The Joss Whedon Guide to Marketing With Storytelling


At this point, storytelling in marketing has almost become a meaningless buzzword — something everyone talks about in vague ways so much that we’re all sick of hearing it.

Don’t believe me? Take a look:


Yet far too many people don’t know what “storytelling in marketing” really means. Fewer still are doing it effectively.

So I decided to turn to the master of storytelling — the one and only Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed some of the most compelling stories in film and television in recent memory (Firefly, Buffy, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., among many, many others) — for a little guidance.

And as it turns out, even though his brand of storytelling is different from the kind of storytelling we do in marketing, Whedon has a lot to teach us about both.

But first, let’s clear one thing up …

Marketing With Storytelling: What Do We Mean by That?

I like the Content Marketing Institute definition: “… basically, it boils down to brands sharing their messages in ways that engage audiences and drive them to take a desired action (like making a purchase, calling a sales person, downloading or subscribing to content, etc.).”

You can tell a story about your brand in lots of ways:

  • Why and how your business began
  • What your brand means to your customers or clients
  • How working for your brand impacts the lives of your employees

Why storytelling at all, though? Well, it comes down to one peculiar aspect of human nature that I can best explain to you with — yep, you guessed it! A story.

Imagine a horrific natural disaster — let’s say an earthquake — has just occurred in a place that’s on the opposite side of the world. This place has no connection with your life, and so this earthquake has not impacted your life directly in any way whatsoever.

For a few days, you watch the news reports with their mind-numbing statistics — thousands dead, thousands upon thousands injured, hundreds of thousands homeless.  

You probably shake your head and wish them well — but do you pull out your wallet and help?

If you’re like most humans, probably not. At least, not yet.

Then the celebrity-hosted telethon takes place.

While you’re watching it, your favorite actress shows you video of an infant being pulled from the rubble while her voiceover tells you this baby was rescued but her mother died, and the hospital that’s trying to treat the baby’s injuries is woefully understaffed and running out of supplies.

If you’re like most humans, that’s when you pull out your wallet.

Simply put: we humans are hardwired to respond emotionally to stories.

And since marketing is all about getting people to take some kind of action, storytelling in our marketing is a powerfully effective strategy.

As Whedon himself said during an audience Q&A session at San Diego’s Comic Con in 2015:

“[T]he main function of the human brain, the primary instinct, is storytelling. Memory is storytelling. If we all remembered everything, we would be Rain Man, and would not be socially active at all. We learn to forget and to distort, but we [also] learn to tell a story about ourselves.”

But how can we tell more effective stories in our marketing? For that, let’s turn to Mr. Whedon for some stellar advice.

Pick the Right “Characters”

“The Twilight thing … everything rests on what this girl will do, but she’s completely passive, or not really knowing what the hell is going on. And that’s incredibly frustrating to me …” ~ Joss Whedon

When you ask any group of nerdy/geeky types (like me, and just about all of my friends on Facebook) what they love the most about Joss Whedon stories, you’ll get one answer more than any other:

“It’s his characters!”

Joss is known for creating compelling characters. What does that mean?

Well, it boils down to characters who are complete, complex individuals — in other words, just like people, they’re not “all good” or “all bad.” They all have admirable traits, quirks, and faults – and every strength has a corresponding weakness, which is often their undoing, or at least threatens to be.

Lesson for marketers: Whether you’re creating fictional characters for your stories or borrowing from real life, look for people in situations that show this kind of full-faceted humanity.

Pay Attention to Story Structure

“…you don’t just want to move forward. You want something that says, ‘I’m here for this hero to win the day.’ The way you go see a movie and say, ‘I want that resolve.’” ~ Joss Whedon

As we probably all learned in elementary school, stories have a certain structure: a beginning, a middle, and (crucially) an end. You may also have heard of the three-act structure, and/or a structure that includes a climax and a denouement.

The author may start off in medias res — in the thick of things, the middle of the action — but there’s still a certain structure in most stories that helps readers and audiences follow along.

For the most part, Whedonverse stories adhere to that traditional structure. In Serenity, a fan-favorite movie based on his short-lived (sob) series Firefly, there’s a lot of action that takes place before the beginning of the movie, but the movie itself is a self-contained unit that follows the introduction/rising action/climax/denouement framework.

Lesson for marketers: Your readers and prospects are likelier to feel emotionally moved by a story that follows, at a minimum, the basic three-part structure.

Focus on the Story, Not Your Agenda

“I still want to connect with people  … The only thing I do know is that if I approach a story with that as my goal, I will not come up with a story. I will come up with a retread, I will come up with a commercial for storytelling.” ~ Joss Whedon

We all want to connect with our audiences. We want to share content that resonates with them, that moves them to do something — to take some action, such as make a purchase, donate to your cause, sign up for your list, or agree to work with you.

But what Joss is saying here is that when that’s all you’re after — when your sole purpose is to make them do something or feel some way — nine times out of ten, you’ll end up with a story that falls well short of the mark.

Lesson for marketers: Focus first on the story, paying attention to structure and how your character(s) change or evolve. You can always make revisions to increase emotional engagement later, but get the story right first.

Don’t Leave Your Audience Hanging

“A movie has to be complete within itself; it can’t just build off the first one or play variations. You know that thing in Temple of Doom where they revisit the shooting trick? … That’s what you don’t want.” ~ Joss Whedon

There’s a tendency lately — especially in movies adapted from book series — to string audiences along by carving up books into sequential movies. Sometimes this works. Usually, it doesn’t.

(Twilight, I’m looking at you.)

Along with the focus on structure, Joss Whedon stories always provide a resolution of some kind. It’s not always a happy ending (spoiler alert: poor Wash in Serenity), or even necessarily a clean or explicitly spelled-out ending (Angel), but it’s an ending, nonetheless.

Things are resolved. The chessboard is cleared, or sometimes set up for a new game. Characters have changed — sometimes profoundly.

Lesson for marketers: Figure out a way to close out your story with some resolution, and craft an ending that will give audiences some emotional closure, plus a little kick in the pants to take that desired action.

Don’t Repeat Yourself

“I don’t like to tell the same story twice.”  ~ Joss Whedon

The old adage tells us there are really only seven or so plots, and every story ever told simply retells one of them, hopefully in new and exciting ways.

That’s debatable, but one thing strikes you when you consider Joss’s body of work: his stories don’t strike you as repetitive or rehashed versions of older work. They feel new and fresh.

Lesson for marketers: Mix it up a little! Don’t tell the same kind of story over and over. Look for fresh angles on your customer experience, for example.

Don’t Be Afraid of “Dark” Stories

“The Storyteller lives in a dark place, the storyteller lives in the urges that people don’t want to talk about.” ~ Joss Whedon

Not all stories have happy endings. We’ve already mentioned Serenity, one of Joss’s stories that ends with a bit of heartbreak, and another — Angel — that ended on an ambiguous note but left the characters facing almost certain destruction.

Every now and then, we need a dark story to remind us of the fragility of life and the great depths the human race is capable of sinking to — if for no other reason than to warn us of what to avoid.

You can find examples in almost every genre. And there’s an entire genre that’s devoted to nothing but the dark and horrible (horror).

Lesson for marketers: Once in awhile, share a story about failure. We learn at least as much from failing as we do from succeeding, after all. If the failure story is your own, you’ll also build some credibility and rapport with your audience.

Over to you! What’s your favorite Joss Whedon story, and how can it help you create better marketing stories?

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Brenda Stokes Barron is a freelance writer and blogger for hire. When she's not hunched over her laptop, she's spending time with her husband, daughter, and two crazy cats. Keep up with her antics (which often include trips to Starbucks) on Google +.