What marketing value does storytelling actually have?
My older brother loves the lake. From the time we were wee tiny tots, he’s dreamed of days on the water with blaring music and forgotten worries. As we grew up, he added more elements to the vision: a cooler full of Miller Lite, glass-smooth water for wakeboarding, more (always more) stereo speakers. These days, he’s living his dream aboard a fire engine red Malibu Wakesetter. With a deep tan and a broad smile, legs dangling into green water from the boat’s swim deck, he swears, “This is the life.”
Now, you may not have the same preferences as my brother. A story mentioning Miller Lite and Malibu ski boats may not spur you to crack open a cold one or start saving up for a lake house, but chances are pretty high that you’re feeling something.
For me, seeing my cooler, older brother’s affinity for Miller Lite makes the decades-old brand relevant to me, a twenty-something whose parents were 3 years old when the beer was born. It makes me wonder if that brand could fit into my own narrative in the same way it has come to feature in his.
The power of storytelling
It’s up to marketers to guide what brand messages we see and what that something we feel is. But one thing is increasingly obvious: Storytelling is essential to well-rounded marketing strategy.
It’s nothing new, really — psychology has long shown that we are strongly influenced by storytelling; a story can completely change the way we look at, feel about and think of things.
In marketing, good storytelling can be used to shift how consumers view a brand, service or product, and can inspire them to act.
But is there really enough consumer-influencing power to make storytelling worthwhile?
A recent study on storytelling and consumers’ brand experiences attempts to answer just that. Researchers introduced a brand to two subject groups, relating a brand story to one group, but not to the second.
What they found was a notable difference in the way the two groups connected with the brand. The subject group who’d experienced the story reflected on the brand in more positive terms and was willing to pay more for the product than the non-story group.
The group who experienced the story was willing to pay more for the product.
So, where does the story get its marketing mojo?
Well, the short answer is our brains are wired to think in narratives. Consciously or not, we’re always crafting stories to make sense of new information and experiences. When we’re processing brands and marketing messages, we can’t help but weave them into the overall narrative of our lives.
Left to our own devices, we characterize brands how we like, based purely on impressions and observation; it’s the job of brand storytellers to guide us in glorifying or vilifying their brands.
Psychologist A. G. Woodside, who has developed many theories on consumer-brand interaction, said, “Crafting a story whereby the brand is a supporting actor enabling the protagonist to achieve conscious and/or unconscious goals likely helps build very favorable consumer-brand relationships.”
That tenant is actually where many traditional marketers have trouble. The consumer must be the protagonist. If your brand takes too much of the spotlight in your storytelling, you risk alienating your audience, losing the connection and the conversion.
Using story to connect consumers with benefits
We tend to be skeptical of new information, especially when we know the source has an agenda. But the emotional connection we establish when engaged in a story switches our brain from its logic and debate gear to imagination and creativity.
And that’s exactly what you want consumers doing: imagining how your brand or product can benefit them.
Use a story — fictional, historical, testimonial, etc. — to paint the picture for your audience. Cast your brand as a problem-solving secondary character, and consumers will be more likely to reflect on you favorably.
It can be an approach as straightforward as Snickers’ “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” vignettes, or as involved as Nike’s “I Will What I Want” series.
While the key to maintaining a connection with your audience lies in letting them take center-stage, you must make sure your brand is prominent enough that they connect with YOU rather than just the storyline.
Finding the correct balance can be tricky. That’s why brand storytelling requires a lot of effort, humility and care.
But when you do get it right, it’s an incredibly powerful marketing tool.