Storymaking is a word I’ve made up to describe the discipline of good curation. Brands and marketers have become curators of stories, most often so that they can provide people – their customers – with relevant content, or empower them to curate content and connect to other like-minded people.

If communities are connected through content, then they are also encouraged to build upon those conversations by sharing stories of their own.

Good storymaking consists of four core tenets – the “4 Es”:

Entertainment – how does the story make you feel about yourself, your culture or your environment?

Engagement – how does the story foster participation with itself and with other people?

Enlightenment – what do participants learn (and perhaps teach others) in the process?

Experience – how do participatory moments or events culminate in stories that live alongside or beyond the media channels they are delivered in?

Leading storymakers

In 2009, Pepsi followed Coke’s Open Happiness example and developed the Refresh Project as a means for enlisting people to tell stories about their local communities and to participate in activities centered on doing good.

Starting last year, Gatorade tapped into various American high school communities to tell real stories about football, and aligned these values brilliantly with those of the brand.

One example, called “Replay,” gave middle-aged men a chance to return to the field and experience the thrill of playing again. Their experiences were documented in a series of videos.

Another series, “Beat the Heat,” featured stories about competing in the summer months. Both campaigns sparked a flood of online conversations, which contributed to the next set of Gatorade-curated stories, and culminated in various commercial campaigns and social media content.

Red Bull has been a frontrunner in the storymaking game since the brand began placing large cans on the rooftops of cars in local neighbourhoods. Using the metastory theme of adventurous pursuit, the brand has done everything from creating its own sport (Flugtag), to putting on breakdancing contests, to outfitting adventurers with tools to blog about their exploits, to building an innovation platform for inventors (Red Bull Creation).

Two years ago, Red Bull acquired its own TV network so it could broadcast these stories and recently launched a magazine showcasing these experiences as journalistic stories.

Tapping into niche communities

Nestlé, Kraft and Unilever have all tapped into niche blogger communities to curate new stories about how important issues like child healthcare and nutritional science impact families.

These have culminated in branded media platforms that drive product development through customer participation, including Kraft Recipes, Kraft Hope Kitchen, Unilever Sustainable Living, Unilever Food Solutions and Nestlé Good Start.

Nestlé used the Good Start platform in particular to address issues around its baby formula recall and to take a proactive stance regarding healthy alternatives by enabling “mommy blogger” communities to tell their personal stories.

Dermalogica has created a platform called FITE (Financial Independence Through Entrepreneurship) that uses the stories of women entrepreneurs to drum up financial support for their businesses – businesses that support the brand’s production efforts in local regions all over the world and those that are bringing communities together to create financial independence.

In the automotive world, Audi has used driver mythologies to develop stories and online utilities (calendars, configurators, etc.) around the relationship between man/woman and machine. This has culminated in everything from cross-media narratives like “The Heist” (2005), to the creation of unique augmented reality apps and open innovation platforms for engineers and drivers.

BMW has done a similar thing with the BMW Films franchise and its own innovation explorations. More recently, Ford has headed down a similar path with “The Ford Story” and its strong efforts in social media.

Brands aren’t just using storymaking techniques to empower their customers; they’re using them to empower their own employees. Just this year, Cisco leveraged a uniquely crafted ARG (alternate reality game) called “The Hunt” to improve management skills and communication within the company.

Note that these story executions go far beyond the idea of “branded content.” These are strong narratives with real cultural impact. Better stories lead to better communication and better experiences, which ultimately result in better sales.

Storytelling and the bottom line

Brands are economic power centres that have the ability to influence culture and change behaviour for the better.

If done authentically and transparently, brands can sell products and services more successfully by doing good or by socially responsible means than by resorting to methods that merely grab attention.

This also requires patience. Building brand value through storytelling does not happen overnight. And like anything good, it takes trust to co-create something meaningful with your customers. But if you can build audience trust, you can build a better brand.

Gunther Sonnenfeld will be leading a discussion about brand storytelling at the Canadian Marketing Association’s National Convention in Toronto this week.