The Shawshank Redemption: A Marketer’s Guide to Digital Storytelling

Since the beginning of advertising, marketers have used human emotion and understanding in order to provide services or products. Today, many marketers understand the importance of digital storytelling to reach their audience.
The Shawshank Redemption: A Marketer’s Guide to Digital Storytelling

Since the beginning of advertising, marketers have used human emotion and understanding in order to provide services or products. Today, many marketers understand the importance of digital storytelling to reach their audience. Donald Miller, (Author of Building a StoryBrand), likens the customer journey to stories in movies such as the Harry Potter and Hunger Games film series. American author and marketing maven, Seth Godin shared in his blog:

“Great stories succeed because they are able to capture the imagination of large or important audiences. A great story is true. Not necessarily because it’s factual, but because it’s consistent and authentic. Consumers are too good at sniffing out inconsistencies for a marketer to get away with a story that’s just slapped on.”

It’s possible to consider a multitude of strategies for inspiration in storytelling. But it is also feasible, and far more enlightening, to use film and television for direction as well.

Why The Shawshank Redemption is the Greatest Example of Digital Storytelling and What Marketers Can Learn from It

(Spoilers Ahead)

Enticing Characters, the underdogs

In the film directed by Frank Darabont , the audience is quickly introduced to the main characters, Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman) and Andy Dufrensne (Tim Robbins). We follow the story of Andy Dufresne as he was just sentenced to life in prison, through the narration of Ellis Redding. Viewers instantly root for Andy, because despite his trials, he still remains hopeful of the future and aware of his opportunities. Typically, a voiceover in a film is a sign of lazy writing. However, in this story, Ellis’ voiceovers move the plot along and allow the audience to gain insight beyond what is written. Therefore, while we resonate with Andy, being stuck in a problem but remaining hopeful, we also gain respect for Red who functions as our guide throughout the story.

In Donald Miller’s, Building a StoryBrand, he introduces the idea of a character and their guide. When creating messaging for consumers, marketers can begin a practice of building consumers as Andy’s and position themselves as Ellis’.

“A good marketer acts like the voiceover in a movie, they keep the conversation and the narrative in continuity” - Sara Baayoun, CEO, Abelian

Following the ideology of Donald Miller, marketers should position themselves as the voice that leads their client through the customer journey with a helpful and also hopeful hand. Viewers love Andy, because they can see themselves as him or aspire to be him. We see the prisoner who went through the journey with unwithering hope and his helpful guide, but he still came out successful on the other end. Marketers can look at this duo and create the same energy between themselves and their audience.

Embraces Conflict

Anyone who has seen this classic film, can agree that conflict is the ultimate root in the plot line. We begin with an unjust life sentence, physical abuse within the walls of the prison, a corrupt justice system, and much more. Several films have one central downfall which closes up quickly and usually happens at the end of the film. The Shawshank Redemption embraces conflict with a new issue beyond every corner. Without conflict, we would not see the character development or the amount of hope our main character holds through those issues

This film shows us that we shouldn’t fear conflict. We can create the same narrative for our team. No campaign or strategy is perfect. If we embrace the pain points of our audience, we omit the need for fear. The Shawshank Redemption provides us with many conflicts, followed by either the comforting voiceover of our friend Ellis or the hope of Andy. Even though marketers will face problems or gaps in their strategy, as storytellers, the need to pivot or rethink the end game can make for a successful strategy and in turn a fairytale ending.

A Clear Theme

An important part of any story is its theme. Throughout the story, we are met with unexplainable hope from Andy, our main character. He never truly felt like a prisoner, even Ellis mentions:

“He strolled, like a man in a park without a care or a worry in the world, like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from this place”.

Andy never felt like a prisoner because he had hope, and a true prisoner has lost hope in a life outside. When he was on the roof with his fellow inmates, he allowed himself to rejoice over a bottle of soda. *Spoiler Alert* When Andy eventually escapes prison, the audience is surprised, but relieved because they were rooting for him. The audience knew Andy never belonged in there anyways because of the hope he held of a life outside. Ellis Redding had become an unhopeful man after being rejected parole multiple times. In the end, Red becomes a truly free man when he gains hope again and says,

“I think it the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend, and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”

While there may be many campaigns or goals that are ever changing, one thing should remain consistent, the purpose. Whether it is providing a service to the community, or bettering the lives of entrepreneurs, a clear purpose should be the premise of all the collateral that is released. When creating collateral, marketers should ask “does this support our clear purpose?” and adjust accordingly.

The Shawshank Redemption is the greatest example of impeccable storytelling because it created characters worth rooting for, it embraced conflict, and it followed a theme to the end. While the story of an imprisoned man's unique sentence may not be a traditional form of corporate inspiration, marketers should still consider the plot of The Shawshank Redemption as a framework to improve and expand their digital storytelling.


Kenia is the Visual Producer and Social Media Specialist at Abelian. She holds a versatile  skill set in graphic design, photo & video, and other areas of Digital Media. With diverse experience in the creative space, Kenia’s focus is on creating captivating content that converts.