A guest post by Jim Signorelli.
Stories have always taught, inspired, motivated, and engaged us like no other form of communication has.
Here are five reasons why great storytelling has always been celebrated—and why marketers should care about the craft.
1. Stories clothe facts with Meaning
All stories have a meaning or a reason for being told. Consider this story: The young athlete who trained by doing 100 leg squats every day ended up winning the marathon.
In effect, that is a story about the functional benefit of leg squats for runners.
Now, consider this revision: The young athlete who trained by doing 100 leg squats every day ended up winning the marathon. He has a prosthetic leg.
The first story conveys meaning in the form of useful information (i.e., leg squats build running endurance). However, the second story is more than just useful. It’s inspirational. In other words, the second story has Meaning. The additional five-word sentence makes the second story about the same runner far more significant than the first story.
One of the most important question marketers need to ask about their brand is whether it conveys meaning or Meaning. Facts about unique features and benefits may be useful, but they are not Meaningful. To go for Meaning, brands have to associate with personal values, such as exploration, determination, hard work, or ingenuity, for example. And if the communication of those values provokes an emotional response, all the better.
2. We are more drawn to stories that leave the Meaning to us
Andrew Stanton, the creator of the “Toy Story” and “WALL-E” movies, refers to his “unifying theory of 2+2” as our desire to come to our own conclusions. We do not want to be told the answer is 4. We’d rather figure it out the problem for ourselves. That is one of the principles of story that attracts us. Movies, novels, poems, and songs do not explain the meaning behind their messages. The meaning is left to the audience’s interpretation.
However, advertising often gets in its own way when it sets out to convey Meaning. When brands tell us what values to associate with brands or how to think about a given brand, we often resist or put up our shields. Consumers don’t need nor want to be told your brand believes in caring about its customers or to be told that your brand works hard for its money.
Notice in the second story above that there was no mention of what to think or feel. If you thought or felt anything about the winning marathon runner with the prosthetic leg, you formed your own interpretation. Storytellers cause you to see what you see, but they do little to cause the way you think or feel about what you see. Doing so would be like the comedian explaining the punch line of his joke.
3. Audiences gravitate to Meaning that arouses identification
Another reason we are so drawn to stories is because they help us see ourselves. Identification is a story’s ability to help us feel recognized for who we are and what we value. Besides helping us realize that we are not alone, identification also helps us examine unconscious beliefs that motivate our behavior.
Too often, brands that set out to create their identities ignore the benefits of creating identification. Creating a brand identity involves telling or purposefully positioning a brand to help consumers see what makes it different or better than their competitors. By contrast, creating brand identification is about helping the prospect relate to what the brand stands for or its cause. Creating brand identification is about helping prospects see that your brand is for people like them.
Creating a differentiated brand identity may influence buying. But creating strong brand identification will influence joining. It’s always better to have joiners than buyers. Joiners are the folks who stay buyers and who wear your logos.
4. Storywriters don’t use focus groups to decide what their Meaning should be
Storywriters don’t manufacture meaning on the basis of what will sell to the greatest number of people. Rather, storywriters start with an authentically held core belief that they want to share and express in their own way.
Lack of authenticity is one of the many reasons why consumers have become cynical about advertising. Today’s consumer is just too smart to fall for forced intimacy. They know when you are trying too hard to fit into their lives. Rather, consumers want and need brands to be true to their own causes. And if you think what you say or even imply about yourself is enough, think again. As far as consumers are concerned, your brand’s truth will always be revealed more through actions than through anything advertised. Trustworthy people don’t tell you they are trustworthy. And friendly people don’t put you on hold for 30 minutes.
If consumer research is required, better that it be used to compare expressions of Meaning than to derive Meaning. Meaning is an inside job.
5. Meaning is expressed in a similar fashion, from story to story.
If you check out a list of best-selling books, you’ll often find it consists of many narratives written by authors with whom you are familiar. Having enjoyed their previous works, we clamor for their newest work. And we do this out of an affinity for their interesting perspectives and their individualized expressions. We are not only drawn to messages they want us to read but also to the way they consistently write them.
The reason some people will camp out in front of the Apple store the night before a new product launch is simple: The new product is from Apple. And those folks think that if it’s from Apple, it’s something worth having.
Each new product Apple produces is recognizably linked to the one it updates. The new offering may provide improvements, but more importantly, the product remains a continuance of Apple’s Meaning. Just as writers remain true to their voice, Apple takes great pains to make sure its products deserve a rightful place within its family.
The parallels between good stories and strong brands are rich with lessons worth putting into practice.
Jim Signorelli is CEO of ESW StoryLab.
(Photo courtesy of Bigstock: Child Reading)