5 Brands Taking Digital Storytelling To The Next Level

Brand storytelling is hardly a new idea. One of the earliest examples is the Wishbook from Sears and Roebuck. In 1895, the Sears Wishbook hit rural Americans mailboxes offering a new concept – a variety store that allowed frontier families to order everything from guns and garments to a Stradivarius violin – for $6.10!

Founder Richard Sears had a talent for connecting with customer needs. By branding his catalog as a Wishbook, he sold more than glassware and topcoats; he offered affordable dreams to a public previously limited to the variety of goods stocked at the local general store. One of his most genius achievements was turning his customers into brand evangelists. He sent a letter to his best customer list in Iowa and asked each of them to distribute 24 catalogs. If their friends became customers, he rewarded the volunteer advertisers with a stove, a bicycle, or a sewing machine.

The lesson here is that it’s not just about the product; it’s about the company image and the storytelling. In the sixties and seventies, cigarette manufacturers branded smoking as sexy, dangerous, cool…something common to the most sophisticated jetsetters. Today, people are savvier and less apt to fall for a manufactured backstory. For the first time in history, truth is stock-in-trade.

That’s where digital storytelling comes in. Today, instead of talking at the customer, companies are successfully talking to them, and customers are talking back. Advertising has left the rarefied atmosphere of one-way communication and entered the public arena. Companies who manage to harness the power of the public meet roaring success.

The key: Company image and actions must meet the standards of the brand story. Today’s customers demand truth, and companies that can’t deliver are crucified across all platforms of social media.


Nike’s digital storytelling is innovative, fun, and consistent. One of my favorite examples is this quirky little video story.

The concept is compelling, irreverent, and a little silly. Is the story legit, or was it all a setup? It’s hard to say, but either way, it has humor and heart…and it works. It speaks directly to the daring adventurer in all of us. The compelling narrative behind Nike’s brand storytelling is empowerment and encouragement. We really want to believe we can “Just Do It.” Wearing Nike shoes, of course.

The New Ford Focus

Ford recently launched a commercial campaign to introduce the new Focus ST. The commercial starts with these words superimposed over the video:

Recently, we introduced the 252 hp Ford Focus ST by driving head-to-head through the narrow streets of Key West. But we didn’t film it. You did.


The video switches between shots of a cheering crowd filming from every angle, closing in on a guy holding a camera over the heads of the crowd, a girl hanging over the barricades with an iPhone, a guy in a tree, people crowded onto a balcony, and the cars, one red and one yellow, racing in tandem, sliding to a stop at Mallory Square with the moonlit ocean in the background. It’s billed as the first ever spectator-filmed commercial, and it’s a smart example of digital storytelling. Using spectator video takes the viewer into the crowd and into the moment.


Expedia.com has a social presence unlike most corporations. They offer a veritable barrage of customer interactions, from a Facebook scavenger hunt for big travel point prizes, to weekly Twitter chats that include travel point giveaways, to a video contest for young filmmakers where fans voted on the ten films they liked most. The brand tie-in was the subject of the films, travel.

Here’s one of the finalists:

The genius behind this campaign is in generating interest. Giveaways and prizes are a great way to turn fans into brand evangelists. Expedia does a great job of soliciting customer input in a positive way.

Charity: Water

Few grassroots programs started with no funding have proved as successful as the Charity: Water campaign. Started by a group of innovative young people, it is the ultimate in fan participation. Based on the simple concept of providing clean water to people in desperate need, donations fueled by social media have funded thousands of wells. Five years ago, founder Scott Harrison had a unique idea. He gave up his 30th birthday. He threw a party and asked friends to donate $20 in lieu of a present. Seven hundred people showed up. This year, 12,000 people so far have donated their birthdays.

The success of this campaign depends on one thing: Empathy. Scott Harrison and friends successfully showed people what it would be like to have nothing but dirty water to drink. The campaign crossed a dozen social media and event platforms. Saks Fifth Avenue donated their windows and sold clothing. News organizations featured the story, and the City of New York donated ad space on buses and allowed a street demonstration. The idea spread like wildfire on Twitter and other social media platforms. One of the most powerful selling points is simple integrity. 100% of public donations goes to the cause. The expenses of the charity organization are funded by separate private donations, sponsors, and foundations. YOUR money funds clean water and nothing else.

Canon’s Project Imagin8ion with Ron Howard

Last year, Canon charged legendary film director Ron Howard to create a short film based on photos submitted by Canon users. The goal was to build a story from eight photos chosen for setting, time, character, mood, relationship, goal, obstacle, and the unknown. The result is a moody and moving short film that explores dealing with the death of a parent from childhood to adulthood. Watch the film:

Canon and Ron Howard are working on a second user generated project called “Long Live Imagination” to be shot entirely with Canon HDSLRs. The beauty of this campaign is in capturing the imagination of users and inspiring them to reach new creative heights in order to tell a story, at the same time showing what can be accomplished with the project. For brand storytelling, it’s pure genius.

Sitting here with tears in my eyes from Canon’s short film, it’s never been clearer to me how powerful storytelling can be. In a world where we know how much emotion can affect consumer behavior, connecting with people through digital storytelling is a way to escape the trap of having potential customers feel like they’re always being sold something. By telling a great story, evoking that emotion, brands can imprint themselves in the minds and hearts of the masses. Who knows? The positive feeling I got from the Charity: Water video may lead me to donate my own birthday. What other decisions will I make, will others make, from interacting with beautifully crafted stories? And what other brands out there are telling the stories that have won you over? Let us know!

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