Once upon a time, there was a brand manager called Sarah and she had a problem with her brand…
Hooked yet? For some reason, we humans can’t resist a good story. In every culture, across every age, people have told each other stories. Yarns have engaged the recipients, captured imaginations, created meaning, helped shape identities and provided motivation.
Recently, marketers and business people have become fascinated with the power and potential of tales. They realise that the more engaging, compelling and motivating your story, the more chance you have of winning people over and achieving what you desire.
Leadership gurus such as Howard Gardner and Noel Tichy, for example, teach that business leadership is all about the story you tell. That’s because narratives are a basic human cognitive formÃ speaking to both parts of the human mind – reason and emotion, explains Gardner.
Tichy adds: “Successful leaders always have a teachable point of view. Stories make the difference between a mere point of view, which is often just an arid conceptÃ and one that’s teachable because it engages people emotionally.”
This emotional aspect is also what attracts marketers to stories. Story-telling and brand building seem made for each other.
Some brands, such as Coca-Cola, seek to embed themselves in our lives so the product becomes an authentic part of our personal life stories. Remember those childhood birthday parties where Coke was served?
The reason why brands such as Nike have become so powerful in young people’s lives, suggests Sanjay Nazerali, managing director of youth marketing consultancy The Marketing Depot, is that these play a role once performed by myths to help children learn, develop and grow.
Nike fulfils a boy’s need for a peer mentorÃ which unlike parents, schools and governments, emotionally supports him in his attempts to cut his teeth and establish his identity, suggests Nazerali. In this way, it has gone beyond the traditional brand management skill of persuasion to become a brand that “genuinely matters”.
In an influential book, The Dream Society, Danish futurologist Rolf Jensen argues that marketing and story-telling are increasingly one and the same: addressing the market for human dreams.
Successful marketers will be those most able to weave stories of adventure, togetherness, love, friendship, personal identity, peace of mind, beliefs and so on, he suggests. So much so that, in the future, the product will be an appendix, the main purpose of which is to embody whatever story is sold.
Marketing as story-telling marks a significant break from older marketing obsessions, such as unique selling points (USPs). USP-style marketing revolves around highly-rational messages delivered through short, sharp communications.
The whole point of the USP is to strip away all irrelevance and to focus full repetitive firepower on a single, instantly communicable proposition – the key outstanding benefit – along with the colour, logo, packaging design and slogan. All are included to lodge the idea into the consumer’s mind.
Stories, on the other hand, are rich, detailed, complex and subtle – always moving and unfolding over time. Indeed, one of the most successful story-telling formats of all – the soap opera – doesn’t even have an obvious beginning or end. The fascination lies in the human drama.
Likewise, successful brands behave increasingly like a complete, complex, multidimensional, unpredictable, fascinating human being, suggests Leo Burnett futures director Joe Straton. Marketers, he says, need to unleash this human potential of brands.
There’s another important difference. USP-style marketing takes the consumer’s attention for granted. It assumes that marketers can buy consumers’ attention with advertising budgets. Its focus is entirely on “what I want to tell you”.
In contrast, brand story-telling recognises the need to win an audience’s attention in the first place.
For both these reasons – richness of content and the need to earn an audience’s attention – building brands through stories has enormous potential. Brands as carriers of great myths addressing universal human truths, or as rounded personalities you can have a relationship with, have potentially far more power than brands as cold, clinical USPs.
But sometimes we love particular stories because they pander to our weaknesses, not our strengths. One thing brand building as story-telling does, for example, is resurrect the myth of the marketer as Pied Piper: the consummate story-teller who has his audience spellbound, hanging on his every word as the story twists and turns until it reaches the ultimate destination – a closed sale.
Story-telling assumes an active narrator who commands everyone’s undivided attention, and a passive audience receiving the messages. It resurrects the myth of the “golden age” of broadcast advertising, respinning it for a digital age when interactivity and consumer sophistication seem to threaten that world forever.
Likewise, there’s no more compelling a marketing dream than the one of easy, cheap and superior margins. And that’s the myth some story-tellers fall into.
Jensen, for example, tells the story of the free-range egg. Even if there is little difference in quality, consumers are happy to pay an additional 15 to 20 per cent for the story behind the egg, centred around animal ethics, rustic romanticism and the good old days.
In a typical watch, about 50 per cent of the price goes towards delivering its time-keeping function. The consumer pays the other 50 per cent for the story value. The more story you add, Jensen concludes, the more profitable you become.
Like children at bedtime, many a brand manager would love to hear this story told again and again. Trouble is, all too often it’s only make-believe. To succeed, every story-teller requires his or her audience to suspend their disbelief. And that’s one thing consumers nowadays are less inclined to do.
So, even as story-telling becomes marketing’s next big thing, watch out for consumers who say: “Don’t believe them, it’s only a story.”