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Marketing via Stories: The Selling Power of Narrative in a Conceptual Age

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As A Whole New Mind author Daniel Pink puts it, we have entered a new era: a less linear and more whole-mind/holistic "conceptual age." As we live our personal lives with a better understanding of how interconnected everything is, our work as marketers should also be addressing that fact in the way consumers take in our messages.

In this more full-service, conceptual age, storytelling—in its many forms—is one of the most powerful tools for presenting the truths of your product, service, or brand. Whether a story is about the internal/corporate experience or the customer's experience, it has the incredible ability to give context to the facts of daily life.

These much richer narratives, in turn, help brands more empathically interconnect with the buying minds of their customers. There is simply more for them to hold onto.

Let's say your brand's laptop has amazing amounts of memory and incredible processing speed, and it's Wi-Fi ready and weighs less than a feather. That is all well and good, and makes for a nice bulleted list of features.

However, what if you've got a customer (let's call her Nancy) who recently bought that laptop, and it has changed her life? What if she shares a bit about why she was looking for a new computer, how her life goes from home to work and back, the way the laptop has to fit into the bulk of other items she carries around with her, and so on?


In the television or print ad campaign, we'd see a woman who might look a lot like someone in our car pool and hear her use a few key words that we know she got from her kids, just like us. We'd be more engaged with the product because we'd feel a little like we actually knew her.

As marketers, we need to present universal truths with which our customers can more easily identify. Sharing the stories of our customers, employees, or related communities (people who benefit from our brand's philanthropy, for example) is how consumers discover those Truths with a capital "T," as screenwriter/Story author Robert McKee so aptly sums up:

Fact—no matter how minutely observed, is truth with a small "t." Big "T" Truth is located above, beyond, inside and below the surface of things, holding reality together or tearing it apart, it cannot be directly observed.

A marketer's goal is to deliver the capital T. Through story you can present the above, the around, the inside and the way beyond mere facts—making the specifications of your products and services significant and compelling.

Consider five ways story has worked for other brands:

  1. Context: Story gives facts context and delivers the whole package with emotional impact (every marketer's dream). For example: What is the context for a condominium development's selling points, especially when the core audience is young professionals? Check out this "soap opera" to see how real-to-life great location, gorgeous interiors, and fun neighbors can become. 

  2. Common ground: Stories are slices of life that can subtly reflect bits and pieces of common ground between consumer and brand. Take Kleenex, for example: Most people give tissues little thought, since they consider it a basic household product to pick up at the grocery store. However, the fairly recent Kleenex Let It Out (www.letitout.com) campaign gives tissue users shared emotional experiences (discussed on a blue couch in the middle of a city park).

    You feel as if you know those stories, and possibly those people, and so feel as if you share common ground with them and so "fit" as a Kleenex brand customer.

  3. Brand intersections: In this more holistically thinking world, a consumer's buying path may be complex. Stories give you a way to show consumers that there are more places than they may have imagined where their lives and your brand intersect. The current ad campaign for Kashi natural food (cereal, granola bars, and more) shares the stories of its employees, for example. The consumer gets a view of the employee's life (one guy is a surfer) and motivations for work.

    The brand's Web site (www.kashi.com) adds another chapter to the brand's story by hosting a "my changes" page where customers add their own ideas for better life, reflecting how their individual narratives intersect with those of the employees and brand.

  4. Increased relevance: By paying more attention to the stories surrounding your brand and taking place in the daily lives of your customers, your marketing is naturally more prone to relevance. The story told quickly in a Ford (Bold Moves) ad for its Freestyle model demonstrates that the brand understands today's reality: Modern divorced families are figuring out how to continue to do family outings together.

    And in a fairly recent True Stories campaign, Hitachi's ads (and the more complete versions on its site) use video interviews to show how relevant Hitachi's connectivity technology is for a wide range of different organizations/customers.

  5. Future chapters: Start gathering and telling stories now and you will have those initial narrative threads to which you can always refer for continuity in messaging. Certainly, for the short-sighted, story could be just a one-time or occasional campaign-scale trick, but marketers with a clear long-term approach will reap the benefits of filling in the back story, presenting new chapters, and sharing follow-up spin-offs for years to come.

Advertisers have indeed been using story to some degree for a while, but they have not been much concerned about weaving them in and around their customers for more effect. Things need to change.

In a world of abundant commoditized choice, the traditional linear methods of brand differentiation are becoming less effective. Storytelling, done well, offers many more forms of persuasion—highlighting the common ground and finding the key intersections for brand and consumer.

One final suggestion: Don't treat storytelling as a contained project with beginning, middle, and end. That's the information age whispering in your ear. Rather, start looking for the stories and prepare the way before you need the consumer's attention. That's the conceptual age talking.


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Andrea Learned is a noted author, blogger, and expert on gender-based consumer behavior. Her current focus is on sustainability from both the consumer and the organizational perspectives. Andrea contributes to the Huffington Post and provides sustainability-focused commentary for Vermont Public Radio.

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  • by Gerhard Gschwandtner Fri Jun 6, 2008 via web

    Dear Ms. Learned:

    I just ran across an article you wrote on MarketingProfs entitled Marketing Via Stories: The Selling Power of Narrative in a Conceptual Age, posted March 20, 2007, http://www.marketingprofs.com/7/marketing-via-stories-selling-power-concept..., and I would like to raise an issue that is of concern to Selling Power magazine, which is the use of our trademark.

    The word "Selling Power" is sometimes erroneously used as a synonym for sales effectiveness. The title of your article illustrates this point. We do not condone such uses of our trademark.

    As a practical matter, when you describe sales effectiveness, there are a wide range of terms available such as: sales excellence, sales savvy, sales mastery, sales acumen, sales efficiency, and many more.
    The reason for this letter is to educate writers like yourself that we want to protect our trademark, since we don't want to risk Selling Power being declared by the courts a generic word. Therefore we ask you not to use Selling Power as a phrase since it is our legal trademark.

    We would like to receive a written acknowledgment of this letter stating that you will in the future identify Selling Power as a trademark if you should write about our magazine, and not use Selling Power as a phrase. If we do not hear from you, we will need to take further action.

    Thank you for your understanding and cooperation.

    All the best,

    Gerhard Gschwandtner
    Founder and Publisher
    Selling Power
    1140 International Parkway
    Fredericksburg VA 22406
    Office: 540-752-7000 Cell: 540-273-2555

    P.S. Watch Selling Power videos online www.sellingpower.com/video


    GG:ts

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