The Content of Marketing Stories

The Content of Marketing Stories

As customers are less addressable through push advertising, storytelling becomes an increasingly valuable tool for inbound marketers. Russell Lack looks into what great stories are made of, and what makes them so powerful.

The gravitational centre of marketing has changed in the last five years. Budgets have been stretched as media channels have multiplied. Advertising and media agencies are beginning to realize that fundamental aspects of their business model are broken:

Customers are less “addressable” through advertising because they (often at the same time) consume media through many different channels and across many different devices.

Advertising based on “push” is being eroded by advertising-literate consumers who are more interested in “pulling” the stuff they consider relevant, and tuning everything else out.

Consumers are starting to focus on “category benefits” as a “shorthand” technique for comparing rival offers. Category benefits are those which are delivered by most competitors in a market. Finding ways to compare how well rival offers deliver these generic category benefits is something that customers are getting a lot better at. Marketers (or their agencies) who focus on points-of-difference, may risk being screened out by customers looking for similarities between vendors, not differences.

The consumer’s decision-making process is becoming less like a funnel, with the certainty of a sale at the bottom, and more like a “loyalty loop”, which brands are switched in and out of, based on how well consumers think they can deliver these category benefits.

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Customers are less guided now by past satisfaction and as a consequence are a lot less loyal when making purchase decisions. This is because they have much more access to up to date contextual information. So getting into a customer´s loyalty loop requires sustained effort, and also a degree of authenticity and genuine dialogue that many agencies, and often their clients, aren’t used to. The old emotional language of branding, based on positioning and persuasion techniques, is less effective than it used to be. This is because there is an abundance of “rational information” available on the web which helps customers to reach a verdict about a new product or service faster.

Marketers and their advertising agencies are becoming less the drivers of consumer purchase decisions, but facilitators and information providers. Facilitating information is still an important role, but is no longer focused primarily on generating top-of-mind awareness. The goal now is awakening interest and engagement. Those companies who succeed at this remain inside the loyalty loop. Those who fail remain outside, and effectively invisible when customers start to reach a decision point. This approach to marketing that is driven by content and information is known as inbound marketing. This is because content and information are primarily communicated through a client’s own channels – websites, social media.

Some leading international advertisers such as Coca Cola, Unilever and Proctor & Gamble have, for some years, adjusted their marketing investments in order to focus more on communication channels they own. Digital, of course, has been the big beneficiary of this shift, via content-rich websites and social media, but also offline channels such as in-store, direct marketing and sponsorship of everything from TV programming to events that cater to specific target groups.

Storytelling has been a valuable tool for inbound marketers. Stories hold our attention, engage not just the language processing parts of our brain, but our sensory cortex – the part of the brain we use when actually experiencing events. We live stories as we are hearing them, which is why targeting our imagination is far more effective as a marketing technique than appealing to our good sense as rational consumers.

Stories demand attention, and deliver a pay-off. Evolutionary biologists such as Jonathan Gottschall believe story structures are hard wired into our brains. Stories by and about branded products have almost certainly triggered our purchasing decisions; to dress in a particular way, to choose a holiday destination, or to choose one drink over another.

So what IS a story and why are they so powerful?

1. We Can Be Heroes

Stories start with a hero. Ideally stories that place the customer, not the product at the centre of the communication. The product is simply an enabler.  A product can enable, empower and even help customers become “better” people – for example by supporting a good cause. This is a much bigger and richer imaginative space for marketers to play in than traditional benefits-led messages. Products can even be associated (through clever marketing) with abstract values such as freedom, individualism, spirituality and social connectedness. This subtly shifts our mental model of what marketing is all about. Examples of hero storytelling techniques include:

Real (not fake) customer video interviews which focus on a point of change, or before-and-after transformation. Customers can talk about their own personal and positive experiences, rather than talking directly about the product. When well executed these kinds of stories have the ring of authenticity that cuts through traditional marketing tactics.

Another way to help customers become the hero in their own journey could be to help them connect to other customers with the same experience (positive or negative), or to help them become more expert in using the product or service (for example exercise equipment) and thereby achieve even better personal results

Customer hero stories have become one of the dominant memes in content driven marketing. Nike empowers athletes of every ability, Apple builds products that inspire creativity and TOMS Shoes empowers its customers to become active donors to children’s charities. Finding and creating stories  around your customers, and the journey they are on can be an effective tactic for entering, and remaining in, that tricky loyalty loop.

2. Dream Baby Dream …

The bigger the needs, the more potential there is for building powerful universal stories. A popular book during the first dot com boom was Rolf Jensen’s “Dream Society” which describes six big emotional needs which brands could tap into:

  1. the need for adventure
  2. the need for togetherness
  3. the need to care and be cared for
  4. the need to define ourselves
  5. the need to feel safe and secure
  6. the need to be able to demonstrate our convictions

These emotional needs also happen to be excellent starting and ending points for storytelling. As consumers, we increasingly seek experience and adventure; we look for things that entice the heart rather than the brain. We actively choose to buy stories along with the products. Product or service function is taken for granted these days. What becomes decisive is not what the brand wants us to believe through conventional advertising, but the experience that we co-create as before and after we have chosen to buy. Purveyors of coffee machines, athletic shoes, leisure wear and accessories, cars, motor bikes, kitchen appliances, furniture and bottled water today realize that without enticing real emotions in the consumer there will be no sale.

The new marketing logic is not about selling something here and now, but to offer information, support and advice which helps to nurture a relationship over time.

3. Scary Monsters (a.k.a Eating The Big Fish)

Everybody loves an underdog story. Marketers have used this form to represent challenger brands overcoming a dominant / decadent / evil / outdated competitor.  Adam Morgan’s influential “Eating The Big Fish” advocates eight specific “credos” brand underdogs can use to defeat bigger rivals:

  1. Credo one – Intelligent naivety, bring magic back into the market. Consider all possibilities
  2. Credo two – Build a lighthouse identity, have a clear sense of mission built on rock-solid foundations. Project this intensively.
  3. Credo three – Focus on the category. Make sure that category benefits are communicated clearly, but then look for ways to raise category expectations
  4. Credo four – Create symbols of re-evaluation, puncture the myth of the dominant rival
  5. Credo five – Make sacrifices of tertiary goals in order to focus on the main objectives
  6. Credo six – Overcommit and focus as many resources as possible on the area where the challenge is most likely to succeed
  7. Credo seven – Communicate and use publicity to enter the social imagination, and win customers who will spread the word
  8. Credo eight – Be idea centered. With each goal achieved, change the narrative and move onto a new ambition. Being a successful challenger is a state of mind, not a state of market.

It’s not hard to envision any one of eight credos as powerful platforms on which to create stories that will engage with customers.

4. Rebirth and return

Renewal stories are the key to brand survival. As consumers shift from thinking about wants, to thinking about needs, having a familiar brand can still be a powerful asset, even if it’s become a bit tired. Nearly all brands need new product introductions to keep consumers interested.

Renewal storytelling that works manages to balances the history of the brand with “timeless” values such as loyalty, integrity and simplicity. At the same time it shows the brand evolving with the modern world.

This 2010 Shredded Wheat breakfast cereal campaign applies a postmodern twist to this 80 year old brand:

By combining stories of rebirth with stories of patriotism, and a strong sense of the collective unconscious in an America struggling back from the brink of economic meltdown, you get the city of Detroit´s powerful 2011 Superbowl ad featuring Eminem and paid for by Chrysler.

Other marketing stories focus on the return, usually from a journey. The transformed hero returns with new wisdom or powers, and a great story to share with us. Travel and destination brands such as VisitNorway are users of this story form. The Eagle Safari is an example.

Coca Cola used the Return archetype to crowd-source participants for a global series of films called Expedition 206, in which a group of amateur reporters try to capture the many different meanings of happiness in locations around the world. The films are a condensed collection of their observations and reflections.

5. Rags To Riches

Describing a brand’s story from humble beginnings to success can be an effective way of building sympathy and at the same time involving consumers in the brand´s own story.

In online marketing, Gary Vaynerchuk has successfully parlayed his first job stacking shelves in his father´s New Jersey wine shop into a $100m online retail business via a highly successful and well timed wine video blog. From there he has used his personal story as an authentic brand to support a whole credo (books, public speaking, seed capital investing) of how successful business should behave in the new social-media powered world. At the same time using his street smart extrovert personality to keep things real.

Rags to riches stories have to be genuine. They can generate immense amounts of good will as can be seen from the recent online phenomenon that is Brandon Stanton the street photographer behind the popular Humans of New York blog. His story seems to offer hope to underemployed millennials: Lose job in finance. Start photographing. Start taking portraits of people in NY. Start a website. Become an international sensation. Publish a best-selling book. The story continues.

A variation on rags to riches stories are stories about origins, and how products get made. These are becoming popular with marketers because they can also be linked to stories that demonstrate authenticity.  This current Starbucks campaign for example:

6. Shock Stories

Marketing stories designed to provoke or shock are familiar to us as much for the examples that don´t work, as for those which do. Charity and cause-based marketing is well versed in presenting tragic situations to a desensitized public, and often need to lean towards shock tactics in order to provoke donors to act.

The call-to-action that delivers a big enough shock to win donations is getting harder and harder to achieve, especially online. Social media is exacerbating charity fatigue as many campaigns ask donors to enlist their connections in fund raising by copying and pasting campaign information on their own profiles. There´s a real risk of adding more noise than signal, and personal timelines become crowded out by campaigns posted by friends and family on your behalf.

Stories can be adjusted to rely less on visual shock, and more on creating a new context that is closer-to-home. SOS Barnebyer have found a smart way to refocus attention from the global to the work they do here in Norway. In doing they so achieved their best ever campaign result.

7. Comedy

The not-so-secret payload of nearly all memorable marketing. The Nielsen Global Survey of Trust in Advertising in 2013 polled more than 29,000 Internet respondents in 58 countries to measure consumer sentiment on 19 forms of paid, earned and owned advertising formats. 47% of global respondents agreed that humorous ads resonated the most.  Comedy can of course be “light” or “dark”.

This recent Sears commercial is a great example of “light” comedy compressing a whole bunch of rom-com clichés into a stylish and funny Christmas campaign:

Comedy can also serve causes. Eporun a German clean energy company promoted the potential of wind energy to both investors and the German people with charm, wit and style in a series of short films.

“Darker” comedy is of course riskier and carries the risk of alienating some people, but when its done right, as it in this new Chipotle campaign mocking industrialized agriculture, the results can be sophisticated and entertaining.

The above archetypal story forms should hopefully get you thinking about how to turn your brand into a story engine that can be used to connect to customers in the context of modern mobile life. Focus on inspiring people to respond. Provide tools, support, connections, guidance, information or a catalyst that can take people to where they want to go.

Getting this right requires a lot of listening. Insight that shows up the challenges each customer faces. It also needs customization to meet those needs, and being able to deliver them in the simplest way possible.  At the core of almost every brand, is a good story waiting to happen.

We have translated this blog post to Norwegian. You can read it here on our Norwegian blog.