best we can be’. Whatever the basic notion is, we need to highlight the bright spots in this story and the desired destination – and therefore, through storytelling, embody the part of the big picture that speaks to the rewards and benefits of following this journey through. 

Whether it’s a renewed approach to customer experience, or the need for everyone to be their best through a new M&A, it’s this shortcut to the ‘why’ that makes visual storytelling such a powerful asset for leaders. It’s difficult to speak simultaneously to the crux of what needs to happen AND the benefits of following this action through – but a visual story can actually do this all at once. 

Key lessons from the SodaStream creative campaign

“Just like we need to be creative in attracting our customers, we need to be super creative in attracting new talent” – Daniel Birnbaum, CEO, SodaStream.

Earlier this year, SodaStream launched a new recruitment drive. Normally, this would not be particularly newsworthy, but this was no ordinary campaign. The ad tied in with the external campaign that had previously gone viral: and SodaStream didn’t skimp on the budget, once more bringing in actor Hafþór Björnsson (AKA ‘The Mountain’ from TV’s Game of Thrones).

Just like the external campaign, the recruitment film went viral too, currently sitting on ~450k views on Youtube alone. Not bad for a recruitment video by a company that makes fizzy water. And of course, it’s all great publicity for the product itself.  

It’s the kind of creative campaign that here at The Storytellers we strongly advise our clients to go with; there is so much that SodaStream gets right with this approach. It connects the internal brand to the external brand. Purpose-led senior leaders set out the journey that their business is on. Creative messaging targets a new generation that champions meaningful work above all else. A consistent ‘big idea’ sits behind how messages are communicated.

It’s a well-executed and wonderfully creative strategy. But what is perhaps most interesting about the SodaStream recruitment ad is the impact it has had on the company’s fortunes. SodaStream just recorded its most successful quarter ever. In the six months since the ad was aired, SodaStream has more than doubled its share price, going above and beyond market expectations.

So what are we saying: that a creative campaign targeted at company employees, that celebrates the journey that a business is on and shows visible, purposeful leadership can deliver measurable financial results?

In a word: yes!

6 lessons from Apple Events

What is there to say about Apple that hasn’t already been said? As a brand, as an organisation, as a lifestyle… for so long now, it has been held up as the quintessential example of how a business can not only succeed, but thrive in the most demanding of eras. Search any airport bookshop, and you are bound to find a book or two claiming to share the secrets of its alchemic approach.

But while so much of Apple’s success is routinely ascribed to supreme technology, innovation and leadership, this week the world witnessed another vital element in how Apple achieves such phenomenal, enduring success: the enduring power of the live launch event.

Apple’s product launch events have become the stuff of legend, commanding the attention of a global audience and defining an entire industry. Here at The Storytellers, we believe it is no exaggeration to say that these events are an essential part of Apple’s success. As experienced producers of story-driven events ourselves, we know that there are certain key critical success factors to how Apple makes each year’s event a resounding success. Here are six of the most important:

1. Create a sense of intrigue – the global interest that Apple generates for its annual event is phenomenal. Of course, some of this can be put down to to the sheer industry-leading quality of their products. But get past the hype and there’s a fundamental learning here. As humans, we enjoy suspense, but we also crave resolution. Before the event has even started, Apple expertly keeps the sense of mystery as high as possible, taking its global audience from total secrecy… to revealing key details one-by-one, week by week… to sneak peeks on the latest products… all the way to the big reveal at the event itself, where expectations are both met and confounded. Effectively, the launch event becomes the next chapter in an ongoing narrative about the new Apple product, and about Apple as a whole – and it makes for an incredibly engaging, satisfying experience.

Working with each client ahead of their own Story launch, we know that it is so important to create the same sense of anticipation, to engage the same sense of innate curiosity in our clients’ audiences. A teaser campaign, securely anchored to the big messages and goals of the overall programme and which makes sure everyone is intrigued and involved before the big day, is truly the foundation of a stunning event.

2. Reflect the brand – when you picture an Apple launch event, what do you see? Most likely it’s something like a sparse stage, carefully lit, with a huge image of the new product fronted by a casually dressed presenter, and probably little else! It may look simple, but in fact this entire look is carefully manicured to precisely amplify and echo Apple’s brand values. Whilst the products themselves are the ultimate brand experience, Apple knows that it is vital to ensure that whenever it is in the public eye, in whatever way, the experience reflects everything that Apple stands for.

When it comes to our clients’ own events, we know that by gaining a deeper understanding of our clients (not least through the process of identifying their strategic narrative), we put ourselves in a position as event producers to holistically create an experience that truly reflects not only what an organisation stands for today, but where they need to be tomorrow. And although Apple’s events are predominantly externally focused, it’s just as important to get this right for internal events – especially when you are hoping for a community to take a new change journey to heart. This underlying confidence in the brand, and the fact what is being witnessed visibly reflects who we are, is so key to ensuring that we create the conditions necessary for real change.

3. Serve up a feast for the senses – Apple’s events are distinctly and memorably flavoured by the sensory experience they deliver for its audience. Minutes before the event gets underway, all Apple employees remain tight-lipped, taking the sense of anticipation to fever pitch. Only visual cues direct attendees to where they need to be. Then, as the show begins music, carefully chosen for maximum emotional impact, starts to play. Discussions and on-stage demonstrations follow, all linked together as a cohesive narrative. Finally, rooms are provided for people to get their hands on the latest models and have a play for themselves. As an example, see this wonderful video from the opening of the Steve Jobs theatre in 2017: words of wisdom from beyond the grave, the simple Helvetica font, the emotion of the piano in the background, the screens glowing like candles… Apple knows that to get everyone’s complete attention it is so crucial to engage the heart and the mind.

Without senses, we would have no experiences. Without experiences, we would not have memories. In order to create the most memorable occasion possible, we seek to engage as many senses as possible in the events that we create. In this way, the key messages of our clients’ stories have as many chances as possible to be crystallised as enduring memories that last way beyond the event itself. A stunning opening film that tells the story of the strategic narrative, the perfect lighting for all situations, creating opportunities for rich conversation, getting people on their feet and moving at the right time… choosing the right pieces of music to open and close the event… they’re all vital to ensuring that our events go down as wonderful, rich learning experiences for every single audience member.

4. Create a liminal space – ‘liminality’ is an anthropological term that, simply put, means the quality of being ‘at the threshold’. It’s a term often used in reference to rites… and when you consider the zeal and enthusiasm that Apple generates in its acolytes, it’s not a stretch to see their launch events as religious ceremonies of a very modern kind. 

The key to this idea, and where Apple again shows its mastery, is how the familiar and the unfamiliar are blended. So on the one hand, so much of what Apple does at its yearly launch events is repetitive – across most categories, Apple essentially repeats what it did the year before. The theatre-style seating, the look and feel of the staging, going through the product’s key features before giving the audience a demonstration of how it works… the consistency of certain elements brings a satisfaction, and reinforces trust in the brand.

But by varying the location, speakers and the products themselves, the familiar and unfamiliar are blended in such a way that creates a space in which heightened emotional responses are provoked, feelings of creativity and innovation are stoked, and the right setting for people to better absorb and reflect what they are hearing is created. 

At The Storytellers, we achieve liminal space in two key ways – firstly, the act of consistently sharing an evolving story in itself creates a sense of the familiar and the unfamiliar. In this way, consistency of form shifts the focus from less important elements back onto the key messages of the strategic narrative itself: much how Apple achieves maximum focus on its products. Secondly, we work with our clients to find the most impactful venue for their story launch events. Just as Apple may host its events at their headquarters, or at another venue in San Francisco, so we recommend venues that are not just practical, but also meaningful according to the particular client Story that needs to be told. 

Fundamentally, liminal space is all about creating an environment in which learning and development are stimulated, and it’s a critical factor in how we ensure that our clients’ stories are truly embedded in an organisation through powerful live experiences.

5. Get the running order right – in many ways, one of the great marks of success of the Apple launch event has been how it has survived the loss of Steve Jobs. Whereas Jobs would dominate the stage, sometimes taking up the entirety of a keynote speech, we now see Tim Cook adopting more of an MC approach, introducing different speakers, sharing the limelight and on average using up less than 20 minutes of the keynote presentation. Being malleable enough to respond to these challenges and maintain the same strong brand impression, given the vast differences in leadership, is a great achievement. Not only this, but Apple has also evolved to respond to wider social shifts – more women than ever share the stage with what once would be almost entirely men. One has to look no further than the recent recruitment of Angela Ahrendts, previously CEO of Burberry, to see that Apple takes every opportunity and angle to visibly demonstrate to the world that it’s moving with the times.

In another sense, each year’s agenda design also subtly reflects the key messages that are being shared and the focus that Apple wants people to understand. By choosing a certain order for the different agenda items, Apple sends a myriad of messages about how it is evolving, and how it now ought to be perceived. Getting the balance right for the shifting leadership team, and at the same time ensuring that a story is told through the way in which the audience are taken through each year’s new products, is surely one of the more unsung elements in how Apple consistently delivers incredible launch events.

In the same way at The Storytellers, we know that it is imperative to choreograph our different speakers according to the particular leadership style of the team that we’re working with, and to the key messages that are being shared. The time that a leadership team shares with its teams around the business is so precious; carefully co-creating our event agendas with our clients is a vital element in making sure that this is time well-spent.

6. Value solid technical production – so often, the technical production of an event is only newsworthy when it goes wrong: and Apple is no exception. At the 2014 Launch Event, viewers from around the world watching on Apple TV and online were stuck on a blank screen for the first 30 minutes of the event – a PR disaster. More recently, when introducing the iPhone 10 and trying to show off its new facial recognition software, the phone failed to recognise SVP Craig Federighi … and he was embarrassingly asked for a passcode instead. Such events not only impaired the audience’s chance to hear the key messages and understand what the new products were all about, but also came to overshadow the entire event itself. These were of course blips in what is generally seamless, top-drawer event production, but unfortunately it is so often the mistakes that people remember, and for Apple, these moments will go down in history.

Every year, we run many events for our clients – whether taking full responsibility for our clients’ story launch events or working with other production companies, our technical directors work tirelessly to ensure that our clients’ story events are remembered for the key messages and rich conversations that ensued with their colleagues; not that moment when the power failed or the screen went down. The value of an event that runs without a hitch truly cannot be underestimated. One wonders what Tim Cook would pay now to go back in time and avoid the calamities Apple endured in 2014 and 2017. When it comes to technical production, it truly is the case that a stitch in time is worth nine.

In conclusion: it is so telling that the most innovative, inventive, technologically sophisticated company that the world has ever seen continues to use the live event as the central moment in each year in which to share key messages and reinforce the journey it’s on. Despite losing the most iconic business leader that we have seen so far in the 21st century, Apple has unwaveringly persevered with its live events. Each September’s launch event is the focal point for so much of what it does… and there are no signs that this is about to change.

As experienced event producers ourselves at The Storytellers, we know from running countless shows that there are certain factors that will determine the success or failure of a live event. But if there is anything at all to be learned from Apple’s reliance on the live event, that most preternatural format for sharing information, it is simply this: that the impact of a well-produced, story-driven event reinforcing the trajectory of a business is truly limitless.

Episodic storytelling: beyond the myth

“Life is a spiral staircase… the journey is both repetitious and progressive; we go both round and upward.” – Y.B Yeats

When it comes to understanding the power and influence of episodic storytelling, there are perhaps few better examples than Star Wars. For over 40 years, Star Wars has delighted and entertained billions of people across the world, and the franchise shows no sign of stopping. So far: we have had two complete trilogies; we await the finale of the most recent, third trilogy; and there is another subsequent trilogy planned. There is a Hans Solo spin-off in the cinemas right now, and there are at least three other ‘anthology’ films in development. From its humble beginnings in the 1977 film ‘Star Wars’, the story has grown to a point that surely was beyond even the wildest dreams of its creator. It truly is storytelling on a grand scale.

So what has made Star Wars so successful, and given it such incredible longevity? The answer can be found in the art and science of a particular kind of storytelling: episodic storytelling.

In the broadest sense, one could define episodic storytelling as the art of telling the story of an epic journey via a series of interconnected, smaller episodes that link together thematically, and that each have meaning and value in and of themselves.

The original Star Wars trilogy is a crystallised example of how this works: each individual film has its own ups and downs, trials and tribulations, and evolving cast of characters. But over the course of the trilogy, there is a more profound narrative that emerges: a battle of good and evil on the grandest of scales… and of course, a particularly difficult relationship between a father and son.

As each episode adds a new layer of meaning, the story gradually unfolds before our eyes – it’s incredibly engaging. The challenge that Luke Skywalker faced in the first film was real, but the true test only revealed itself in the second – and the compelling nature of what it meant to overcome this challenge was only meaningful by the time we arrived at the third, concluding film, when we finally came to know who Luke had now become. To put it bluntly, without ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘Return of the Jedi’, Luke is a pretty forgettable hero. But by the end of the trilogy, we understand that he is someone who has not only overcome mortal and existential challenges, but who has also come of age.

As an audience, this kind of understanding and meaning is only possible through an evolving, episodic journey. Each of the three films in that original trilogy has a beginning, middle and an end. The beauty of episodic storytelling is that as we follow the mini beginning-middle-end of each chapter in the overall story, the key messages become both focused and magnified. In this way, episodic storytelling takes an original, monological ‘myth’, and makes it real, meaningful, deeper and altogether more human.

So what does any of this have to do with The Storytellers? Is there anything we can learn from Star Wars in this sense?

At The Storytellers, one of our main goals is to perfect the art and science of storytelling in business. For over fifteen years, we have developed and refined narrative frameworks that help our clients answer a primary, yet deceptively simple question: ‘where are we coming from… and where are we going?’

Our experience in engaging people in these ‘strategic narratives’ tells us that the key to how an organisation moves towards its goals and destination can almost always be found in the centre of that story – whether it is a key opportunity that must be seized, or a crisis that must be resolved.

However, in an era defined by constant and continuous change, we are seeing an ever growing need for clients to be increasingly agile, responsive and compelling in how they describe the changes that are happening around them – and it is only really through episodic storytelling that this is achievable.

What constitutes the central challenge of any journey is constantly and subtly shifting, and this can only truly be countered by consistently updating what that journey really means now. Deciding to climb Everest is one thing, but does the journey look the same when you arrive at Base Camp, months after that initial decision? Does it look the same when you are 100ft from the summit? The destination may be the same… but the motivation that took you from your home to Base Camp – and the true meaning of that journey – is constantly in flux.

To put it simply: it is how we continuously and compellingly redefine what the journey to our destination looks like that makes climbing the mountain possible.

Perhaps more importantly, episodic storytelling also provides a meaningful opportunity to connect the overarching journey to what people are experiencing on a collective level – breathing a new kind of life into that same journey. And again, Star Wars provides us with a great example.

One of the most high-profile decisions in ‘The Force Awakens’ (Episode 7) was the casting of one particular role. Every single Star Wars film before it had a man playing the main hero, but in 2015, for the first time in seven Star Wars films – the hero was played by Daisy Ridley, a woman.

It’s fair to say that we would not have seen a female hero in a film of this size and scale in 1977 – but in 2015, the time had come for a female Jedi. In this one casting decision, Star Wars showed that it was moving with the times, choosing to better reflect reality – and bravely making progress on a very different journey.

Of course, some people were unable to get past the decision to have a woman play a Jedi hero. Unbelievably, one fan took it upon themselves to make their own ‘cut’, and entirely removed all women from the film. This act was met with a withering response on Twitter, with even the film’s director and stars responding directly to voice their dismay.

The point is that while the events of the 7th episode in the Star Wars saga take place ‘in a galaxy far, far away’, down here on Planet Earth another story was unfolding on social media and in everyday conversation that arguably had a much more pertinent lesson. Effectively, episodic storytelling had taken Star Wars beyond a mere parable of good vs. evil, and to a point where, for a brief moment, it became a bonafide force for progress in society.

The decision to go against convention by casting a woman as the hero; the conversation that took place on a global level in response to the casting of Daisy Ridley; and the actions of the filmmakers in defending that choice could well be regarded as the most important achievement of the Star Wars franchise to date. Arguably for the first time in this galaxy, Star Wars had truly shown us what good looks like.

So the power of stories is not only in how we tell them, and in telling the ‘right’ story; but also in the conversation that happens when a population is engaged through storytelling. In and of itself, a story has the power to motivate people to act in service of progress, to move as one towards a common goal – but it also has the power to spark an invaluable conversation about who we are and who we want to be; and therefore, to directly influence reality. In this sense, as a methodology for real change and progress, it is quite unparalleled.

In conclusion, I come back to that wonderful quote from Yeats: it’s true, the journey really is repetitious. Just as in Star Wars, we all know that in life, we tend to circle back round to the same characters, the same themes. The big question is: how exactly do we make sure the journey is progressive?

It is in how a new story builds on the one we told yesterday; it is in how the conversation around the journey evolves in response; and perhaps most importantly, it is in how, as leaders and as individuals, we choose what should stay the same on that journey, and what should maybe be different this time.

At The Storytellers, our aim is to make sure that our clients don’t go round in circles, but that they see real progress. In an era of constant change and shifting values, it is only through episodic storytelling – the continuous connection between the epic, evolving stories that we tell, and the reality around us each day – that real progress begins to become truly possible.

Daniel Castro

The state of storytelling

So much of our world is wrapped up inside the constancy of change. Only a few short years ago we had no smart phone. This is just one example of many innovations and progressions that have impacted our society. Think about how our daily story has changed since that time in 2007 at the launch of Apple’s iPhone. We now hold the whole of the world’s organised information on a device in our pockets and use it to argue with strangers or adopt an endless scroll of news we did not curate ourselves. We have greater access to data and solutions to large scale problems than ever before. But, how do we make sense of this?

Concurrently to information becoming the moniker for an age, the next age is emerging. Throughout human history each age seems to hold the seeds or perhaps the needs for the next age within it. This has been true of the information age. We are entering the age of stories. According to creativity author Daniel Pink,1 the information age will be supplanted by the conceptual age, the age of ideas. He posits that “right-brain”or “creative” people will be the next group of leaders in power in business and culture. Once all of the information is aggregated and we know what must be done, one of the only differentiators that will emerge is how it gets done. Pink believes this is why creativity will emerge and the conceptual age will begin. We see it happening today. Two companies may have similar products, similar market share, even similar values but the one engaging their audience creatively accelerates performance. This presents new challenges, too. A company may have extremely innovative concepts, may even be on the cusp of disrupting the market, but, without an inspiring way of communicating their ideas there’s no way to transform the concepts to measurable results. As we move past the information age and need to figure out what to do with all of this big data, we need ideas. But, without storytelling the ideas just become another kind of data point. And what happens in a world of competing ideas?

This is where storytelling comes in. Storytelling could well be called the craft that takes information into the form in which we can assimilate it, and do something with it. In this sense, then, concepts alone, ideation alone, is simply not enough in today’s changing and volatile world. With so many ideas and concepts to choose from in any given moment born from the sheer volume of information how we tell our story is more important that ever. Because this will become our differentiation in a sea of people speaking up for their ideas to be heard.

The Storytellers exercise these specialties for our many clients around the world bringing strategy to life through the power and influence of storytelling. One method in which this can be achieved is through the adoption of bespoke story-driven creative campaigns. By placing creativity through print, video, film, or television within a wider strategic narrative, our approach connects people to a bigger journey and motivates them with a purpose. Distilling the story down to a simple creative idea can amplify the essence of the overarching message, inspire people to learn from the ideas of their peers and make connections to their own. By equipping people with the means to challenge mindsets lasting behavioural change can be accomplished. By adopting a multi-faceted creative campaign alongside the launch of their Purpose, Vision and Values, one of our clients accomplished 2.1% volume growth and increased its trading margin by +30bps to 8.8%. In turn, the approach received industry wide recognition and remains integral to their strategy two years later.

We help inspire, accelerate, and transform their performance in the marketplace. Story or narrative is the power that will carry concepts forward at the end of the information age. The power of visuals drives a compelling narrative communicating to the feelings of people looking for a connection with your organisation. After all, data without a story is simply a set of numbers. Information without knowing how it best fits into the pressing needs of your customers is only idea competing with so many others. Stories create context and connect hearts and minds. These connections remind us of our needs and we then link those needs to the organisation telling the story. At The Storytellers we build these kinds of narratives everyday. At the end of the information age, we will need more than concepts. We need the power of narrative to communicate them. Perhaps then, we are entering into the Age of Story.


1 Pink, Daniel. (2014). A Whole New Mind. Riverhead Books.

Brand Bowie: he taught us what it takes to stay ahead of the game

Like millions all over the world, I am mourning the passing of David Bowie.

Bowie was, for me, far more than a superstar rock idol, flamboyant fashionista, musician, singer, lyricist, storyteller, model, and just utterly brilliant artist and entertainer. He is (still) the one who can take me back to my youth in a nano-second. I can remember where I was as a teenager in the 70s and 80s when I hear almost every one of those soundtracks from Scary Monsters, and then Let’s Dance. Usually hanging out in some dark, smoky, patchouli-infused, cavernous tearoom in the town where I went to school, where the owner knew how to keep his teenage customers happy with the latest chart hits, a bit of moody lighting and a blind eye turned when the Sobrani Cocktails came out as we planted ourselves with the best possible vantage point to observe and critique the visiting boys from the local Boys’ College. Bowie spent those hours with us, idling away the time doing absolutely nothing useful for hours on end. He was a friend; one of us, doing time in the tearoom. And even now he has the ability to transport me back to my happy teenage years whenever I want. That is truly a gift.

And how thrilling, on the release of another Bowie single or album, to discover the delights of another zany costume, another effortlessly bouffant/slick hairdo, beautiful make-up (and I never really appreciated just how beautiful his facial features were until now), another daring and different soundtrack, with a stunning set of lyrics which were delivered, time after time, by that oh so distinctive voice and those mesmerising eyes. And usually accompanied by some perplexing pop video which we probably never really understood at the time, but hey, we loved it all. I will never forget seeing him in concert on the Glass Spider tour. And I am still not able to get over the fact that my Mum threw out my precious vinyl collection when CDs came out and she thought I wouldn’t want it any more. I still miss the anticipation and joy of acquiring a new LP: the poster, the must-learn lyrics, the essential information about the artist or band that made you a nobody if you didn’t know it. Bowie. What an era. What a legend.

I couldn’t possibly write as eloquently and knowledgeably about David Bowie as so many have over the last couple of days. But two things have really struck me.

Firstly, Bowie was a brand in his own right: probably one of the most successful living brands of all time. And Brand Bowie (along with Brand Mercury) could teach us a thing or two about sustainable competitive advantage. Always innovating, inventing, pushing the boundaries, producing constant new and different products that surprised and delighted us as he switched from one musical genre to another, with different backing bands and partners, always experimenting, always in a different guise, and with his own unique take on it each time.  Yet delivering each time with that unique voice that made him so consistently safe, and which you always trusted, before disappearing to plan his next musical onslaught on the population of Earth. Each time he left you hungry for more, knowing that you could expect a delicious surprise the next time round. He never failed to deliver on his brand promise. Bowie was a master of surprise, yet 27 studio albums, nine live albums, 49 compilation albums and 58 videos later over several decades proves that he had exactly what it takes to stay ahead of the game.  Genius.

The second was the humility that never left him despite his outstanding success as a global rock star. Never a prima donna (take note Justin Bieber) he just quietly and cleverly moved on to the next Big Thing, his desire for privacy fuelling our desire to see more of him and satisfying us, albeit temporarily, when he reappeared. He consistently kept us on our toes, and it probably gave him the space he needed to create the magic he would then bestow upon us. I loved Brendan O’Neill’s article on this in The Spectator: it’s really worth a read, and reminds us that this intense privacy (almost impossible to achieve in today’s nosy world of social media) was – in true Bowie style – what made his death the ultimate surprise. David Bowie, with his enigmatic persona, stayed on brand right until the end. We didn’t see this coming. And if you haven’t yet seen the BBC’s documentary ‘Five Years’, then get onto your iPlayer right now.

I apologise to those who think this little blog is a bit over the top. I am a little surprised myself at how sad I feel. But for those who are fans let’s celebrate. Preferably in Red Shoes and Dancing The Blues.

RIP David Bowie.

A picture paints a thousand words: give creativity some slack

The other day someone relatively unfamiliar with our approach suggested that he wasn’t sure that people with an engineering, technical or analytical mindset would ‘get’ the creative aspect of our work. It might, after all, be deemed ‘fluffy’.

Deep, inner sigh duly heaved.

Those who know us well will understand that the strategic narratives we create for our clients are not just expressed in words. What makes us quite different from other management consultancies is the tremendous emphasis and importance we place on creativity. Every programme we deliver and every Story we construct carries with it a powerful visual identity that forms the basis of an enduring visual campaign. These visual ‘assets’ are not there simply to provide comms teams with material to link future messages back to the master narrative (although this is of course extremely useful). They are there to help bring a Story to life in a way that words alone rarely do. Creativity lies at the heart of every storytelling programme. It’s the emotional soul that drives it and the lens through which people engage with it.

At its most basic level, the visual treatment of the storytelling programme helps people understand the core message of the Story in a simple and memorable way. A picture can convey complex data simply and instantly. Yet it’s more than just a graphic or visual identity. We spend a good deal of time in identifying a ‘big creative idea’ which encapsulates the single, essential message of the Story and captures the emotion of it, moving the audience to find connections between their own experiences and the organisation’s ambition for the future. Whether through film, animation, illustration or photography, expressed as a metaphor or real-life imagery, the creative campaign provides an emotional heartbeat which gives a narrative legs and inspires people far beyond just a purely rational response.

As for that ‘techy’ audience, it’s a complete myth that creativity has no place in their world. You don’t have to be a ‘creative’ type to appreciate creativity. We routinely watch clients from every type of organisation (accountancy and law firms to telecoms, banking and technology companies included) go through the process of aligning behind a set of words, which can be a cathartic moment in itself. Big tick there. Yet it’s when they see the Story in all its technicoloured glory, perhaps supported by a spine-tingling film, that they really ‘get’ the power of the creativity. It’s emotional. Hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck kind of emotional. We’ve watched grown men cry – individuals who are deeply proud of their work and experience an emotional wake-up call when they realise the significance of the contribution they are making. Yup, even leaders from a pharmaceutical R&D client organisation experienced a few wobbling lips when it all came together. Such is the creative magic that we sprinkle.

I defy anyone who says that telecoms engineers or financial analysts do not point at pictures when reading their toddler a bedtime story. Or remember the images of one of their favourite books as a child.  Or go to the cinema. Or appreciate photography or other types of art. Imagery impacts many cognitive processes in the brain: motor control, attention, perception, planning and memory. Athletes and performing artists are often trained to visualise success before they go out and perform, as it can prime the brain for success and increase states of flow. Yes, a picture, whether mental or tangibly real, can stimulate emotions and feelings which may otherwise lie dormant.

Michael Erard describes brilliantly the use of metaphor (both in words and pictures) and how it can help bring meaning to concepts or complex ideas/messages in a very effective way. We completely subscribe to this at The Storytellers from a design point of view. We think, in fact, that we have a supremely powerful approach, which is highly creative in itself. On the one hand we work hard to ensure that the ‘word content’ of a narrative is rooted in reality to give it maximum credibility (simple, clear, human language, with a rational and emotional flow and no management jargon) and which speaks to people’s actual experiences. The design side, however, gives us licence to up the anti and bring these messages to life, and this is where visual metaphor comes into play. We use it to help land those messages with a massive punch. Call it rocket fuel for the brain if you like.

So, my fellow humans, my deeply visual fellow humans, give creativity some slack. You may find that it’s one of the most powerful and inspirational aspects of communication and engagement in the workplace. And that, my friends, will improve the fortunes of your business.