Video Marketing | 21 MIN READ

3 Storytelling Tips For Producing Meaningful Commercials

The commercial is generally the first impression of your brand and we all know how important first impressions can be. So in this post you are going to learn the top 3 storytelling tips for producing meaningful commercials.  As you’ll see, it’s really about building meaningful relationships.

You might be asking “ What does that mean for a human to have a meaningful relationship with a brand?” If your brand has a lot of loyal customers then you have a lot of meaningful relationships. If someone drives 20 minutes out of their way to get a Starbucks coffee over their homebrew or next-door coffee shop, then Starbucks means something to them. Brands that don’t have this kind of loyalty have more transactional relationships. “I’m only shopping here because it’s the cheapest I could find,” etc . .  .

So how do you create meaningful relationships through storytelling?  Well, there is a multitude of ways that your brand communicates to customers. But today we’re going to focus on the way that most customers meet your brand for the first time: the commercial.  This is the top of the sales funnel known as “awareness.”  

Let me start by telling you a story. The story itself is mediocre, but it’s what happened within that story that I’m using to make my point. So bear with me. It’s about the day I thought I was going to die, which, in a roundabout way, turned out to be a lesson in the power of storytelling.  

A couple of years ago, I was on a plane attending a film festival in Colorado and for the first time I can remember, I had the thought that on this flight I might die. 

Typically, I do my best thinking on planes. I use them as a reason to stay unconnected and read a book guiltfree. Therefore, I don’t do a ton of socializing with strangers beyond pleasantries and keep conversation to a minimum. The town I was traveling to was Telluride. It’s basically, a living breathing oil painting that always looks like Christmas. 

Telluride is tucked neatly in the San Juan mountains, far from any major city, and is notoriously difficult to travel to. If you want to fly in, you first land in Denver or Montrose and then take a tiny prop plane the rest of the way. I have flown many times to major cities and different countries but never have I experienced the kind of turbulence that I did on that trip. 

I was sitting next to a scientist who was on her way to the same festival. We made very unmemorable small talk before the plane took off and after flying somewhat peacefully for about 20 minutes the plane started shaking like a polaroid picture. It was a roller coaster. I looked out the window to check to see if the wings were still attached.

Out of instinct I suppose, the scientist in the seat next to me grabbed my arm and it felt like she was going to rip it off. I am either going to have a quick death in the side of a mountain or I am going to bleed out from my arm sockets while watching this woman screaming and shaking my lifeless limbs that are no longer attached to my body.  

The entire flight was probably an hour, but when you’re clutching the armrest like it’s the only thing that will keep you from ejecting from the plane, it feels like an eternity. 

Finally, it calmed down and as I began to allow my buttocks to slowly unclench, one muscle fiber at a time, we approached the runway with a big collective sigh of relief. My new friend and I had a laugh and began to have a more memorable conversation. I learned about what kind of scientist she was, where she was from, and why she was headed to Telluride. Suddenly it felt really good to connect with her on a more personal level seeing as though just a few minutes prior she was potentially going to be the last person to ever hear my voice. 

Had this been a typical flight, I would have quickly exited the plane as fast as possible. But instead, we exchanged information. We’re now Facebook friends and keep up with each other on occasion. 

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that a relationship developed that wouldn’t otherwise have developed had it not been for a shared, dramatic experience. We took a wild journey together that released a cocktail of hormones that made us feel bonded at that moment and even much longer. 

Now imagine if you could create a dramatic experience at scale that encourages stronger bonds between your brand and your audience? 

You can do that using storytelling and it’s backed up by science.

In a series of tests using videos, Dr. Paul Zak, Professor at the University of Claremont, discovered that compelling narratives cause oxytocin release and have the power to affect our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. His research illustrates that watching an experience similar to my plane trip at the movies or from the safety of your own couch releases the same chemicals in your brain as if you experienced it in person.

Let me repeat, if you’re watching Jack Reacher jump out of an airplane or you’re ugly crying at the end of The Notebook, your body thinks you are actually experiencing that trauma.  

I guess what I’m saying is that you can deliver Trauma at scale through well-told stories. 

So today I’m going to be your neurochemical drug mentor and teach you how to create ads that foster more addiction to your brand than Walter White and explain how to use story to release oxytocin at scale along with its friend’s Dopamine, Cortisol, and Adrenaline, all working together to make your brand meaningful through storytelling. 

Oxytocin – Empathy, Generosity, Trust

Dopamine – Joy, Focus 

Cortisol – Flashbulb Memory Development 

Adrenaline – Inspiration, Motivation 

Now, not everyone is going to be able to deliver suspense like Hitchcock, or drama like Scorsese from a blog post, but these tips will make your commercials so much more meaningful.

Tips for Producing Meaningful Commercials

1. Choose ONE Simple Theme

Be brave enough to Keep It Simple.  

There are a few ways to find your starting point. 

  • What’s the main principal your brand stands for or even one word that encapsulates your brand? 
  • What’s the number 1 differentiator?
  • Find the story within the story. If WW2 is the story, then find your Dunkirk or Saving Private Ryan. One slice is all you need. 

If you’re spending a great deal of money on ad buys & video production the natural inclination is to try to fit everything you do into one ad. Fight this urge. You need one reason for people to rally behind you. One Theme.

Remember that your ad is at the top of the sales funnel. It needs to be interesting enough to just get a right swipe, not a marriage proposal. After that, they can come to you to learn more. It’s simply a way to get people curious and move to the next step in which you can start to have more sophisticated material for them on your website or through email marketing.

When you’re pitching a feature film to investors, you have this thing called a “logline.” It’s basically two sentences that sum up your film. If entire feature films can be summed up in one or two sentences, your ad can have one simple takeaway, a throughline that is easy to follow and get behind. 

Here’s a classic spot by Visa that still gives me chills to this day. It’s the perfect story told simply in 30 seconds and it makes me want to use Visa. The theme of this spot is “Dan Jansen doesn’t give up.”

2. Use The Hero's Journey As A Roadmap

To keep an audience’s attention for 2 hours in a theater, you need every tool in your storytelling toolkit. You need heroes, villains, twists, turns, shapeshifters, tension, high stakes, MANY, many OBSTACLES all working together to weave a layered story through a three-act structure.

Here’s the good news. A commercial is short enough that it’s so much simpler. All you need is a hero who goes on a quest and by the end is transformed. Another way to say that is the main character has a problem finds a solution. It’s still a three-act structure but incredibly simplified . . . if you’re brave enough to keep it simple.  

Let’s look at the visa commercial one more time. This is the clearest example of the hero’s journey that I’ve found in a commercial but almost ALL great ads follow this, or some version of this, as well. 

All you need: 

  • Act 1: Context / Set up / Stakes – Here are all the words that make up act 1.
              • “Dan Jansen’s sister Jane passed away. He promised her he’d win gold.” 
  • Act 2: Conflict / Tension –  These two words make up all of act 2.
              • “He didn’t.”
  • Act 3: Transformation / Release – Here is the resolution.
              • “Until 6 years later . . . . when he skated a victory lap with his daughter, Jane” (and a great surprise to boot!).

And if you’re interested in mastering advanced long-form storytelling, you need to read “The Writer’s Journey” by Christorpher Vogler. It takes all the concepts from Joseph Campbell’s studies of Greek Mythology and translates them for filmmakers. Even though it may be somewhat overkill, it’s definitely worth the read. 

3. Be Authentic

I’ve given more than a couple of wedding speeches and it can be so pressure-filled and frightening. There’s this default position that assumes it needs to be funny. But the worse thing that can happen is when you try to be funny and you just aren’t. The best advice I ever received about giving a wedding speech was when in doubt, go from the heart.

Here’s a company that did just that and has in turn resonated with audiences garnering millions of views on YouTube. It is said that filmmaker Errol Morris called it “The best commercial ever made.” I disagree, however, it’s wonderfully authentic and perhaps funny even though that may or may not have been their intention.

Next time you’re crafting that perfect commercial creative, take these to heart and you’re sure to get the most bang for your buck. At Early Light Media, we specialize in not only video production, but crafting impactful stories.

Reach out if you would like to talk or need guidance on your next campaign or enjoy more of our articles. 

Darren Durlach

About Darren Durlach

Darren is a film director and co-founder of Early Light Media, a video production agency based in Baltimore. He enjoys writing about storytelling, filmmaking, and video marketing to help organizations communicate more effectively with their audiences.

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