The Rise of Storytelling in Marketing – as told by LinkedIn data

The story of a year that put storytelling on the marketing map

December 4, 2017

The Rise of Storytelling in Marketing – as told by LinkedIn data

Lots of people will tell you that marketing has always been about storytelling – and that marketers have always been storytellers. Indeed, storytelling is such an established part of the marketing vocabulary today that it’s tempting to believe it’s always been treated as an important skill. But it hasn’t.

LinkedIn data provides a unique perspective on the very rapid rise of storytelling in marketing. It shows that storytelling was very much a fringe concept as recently as six years ago. This was despite the fact that pioneers like Seth Godin were already arguing for marketers to start thinking in terms of stories. Then, very suddenly, things changed.

In early summer 2011, the number of marketers listing storytelling as a skill on their LinkedIn profile was miniscule. It effectively didn’t exist as a marketing discipline. Just two years later, storytelling was a key part of the profile of almost a quarter of a million marketers, 7% of all marketers worldwide, in fact.

What had happened to turn a concept that people once associated with children’s bedtimes into an essential marketing skill? We analysed the LinkedIn data to help tell the story of storytelling’s rise. It’s the tale of a 12-month period, from August 2011 to August 2012 that created unstoppable momentum behind this form of content and its role in brand relationships. It’s a story populated with stand-out campaigns and great ideas that are worth revisiting today. At a time when the concept of storytelling in marketing can still feel frustratingly difficult to define, it reminds us exactly what this vision of brand content means – and why it matters.

The Rise of Storytelling

A story told by LinkedIn data

Before the rise

April 2011
Number of storytellers in marketing: 0

Storytelling as punchline

In April 2011, it was easy to poke fun at the concept of brand storytelling – and that’s what Tom Fishburne did when launching his now well-established Marketoonist cartoon series. Fishburne actually bought into the concept of brands and marketers as storytellers. He just didn’t think most brands were doing a good enough job. Judging from the LinkedIn data he was right. Marketers may have liked the buzzword, but they didn’t take storytelling seriously as a skill.

The Trigger

August 2011

Number of storytellers in marketing: 0

Coca-Cola changes the game

The launch of Coca-Cola’s Content 2020 strategy saw one of the world’s biggest brands seeking to define brand storytelling and its specific role in a connected marketing strategy. The marketing world took notice. It was at this point at which we can first detect marketers adding storytelling as a specific skill on their profile.

The Take-off

January 2012

Number of storytellers in marketing: 5,000

Storytelling gets its own Lion

The Cannes Lions festival announced a new category: Branded Content and Entertainment. That wording was significant. It captured the idea that branded content was more than just a different form of advertising: it had to captivate audiences as entertainment; as stories.

February 2012

Number of storytellers in marketing: 10,000

Chipotle steals the show at the Grammy’s

Nobody tuning in to watch Adele sweep the Grammy awards expected the highlight of their evening to be a Chipotle ad. The Mexican food chain with the “Food with integrity” message had never run a national TV campaign before. Then came a two-minute animated film backed by a heartbreaking rendition of Coldplay’s The Scientist, performed by Willie Nelson. It was a story about a farmer losing his soul to industrial techniques – and then battling resolutely to get it back. It set Twitter alight – and it brought brand storytelling into the big time.

April 2012

Number of storytellers in marketing: 12,000

All Marketers tell Stories

Seth Godin was one of the first thinkers to argue that the art of storytelling was fundamental to marketing as a whole. He’d written about it as early as 2005, in his book All Marketers are Liars, an underground hit. In April 2012 it was re-issued, with a cheeky new cover. The original title was scrawled out and rephrased as ‘All Marketers tell Stories’. Putting storytelling centre-stage in this way demonstrated that is was no longer just a content marketing tactic – it was now part of the strategic marketing discussion.

April 2012

Number of storytellers in marketing: 12,000

The science behind stories

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall was the New York Times Editor’s Choice book that put the science behind storytelling. Gottschall looked at stories through an evolutionary lens; not just as a cosy way of wrapping up a message, but as a means of shutting down critical faculties and opening people up to emotional influence and manipulation. This was serious stuff – not just a new creative technique, but a new science of storytelling.

The early majority

May 2012

Number of storytellers in marketing: 18,000

The year of storytelling
Late spring and early summer 2012 saw a significant shift. Bloggers and mainstream media alike stopped treating storytelling as another marketing buzzword – and started to discuss it as part of a new marketing zeitgeist. The Guardian, Fast Company, Forbes and DM News were amongst those declaring this the year of storytelling. A tipping point had been reached. If marketers needed permission to start treating storytelling as an essential skill, they now had it.

June 2012

Number of storytellers in marketing: 21,000

Chipotle wins the first storytelling Grand Prix

Chipotle landed the first Grand Prix to be awarded at the Cannes Lions for Branded Content and Entertainment, beating off strong competition from Montblanc, Qantas, Intel, Carling Black Label and others. The 13 Gold Lions also awarded in this category showed the sudden strength in depth of storytelling campaigns.

Joe Pulizzi presents the History of Storytelling

Joe Pulizzi’s presentation at the Online Marketing Summit argued that brands now needed to compete as media companies in order to earn audiences’ attention. That didn’t just mean putting branded content out there – it required them to develop their own compelling stories. While most attention had focused on the storytelling of consumer brands, Pulizzi showed it to be fundamental to B2B strategies as well. And through the story of brands like John Deere, he demonstrated that storytelling has always had value to add to those who can execute it properly.

August 2012

Number of storytellers in marketing: 25,000

The research agency Latitude rounded off a transformative 12 months for storytelling with this forward-looking study asking how the discipline would evolve to keep pace with shifting media consumption. It put forward a vision of seamless, multi-screen storytelling that was more collaborative and more interactive, anticipating an ongoing role for brand stories at the heart of digital marketing strategies.

What happened next?

The rise of storytelling didn’t end in 2012. The number of marketers listing storytelling as a skill has continued to grow ever since, reaching 250,000 in October 2013 – and over half a million today. In 2013, brand storytelling hit new heights through and integrated campaigns like Chipotle’s The Scarecrow and Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches.

Between 7% and 8% of all marketers worldwide identify themselves as storytellers today – a proportion that has remained consistent for the last four years. This suggests that marketers are identifying storytelling as a specific and a specialist skill. It’s not a hygiene factor that everyone adds to their LinkedIn profiles automatically. Those that do are signalling their expertise in a very particular area of marketing strategy, and a particular form of branded content.

In our interview on The Sophisticated Marketer’s Podcast last week, Seth Godin, one of the heroes of storytelling’s rise, spoke about the all-important difference between anecdotes and stories. Anecdotes are only interesting because they actually happened. Stories have a deeper truth that resonates, affects and motivates far beyond this. As a marketer, telling a story doesn’t just mean sharing what your brand has done. It involves a deep understanding of your audience and their emotions that enables you to craft a narrative that appeals on a deeply human level. That’s a skill worth valuing – and the evidence of LinkedIn suggests there are plenty of marketers who continue to value it.