People love stories. They’re one of the first things we encounter in our lives, from itsy bitsy’s epic climb to the three bears’ issues with home security. They’re also wrapped around the memories that live long after we’re gone. To somebody, you will forever be the guy or girl that did that thing in that story they keep telling about that one time.
This is all nothing new; stories have been central to humanity since, well, forever, helping us make sense of the world around us, and to communicate, compel, delight and connect with other people. It’s what that powerful tool can mean in the world of brand and marketing that we want to riff on today. The bottom line: everybody talks about being a storyteller. But, it’s really about more than that.
While good stories in their purest, most ancient form been helpful in making sense of things like “What’s that terrifying flash and rumble in the sky?” today, they can also help make sense of products of all kinds.
Narrative has this delightful way of helping people feel connected with a business or an item for sale in ways that stats and data just don’t. Stories allow us to rend meaning from an inanimate thing like a brand. “Meaning is created when the intellect and the emotions are simultaneously engaged,” writes David B. Drake and Brian Lanahan in “The Story-Driven Organization.” “We come to an understanding of the story in our mind and in our heart,” (That article, by the way, is a great read. We highly recommend it, and it explains a lot about who we are and how we approach what we do.) So, when it comes to products and companies, people tend to go all squishy for the ones with real dimension and personality – the ones that connect through their stories. It’s a chemistry thing: certain emotions trigger a surge of oxytocin – the hormone responsible for promoting trust, empathy, and camping out on the first day of an Apple product launch. Said another way, stories lead to feelings which lead to action.
The point is, you should know your story cold, and it ought to be your best one – the one you’d tell around the campfire any night. We’ll talk more about how to get at what that is in a future article, so stay tuned.
The way we think about it, in our work we’re not just telling stories, we’re also listening to them. Or moreover, we’re listening to the sound of the room bouncing back at us as a story is told. For us, half of content strategy and content marketing is using storytelling to read a room, just like any storyteller worth his salt would do in mixed company. You spend time figuring out what your audience wants to hear, select your narrative to give them something of value, and go for it. Then, you shut your mouth for a moment and open your ears. This is where we find a lot of companies fall off the storytelling wagon: By talking to themselves, with content and brand strategy that’s all about them and not their customers. By using quantity over quality in a kind of hand-grenade approach to content creation. And by not taking the time to turn around and dissect the response to their stories.
We accomplish that last thing in a variety of ways, through reading the tea leaves of targeted advertising results, pixeling site visitors and reminding them of our clients after they’ve left their sites, and testing different types of content in the real world on various channels. After we listen, we revise the approach, choose another story and try again. The net result is, we get better at saying the right things in the right ways every time.
The point is to do the actual listening after the telling is done, and to learn from it. If you’re not doing that, you’re just yelling into a void.
An interesting thing we’ve found is that a good brand or product story has many of the same elements as a traditional written narrative. Like characters and tension. Your fifth-grade English teacher would approve.
Here’s a couple examples: As humans, we identify with characters, understand and relate to what they need, feel empathy when they succeed, or make mistakes. When creating a brand, your characters are your audience. You have to demonstrate that you care about them or they won’t care about you. Another example is tension. In the literary universe, a character’s desire is what sets story in motion, and tension arises to keep it chugging along. Without conflict, there is no plot and no movement. With regard to brand, tension comes from the problem you’re trying to solve with your product and the obstacles you’re trying to overcome. It moves you to make your thing and other people to need it.
Every story, brand or otherwise, works like this in one way or another. Kurt Vonnegut explained it in his masters’ thesis as all stories having “shapes” that you can graph — “Man in Hole,” “Boy meets Girl,” “From Bad to Worse.” In each model, the arc of the story is moved along by a character facing a challenge —the “X” they end up solving for the rest of the narrative. In branding and marketing, tension also defines our “X”; we embrace it as the source of innovation and the mother of all reasons to believe.
Eyewear company Warby Parker is a great example of this. Founded by a grad student who lost his glasses and couldn’t afford new ones, the conflict here is stylish frames vs. low cost. At its core, their brand solves for X, simple as that.
What you should take from this: Tension isn’t always a bad thing. At the heart of your business, way down deep, what’s the itch you want to scratch?
Every story has an end. In marketing, it’s conversion. To the story-driven however, it’s also about creating something so worthwhile that the narrative shifts and someone lets your product into their already jam-packed lives — i.e. makes your thing part of their story.
That’s the end game, and the action that kick-starts the cycle of awareness, consideration, and conversion. We like to imagine our napkin sketch looks a something like this: resonates, person buys, product becomes part of person’s story, buyer becomes advocate and spreads story to others…rinse and repeat.
That’s our story. Maybe you’ve got one we can help you with, too?