Why you need a Story

A few days ago I was perusing my twitter feed when I noticed a sponsored tweet from an experiential marketing agency.  To paraphrase, the tweet said, “Forget stories, marketing is now about developing experiences”.

This statement worried me, it smacked of a poorly trained marketer overly focused on one aspect of the profession ( I also see similar messages from individuals and agencies focused on digital marketing and social media).

These individuals tend to concentrate on a single element of the promotional or marketing mix at the exclusion of all others.

The above tweet worried me, not its focus on the development of experiences but its instruction that stories should be forgotten.

Stories are an integral part of our lives.  They help us make sense of our world and our role within it.  Human beings have been telling stories since we were living in caves and eating mammoth.  Every aspect of our communication and culture is packed with stories from literature, music and art to politics and religion.

It is accepted by most sociologists that we do not replace our cultural norms; we add to them.  For example, even if you have no particular faith, the religion under which you were brought up, or which is embedded in your cultural history will inform your character and decisions.

To argue that businesses should forget storytelling and focus solely on the development of experiences is wrong.  Storytelling remains a critical part of developing a marketing communications strategy.

Baker and Gower (2010) found that stories help sell products in that they are critical to selling, communication, change management, leadership, organisational learning and even to design.

Woodside et al (2008), referring to blogging as a form of communication, found that this form of storytelling could be a more effective marketing tool than traditional websites.

Stories matter in marketing because they match the way people think and process information.  For example, most competitors at memory competitions learn long lists of complex information by placing clues to the sequence in a story, a journey with clues in the narrative to the identity of the upcoming items.  Our brains are hard-wired to remembering stories.

McKee (2003) also emphasises that stories are critical to effective promotion because they allow customers to develop an emotional attachment to a business’s goods and services.

A story consists of two elements, a theme and a plot. The latter informs the former.  For example, John Le Carre’s  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a spy thriller plot but its theme is one of false personal allegiance and lost relationships. Moby Dick is the plot of a hunt for a whale but its theme is obsession and revenge.

Theme has the following elements:

  1. Hardship – The protagonists have to endure hardship and overcome obstacles.  At the end of the story something has to have been earned.
  2. Reciprocity – There has to be an appreciation of fair and equal exchange.
  3. Defining Moments – There have to be points which stand out and which change lives.
  4. Anticipation – There has to be a sense of hope for the future.

Plot has the following elements:

  1.  Crisis – Anticipation is often followed by negative feelings that a crisis will disrupt the path to the future.
  2. Help along the way – Crisis is mediated by the arrival of unexpected help e.g. advice from a friend or mentor which results in a period of hard work and endurance.
  3. A goal is achieved – This follows the overcoming of obstacles and discomfort. Then there is time for an appropriate celebration.

Syd Field, Hollywood’s favourite script doctor, teaches a framework for storytelling which he describes as a paradigm.  This is a three act story structure for cinema.

Act one is the set up. This introduces the stories protagonists and sets up the narrative.  This act ends with a major plot point which drives the rest of the story.

Act Two is where the story truly begins.  Here the protagonists encounter a series of conflicts and crises which they must overcome.  At the midpoint of this act, ‘something big happens’.  This is a major story element which will reinvigorate the audiences interest in the story.  At the end of the second act there is another major plot point, a significant set back the protagonist must overcome.

The third act starts with the protagonist overcoming the setback and the story rises to a climax, often a showdown between the main protagonist and the antagonist.  After the climax there may be a coda where the protagonist celebrates their victory over the antagonist.  A fine example of this is the ending of the first three Star Wars films which all end with the rebels celebrating their victory (or in the case of The Empire Strikes Back, their survival) against the Empire.

Field’s paradigm is prevalent in most blockbuster movies and, as more and more novelists write with a potential film in mind, book fiction.  It is even exhibited in long-running advertising campaigns such as the Nescafe Gold romance, the BT couple and even the Compare the Market meerkats.

Field warns against the use of stereotypes (which are often used in advertising as shortcuts) and against story structures which are too tightly aligned to his paradigm.

Stories can be classified into four groups:

  1.  Myths and Origins – How an organisation started and overcame early difficulties.  How values were embedded in a firm’s current status.  This is central to the advertising of Thatcher’s Cider, Stella Artois lager and Scottish Widows.
  2. Corporate Prophecies – Stories about an organisation’s future often based on its past.  The current series of television advertisements by Honda follow this pattern where a racing driver starts a journey in a vintage car and ends up being launched into space in a rocket.
  3. Archived Narratives – Stories which trace an organisation’s or product’s history.  These are often used following corporate mergers or rebranding campaigns.  Fairy liquid, a few years ago, ran a series of advertisements celebrating the longevity of the brand name with clips from their television advertising over sixty years.  These advertisements told the audience two things, that the brand retained its long-standing values and that it was a brand generations of families had trusted.
  4. Hero Stories – How people from the organisation have overcome difficulties.  The current advertising campaign by the Open University follows this model, where former students describe their lives before study (unemployment, drudgery) and how it has been improved through gaining higher education qualifications.  The British Navy’s advertising also follows this path with the example of a sailor whose life was going nowhere before he joined the Navy and how the service had given him skills and self-respect.

Certainly there has been a rise in the use of experiential marketing in recent years as new technology has widened the interactions between brands and their customers.

Experiential marketing can be defined as:

The process of identifying and satisfying customer needs and aspirations by properly engaging with them using two-way communication which bring brand personalities to life and which add value in the minds of the target audience.

It is the development of customer-centric processes.

Shirra Smilansky in Experiential Marketing uses the acronym BETTER to describe aspects of the discipline.  It stands for:

  • Brand personality
  • Emotional Connection
  • Target Audience
  • Two-way Interactions
  • Exponential elements
  • Reach

The first three elements of this acronym have storytelling at their core.

A major aspect of experiential marketing is developing ‘day in the life’ stories of target customer types.

To develop a brand personality, you need a story.  To develop an emotional connection, you need a compelling story which provides authenticity, positive connections and personal meaningfulness.

Storytelling is critical to the development of a brand strategy.  Only after a consumer is emotionally connected to a brand can you introduce sensory rich experiences.  Stories link your brand to your intended target audience (We want people like us or people who want to be like us).

Stories are critical to the development of compelling experiences.  If your experiences are not based within the structure of a story it is likely that you will fail to engage with your target audience.  That means weak customer loyalty and retention.

Rather than replacing your brand story with empty experiences, you need to develop customer experiences which build on and enhance your brand story.