Storytelling Celibacy: The Kiss of Death for Your Brand

Why there is no happily-ever-after in brand storytelling | KOTAW Content MarketingImagine experiencing sex for the first time, discovering that it was better than your wildest fantasies and deciding to never have sex again.

Imagine enjoying fantastic success with your business and opting to never repeat it.

One of those scenarios requires no imagination. Far too often, CEOs realize mind-blowing success and then turn into acetic monks who renounce the best success they ever had.

And what kind of success are they quickest to forsake?

Marketing. Particularly brand storytelling. Especially successful storytelling.

I understand why companies like to slash marketing costs. Marketing is a fuzzy expenditure, not as easily understood as the cost of production and returned merchandise. And brand storytelling, while not a novel concept, is new to many decision-makers. Why spend money on something that reminds you of bedtime with Mommy when you’re struggling to keep up with rising energy costs?

It may be shortsighted, but it makes sense to favor mandatory budget items over discretionary ones. I empathize. What bothers me – what I struggle to comprehend – is the inclination to give up on storytelling that exceeds expectations, storytelling that proves profitable.

I’ve recently been mentally tallying up the KOTAW Girl Gang’s successes and voicing a recurring thought, “Wow, I have to tell that story. It would make a great case study.”

How to Lose $5 Million

So I thought I’d update the story about the client I helped earn $5 million in 48 hours. After he cashed the check, he said he was “done with marketing” and didn’t spend a dime of the $5 million on brand storytelling, public relations, social media or advertising.

Here’s the update: the company’s stock is now valued at 0. Huh?

How to Gain – and Lose – a Page 1 Google Ranking

And then I check on the client whose story we told – and sold — so well that his website moved from oblivion to page one of Google in organic search in just 45 days, ranking him ahead of 100-year-old, billion-dollar competitors. “Thank you and goodbye,” he said, after I told him the exciting news.

Did he make the right decision? I start searching and can’t find him on page 1,2,3,4…11, 12, 13…18, 19… At page 22, I give up. Hmm?

How to Fail With a 1 Million Percent Increase in Sales

Well, how about that client whose direct sales from Twitter soared 1 million percent in 60 days, thanks to our story-driven social media efforts?

The client said, “that’s enough,” and pulled the plug on social media marketing.

I run some analytics: The client’s social media-related sales plummeted to $0 within two months after the client severed ties with KOTAW and never recovered. Really?

How to Kill Your Business After Earning a 500 Percent Return on Storytelling

Let’s see how things are going with the client whom we helped win a prestigious industry award, magazine coverage and peer praise as well as provide a 500,000 percent return on investment in 90 days.

Based on his digital footprint, the client is no longer in business. Seriously?

How to Break Up with Success

And what about the other clients who – in 120 days or less – got more than the sales, media placements, acclaim, social media engagement and branding success they wanted?

Many – too many – gave up on success. They didn’t “go in a different direction” with another content marketing agency, they didn’t take their branding and storytelling efforts in-house. They had success, loved it (so they said) and abruptly ended the affair. WTF?

Trying to answer this question keeps me up at night. It’s not unusual for me to attach greater importance to a client’s success than the client, and I know I’m not alone in this. It’s the nature of creative marketing professionals – certainly among the best and brightest – to bring greater passion to projects than the people who pay our fees. We wouldn’t achieve the results we do if we weren’t driven by our own desires to achieve them.

So I never expect clients to be as wowed as I am by the results we deliver to them. I know I challenge myself to impossible standards and that there is some sort of magic involved when I achieve them.

Like a Virgin

Those “case studies” mentioned earlier? All of those were firsts for me. I had never raised $5, much less $5 million for a client before. I had no idea how to earn a page 1 Google ranking. I didn’t know how to calculate a million percent increase in sales.

I decided to achieve those results and did. It was exhilarating. I wanted more!

Why didn’t the clients? Why didn’t they want another happy ending? Why didn’t they want the best they ever had to be even better?

I don’t have the answer, but I do have a theory. I think there’s something about our relationship to stories that makes us assume they’ll end happily. The prince will slay the dragon, Cinderella will marry Prince Charming, Little Red Riding Hood will outwit the Big Bad Wolf.

Repeat or Defeat

Sure, we know that companies fail. But a brand story? It must end well.

So as long as a company writes its story – or hires someone to write it for them — success is guaranteed, right?

Well, if you have a good brand story and tell it very well, yes, you’ll likely get one happy ending.

But no company – and no relationship – can thrive with a single happy ending.

There is no happily-ever-after in a brand’s story. It must evolve. It must face and resolve plot twists. It must never take first-time passion for granted.

It must always get better. Or the dragon will eat your business.

Don’t let it happen to yours. Keep the happy endings coming!

Need help telling – and selling – your story? The KOTAW team thrives on making branding magic, and our passion for storytelling success never quits.

We’d love to hear from you and welcome YOUR thoughts about success and happy endings.


  1. Adrienne says:

    Wow, wow and wow Katherine… I’m kind of speechless to be honest with you and I’m sure you were as well. I mean they hired you for a specific reason and not only did you fulfil that obligation but helped them earn $5 million in only 48 hours! Why would any sane business person ever pull the plug on those kinds of numbers? Heck, with $5 million now I’d definitely put more of that back into my marketing to see if they can top those numbers.

    I’m not surprised though to hear that they’ve fallen off the radar completely when searching for them online since we both know that you have to keep plugging away at what you’re doing, it’s called consistency. Dah!

    I’m sorry that they pulled the plug on your but you reached that awesome goal and know what you’re capable of doing so I say your clients are definitely getting some great deals when they hire you.

    Way to go Katherine and may storytelling live on and on and on….


    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      Clients do sometimes leave me speechless, Adrienne. But I learn from every one of them, and it helps me learn more about marketing — both about my capabilities and as a much-needed reminder that no company can grow (much less thrive) if they give up on marketing.

      Sometimes I think the problem is that the digital age makes starting a company so easy — you can be up and running the same day you get an idea in your head. But some of my clients — including the $5 million in 48 hours one — own brick and mortar businesses. They spend a year or several getting patents, testing their designs, manufacturing products and such. And somehow still expect sales to come without much effort and without any consistent effort.

      Thank you for visiting here, Adrienne, and for ALWAYS adding something intelligent and lively to the discussion.

      And, yes, may storytelling last and last!

  2. K.Lamb says:

    Another excellent post, Katherine. I always enjoy reading and learning from you! oxox

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      Thank you so much, Kristen! It’s been a real treat getting to know you in social media — I am most grateful for that! :)

  3. As always another great story Katherine, filled with compelling corporate content.

    I’m on the lookout for an European client. After one is found, I’m looking forward to working with you.

    Hug for your dogs,

  4. Brian J Wood says:

    “Wow, I have to tell that story. It would make a great case study” …right back at you Katherine and it is about you and your biz. If anyone reads this I hope you follow along because in my opinion it is a great study in how to connect with a thought leader. I was surfing the internet one day and reading articles I thought were well written and worth reading. I came across something you wrote, fired off a friend request to you after I read what you had written and after I had decided I liked what you had written. I then proceeded to make the connection with you and I was very happy you accepted my friend request. My next step was a biggie. You wrote eloquently in your blog about your dog Ivy and what she meant to you. I am a fan of pit bulls and I get it 100% clearly that not everyone understands that these dogs are misunderstood, get crappy reporting in the media and often suffer from inhumane cruelty just because of their “pit bull” breeding. I decided BASED MOSTLY on what I knew about your love for Ivy that you were a storyteller that I should follow and try to learn from. I then learned about your unfortunate story having to do with spousal abuse and felt hurt because that has happened to you. What developed after learning about your past was a wonderful online friendship. I have tried my best to connect you with other thought leaders that I know and have tried to encourage you when I felt it was appropriate to do so. I consider you a good friend and I feel as though you are someone I have made a solid connection with. You inspire me as a trustworthy survivor, I think your business rocks and you tell great stories. We have had lots of conversations over the years and I consider you a friend that I met using not much more than a mild mannered friend request on Facebook. Case study, with love added in

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      You make a perfect case study for the power of meaningful connections in social media! I have so enjoyed our conversations, including intellectual discourse, humorous anecdotes and heartfelt concern for the people and causes we care about.

      I am honored that your interest in me was sparked by something I wrote and nurtured by my love of dogs. And beyond happy that we’ve created a true friendship from your initial outreach.

      Thank you for your generosity, your faith and support.

      And now I’ll quote you: “Case study, with love added in.” — Brilliant!

      • Brian J Wood says:

        Case studies are boring if the elements just seem made up, contrived or are Ho Hum in an undergraduate introductory course way. Going “All In” now with my answer to your that would make a great case study! What is a meaningful connection via social media and why do it? My answer is a reply to your reply in a roundabout way and probably leads to more questions than answers I know. For me when I go online and log in to online places like Facebook or Twitter I want to see encouraging things. I have online friends that I have connected with over the years who are passionate about gardening as an example. If I see a blog post they have written that gets me excited or teaches me something new I really want to stop to make a comment about what I liked about their post. My reason for saying “I liked what you wrote!” is a form of encouragement for my friend’s blogging attempts and I do it mostly because I can but also because I feel as though it is a pay-it-forward attempt to help someone else who might be considering writing about their gardening projects. On the flip side of that line of effort, and more to the point of the “Why look for meaningful connections?” question, I get a healthy dose of direct encouragement from my gardening friends when they see something I post on Facebook about my own personal gardening efforts and offer up a “WTG Brian! Looks like a winner to me! Keep up the good work!” Substitute my gardening example with some other project you are passionate about. Continuing with my “All In” reply to your reply. The case study I want to see when I log in to Facebook or connect with someone via social media has to do with spinoffs and unforeseen future social media connections. Gardening connections lead to trust relationships and maybe what gets discussed later on via social media is something like politics, stopping domestic violence or taking care of elderly parents. Maybe an alternative way to see the question of “Why look for meaningful connections via social media?” is to ask yourself something like “Why not look for people you can connect with, and support, via social media?” My reply to your reply above is Thank You for your thank you. My form of thank you is roundabout I know. I hope I have taken your case study approach to blogging topics of interest to a general audience and opened up a proverbial can of worms, with some unanswerable questions, with love added in

        • Katherine Kotaw says:

          You deserve all the WTGs you receive — and many more than you actually do. And it’s because you ask the “why not?” question and answer it by diving in to make social media genuine and meaningful.

          Anyone who doesn’t appreciate the relationship benefits of social media doesn’t understand social media. Even for someone whose motivations are truly selfish — sales, sales and more sales — building relationships is vital to success.

          The real estate industry as a whole has the worst (or nearly worst, the statistics change) performance record in social media. Because most users flood their feeds with listings. Agents and brokers spend almost no time actually connecting with clients and potential clients in a medium that offers unprecedented opportunity to meet and understand the people who need your products or services. Can you imagine how many sales the RARE agent who engages with readers on social media makes? Just by showing SOME interest in them?

          I argue with clients about this all the time, usually after they tell me some version of, “I could sell ANYBODY if only I could get them in a room and find out what they need.” I remind them that they are in highly populated rooms — Facebook, Twitter, et al — and never ONCE ask any of their followers, “What can I do for you?” Or extend a WTG or even a simple re-share.

          Before I do business with anyone — and before I share or follow a person — I look at the person’s social media feeds. I don’t care if the person has 20 followers or 2 million. I do care about what he puts in his feed or how she responds to comments on her blog. We reveal more about ourselves than we think in social media and our actions make statements about our character.

          And if you want to bank on any single marketing strategy, I’d put character at the top of the list.

          If you trust what someone has to say about gardening — or any other topic — you will likely trust that person on other issues. And the reverse is true.

          To add to your “why” question, I ask this one: “If you don’t want to build genuine relationships on social media, why are you there?”

          Thanks, as always, for posing stimulating questions, Brian. You always make me think. :)

          • Brian J Wood says:

            Taking your reply above and going “All In” again. I tend to do that if you want to say you can’t go all in again Brian that’s fine. I get the meaning when someone, like some celeb (with tons of super fans) says something like “Facebook/ Twitter/ other social media venues and business blogging suck, it just is meaningless fluff and when I get a post on my official page it is just some crank full of vile who is out to get me and bring my brand down!” Back on the WTG Katherine topic I hope now not trying to confuse the conversation. The social media thought leaders I am interested in listening to hear the complaints of the biz owners who want to do more with social media, see the crackpot posts on the pages and get that more could be done to improve the two way communication. The trustworthy thought leaders I am interested in learning from go above and beyond the kind of straightforward suggestions to the “No What?” questions. What I want to see when I go online are thought leaders influencing the influencers with suggestions that dramatically change the game. I am going over-the-top “All In” now. YOUR business and the opinions YOU offer up have a ton to do with the framework of what brand conscious individuals SHOULD be thinking about when they brand themselves. ALL CAPS for emphasis. The suggestions you make are solid and based on your judgment about what works. In reply to your “why are you there?” question I have a story that might not seem appropriate to tell but I think fits your question exactly so I hope you will bear with me. You need to supply the conclusions to my take on your question because the Lord knows I don’t have them. A professor friend of mine was hired by a major US bank to advise the big wigs what their business could be doing to improve relations with the public. This contract was in the 100s of thousands and was intended to influence the bank’s policies going forward about a lot of things. On point here would be to say the social media responses from John P Public would be a biggie that the bigwigs were concerned about. My friend went to the local bank branch, told the tellers he was working for the bigwigs and really wanted their input. His approach was simply “Look, these SOBs don’t have a clue! Tell me your public relations suggestions and I will put them in writing and spell things out in detail for you! I know I know your bigwigs are clueless and you are very astute and probably on point with your ideas.” The tellers had to trust he wasn’t a crank but when they understood his attitude was he could help everyone involved by listening to their honest answers they went with the “Why Not?” They also had to trust he wasn’t going to name them specifically and do FI things to get them fired but believe you me my friend was a pro who put those concerns to rest. The bigwigs listened, he had their ear and things changed. In a nutshell I think businesses like yours have influence beyond what you see, matter to those who worry about things that matter and, wrapping this up now, have a Why Not? way of looking to the future of social media branding that I support.

          • Katherine Kotaw says:

            Great story, Brian, and thank you for sharing it. Love that your friend gained the “why not?” confidence of the people who actually knew and understood customers — the clerks who serve them every day.

            There’s an excellent book by Peter Shankman called “Zombie Loyalists” that urges bigwigs to give more power to people with real-life, day-to-day contact with customers because it’s the in-the-trenches employees who are best equipped to solve their problems. When waiters, receptionists and customer service clerks had the authority to keep customers happy, the bigwigs found that their social media credibility — and profits — soared.

            Branding and social media are inseparable, and companies with a “why not?” attitude about using the medium to form real relationships will succeed while those that continue to ask “why?” will flounder.

  5. Kit says:


    I am laughing over here – please help me earn $5 million and a Page 1 ranking. I will NEVER let you go ;)

    In all seriousness, these behaviors are inexplicable.

    Were they addicted to the THOUGHT of success?

    Did success – with this burdensome expectations – scare them away?

    Did they even WANT to succeed?

    Did they ever expect to succeed?

    Did they even care? Did they care TOO MUCH?

    Did they NEVER believe?

    This and a ton of other questions are swirling around in my head. Sensitive professionals like you don’t just care about the M-O-N-E-Y! An unscrupulous consultant would take the money and never wonder about what happened to those clients or give too hoots about why they quit dreaming?

    YOU – on the other hand – care, like you so beautifully put it, more about your clients’ business than the clients themselves! LOL



    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      I ask myself all of those questions — and more! I still don’t have many answers. I think too many business owners think that the opposite of easy is impossible, that success always comes effortlessly or isn’t worth pursuing.

      Sometimes (as you know too well) it is hard to be a sensitive soul and to care beyond reason. But I’d rather expend too much energy on the “why” questions and grow wiser than too little and grow callous.

      Thank you for exploring the inexplicable with me and for making me laugh.



  6. Brian J Wood says:

    Responding to your comment above with a WTG Katherine. I am saying that because I trust you to be there making positive statements about social media branding in the future and want to see you succeed. My story is I listen to your voice, reply to you to the best of my ability and always find that you respond to me and others in life affirming ways. In branding speak, you have a brand that you respect and want to see a future with and I feel as though you follow though like a champion. The prize for getting it all right is you get to look in the mirror and say yeah I did it

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      Your picture disappeared, Brian! But your lovely words survived whatever quirk has befallen WordPress today. Thank you so much for them — and for faith that I will enjoy the look-in-the-mirror moment. It is, indeed, the real prize!

  7. […] Design Basics by Katherine Kotaw Katherine is a marketing strategist, branding coach and chief storyteller. Take a look at what Katherine offers on her blog – Storytelling Celibacy; The Kiss Of Death for Your Brand […]

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