Consumers like brands whose stories they can relate to—why storytelling is an essential and enduring part of marketing
Since the beginning of time, humans have been building culture through story-telling. Cavemen told each other stories to make sense of the stars they could group into sets. Tribes and nations tell stories to themselves and others to create community. And ever since the first person met Maslow’s Physiological and Safety needs, we have been creating stories about “things” that we could trade to acquire group affiliation, joy, status, esteem, personal growth or enable peak experiences. The reason we believe something would meet those higher-order needs is largely due to the story or stories associated with that something.
We like brands better when we get to know them through their stories—just as we do with people. The picture you develop of a person after considering a personal anecdote is much more nuanced and accurate than the sum of their static observable attributes. Have you ever been creeped out by someone or just didn’t like them but couldn’t pinpoint exactly why? Something that could be endearing or funny in one context within the framework of a story might seem downright malevolent. Think about the haircut of the antagonist Anton Chigurh in the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of “No Country for Old Men.” On its own it’s a little strange, but once you begin to understand Chigurh’s story it becomes imbued with deep meaning and seems to be a manifestation of his deliberate contempt for societal norms. The separate elements help build the story, but the story helps to amplify the meaning of the separate elements.
Brands have stories that reveal and serve as signs of their deepest truth—the foundational legends and myths that they hold dear—just like people. It is our job to express those stories for brands in a way that honestly provides insight helping consumers and the employees at the company to understand the brand in a deeper and less ambiguous way than the narrow surface presentation might allow. It needs to do so in a way that is engaging and memorable for the audience that comes in contact with it. Once we find the intrinsic story that possesses the nuance and deep meaning, every manifestation of the brand becomes a tool for perpetuating that mythic story.
Take Nike, for example. Nike is the Greek winged goddess of victory, not the goddess of teamwork, achievement or sport. Nike (the brand) invokes the goddess; it says, “I came to win,” not to give it my best or accept anything less than triumph. Nike changes the activity of playing a sport by changing the story. It illustrates how powerful story can be in shaping our perceptions of something. And because it is a deeply resonant story that rings true, creates specific feelings and satisfies specific needs, it is enduring, memorable and almost intuitive.
When these stories are deep and laden with cultural information, they can perpetuate their own existence. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins described his theory of memes as a way of transferring skills or behaviors between people through imitation. This occurs following the same basic requirements of evolution—the meme must convey a benefit of sufficient advantage that it ensures continued existence through replication. Jung’s archetypes—the hero’s journey toward mastery, the benevolent ruler providing structure and order, the magician who changes your view of what’s possible—are memes in this way. They provide insight into some aspect of the world where direct experience is not necessary for the story to provide an adaptive advantage. The greater the advantage, the “stickier” the story. The basic archetypes are extremely sticky because they communicate a great deal with low investment. This frees time and focus for other activities. They encourage replication or persistence in the minds of the people who know it and those that are exposed to it. We all need legends as shortcuts to deep insight. Companies do, too. These basic archetypes serve as the building blocks for great stories because they are remarkably quick to unpack and understand.
It’s impossible to completely spell out the functional benefit, the sensorial benefit and the emotional benefit message in the time most brands have a person’s attention. The best that brands can do is provide them building blocks pulled from archetype and cultural touchstones for the viewer to connect in a way that is part information and part simulation so that it pulls them in as an active participant who can take something away in the end. We need to leverage archetype and semiotics to provide the themes and the context so that the story arises inevitably to imbue the brand with a totemic power. Once a person works through a story in their head, it will stay with them because of the narrative, discursive way we process our relationship to reality. Anyone who has tried to explain the world to children understands this instinctively. By creating stories for and about brands, the information those brands convey becomes harder to forget and harder to look past even if you can’t quite put your finger on the takeaway.
Hemmingway wrote of telling stories, “For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment.” That is our challenge. Brand legends are in our heads; often frustratingly fleeting in and out of consciousness like a partially remembered dream. You can’t be cool talking about how cool you are, or think that it is sexy to talk about how sexy you are (sorry Right Said Fred). What we need to communicate on behalf of brands is the un-said. We struggle to visualize the invisible. There is always a story on the surface that people can point to but the more powerful, more meaningful myth is often at the layer just below that. We need to be able to access that level of truth and meaning, however if we bring it up too far it becomes gauche. These are the most interesting and impactful stories to discover and to craft—the ones that reveal deep insight into a brand’s personality, but that are almost unseemly to say out loud. And these are the stories that become an enduring part of the culture and of the companies that they describe.
“Goddess Nike” by mr.gears is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.