The Power of Storytelling for Exhibit Marketing


Another article on the power of storytelling in your exhibit? Why should you read this one? Because this may be the last article on storytelling techniques you ever have to read. It’s not about HOW to incorporate storytelling techniques in your exhibit marketing program (well, maybe a little), but about WHY you should.


In case you haven’t read any of the hundreds of HOW articles, here’s a quick summary of storytelling techniques a la Joseph Campbell’s “the hero’s journey.”

The three main parts of the hero’s journey that form the basis for storytelling are;

  1. The separating of the hero from the “normal” world.
  2. The hero realizing his true character through a series of trials and tribulations.
  3. The hero returning to the “real world” in triumph and with resolution.

One of my colleagues wrote about storytelling:

In the realm of face-to-face marketing, storytelling has experienced a resurgence. One element of Campbell’s process that continues to be relevant is getting the market on your (and your brand’s) side through a narrative process. Get them to identify with the hero, and generate an emotional response that brings them not only to understand what you are saying but also to endorse it. Storytelling and inviting your market into your world is powerful when done effectively.


The HOW, quite simply, is about generating brand engagement, and now that you know the basics, it’s time to ask:


Why should you use storytelling for exhibit marketing? For two reasons:

  • Because people are fed up, and they don’t want to take it anymore, to paraphrase Peter Finch in the movie Network. One of the hottest topics for marketers right now is ad blocking, and your market is not immune from this tendency to disengage. Marketing messages are ubiquitous, and nowhere is this more the case than at trade shows. Walk the trade show floor. The product/service feature/benefit approach in most exhibits is mind-numbing. Why don’t attendees spend more time on the floor? The answer is simple: very few exhibitors create a platform for engagement that attracts visitors and keeps their attention. The most unsubtle form of blocking your message is to ignore your exhibit.
  • Because distraction increasingly characterizes our culture. Distraction is a defining feature of contemporary life. In the words of musician Glen Hansard, “The moment of drifting into thought has been clipped by modern technology. Our lives are filled with distraction, with smartphones, and all the rest. People are locked into not being present.” There is consensus that smartphone addiction is rampant. Some define this addiction as FOMO or fear of missing out. In reality, everyone has become the kid that doesn’t want to take a nap because something might happen while he’s asleep. The here and now isn’t enough to gain the attention of your market; everyone is searching for the next shiny object.

So how do you as an exhibit marketer break through the double door of acquired immunity to marketing and constant distraction? Especially when you encounter this on a crowded trade show floor? You create a story, and you create that story using all the elements–architecture, media, interactive technology, your staff–available.

Start with the story. Dig into your brand: who is the hero? The simple solution is that the hero is the customer—or perhaps the customer’s customer. Develop a strong persona as completely as possible. Your hero has to come to life within the story. Gender and age, sure. Where do they live–city, suburb, or small town? What kind of car do they drive? Do they exercise? Do they go to church? The hero should feel real to you.

Traditional marketing asks, “What pain point does your product address?” In creating the story, don’t talk about vague what ifs or disconnected pain points. Create a believable situation; make it relatable and relevant. Create a journey within the exhibit where your attendee has a moment of awareness of the hero’s encounter with an obstacle or challenge, make the story real using digital media, touchscreens, video, and whatever you cull from your available marketing assets. Make the story so compelling that attendees want to engage. Make it so engaging that they stop looking at their phones and give you the time it takes for you to bring them into your narrative.

As a real life corollary, without storytelling, your booth staff has the almost insurmountable challenge of attracting the disengaged and the distracted—and that’s tough. Have you ever watched your best staffer try to connect with a texting attendee? Using the equivalent of “once upon a time,”—a story opening–your staff will have a way to bring prospects into the exhibit.

Once you have identified and given life to your hero, then what? Use chronology to chart the progress of the story. What happens in what order? How does the situation unfold and resolve itself? Unlike a features and benefits approach, stories evoke feelings, and feelings, as much or more so than the assimilation of facts, influence brand perceptions and buying preferences. At the end of your story, your hero sees the value of your product or service because it has helped them through some tough times.

The resources for your stories are everywhere. Check your case studies. Ask your product groups, your sales people. Get their buy-in for the story. You’ll never have to read another story-telling article because you will know from experience that it’s a technique that works for your trade show program and for your market.

free guide download questions for exhibit planning