How to use storytelling as a powerful marketing tool

Posted by Oliver Hogue on 02/11/2016

Emotions often trump facts. When you head out to buy a new pair of sunglasses, you may think you’re looking for a scientific way to reduce glare, or frames that are engineered to stay in shape, or anti-scratch lenses.

But these are actually secondary considerations. They may be on your mind, but only so far as they support the emotional appeal a certain pair of ‘sunnies’ has for you.

What you are really looking for are the sunglasses Tom Cruise wore in Top Gun or the ones sported by Roger Federer after a famous victory.

In each case your emotions are driving you towards a particular choice. You want to be part of the Tom Cruise or Roger Federer story, because it’s a story that resonates with your imagination. Ray-Ban Aviator Classic sunglasses may be the wrong shape for your face, but you will wear them anyway because you want to be ‘Top Gun’.

If a brand can associate itself with a story, it has latched on to a powerful marketing tool. Let’s look at how storytelling sells, and the science behind it.

How we make decisions

Storytelling deals in emotions, not facts. If we analysed the number of unlikely coincidences and lucky breaks in a standard movie plot, we would see how illogical it is.

But we don’t, because in the time-worn phrase, we “suspend our disbelief,” move past logic and enter the realm of emotion.

In a Psychology Today article, it was reported that MRI neuroimagery shows that when making a decision to buy, we favour emotions (personal feelings and experiences) over facts (brand attributes, features). Studies show that positive emotions associated with a brand have far greater influence than a brand’s attributes.

The article states: “A brand is nothing more than a mental representation of a product in the consumer’s mind.” Mental representation is not a simple image of the product, it’s the stories associated with it – Roger Federer’s struggle to win Wimbledon against all odds, for example. Which is why Federer made more money than any other athlete from endorsements in 2016.

Cause and effect, plus need

The simplest stories tell us what a character does to achieve a goal – the knight kills the dragon (cause) and saves the village (effect). Cause and effect is a powerful element of storytelling, because it feeds into the way humans have evolved to use tools and to survive.

So how does marketing fit into this? Well, our knight is going to need a sword to kill the dragon, and it’s this element that we can market (in this case, the services of the sword-making village blacksmith). Marketing offers a tool that addresses a need.

At the dawn of consumerism, a popular story went: “A wife does the laundry to make her husband happy.” The laundry powder she uses is the tool she needs. Any manufacturer of laundry powder that can tell a better version of this ‘needs’ story will become the market leader.

So marketing adds a ‘needs’ based twist. “She cut herself” is a story. “She cut herself so she needed a Band-Aid” is marketing.

Telling your customer’s stories

You can use storytelling to illustrate how your company meets customer needs. For example, IBM has a site dedicated to customer case studies. In one of these, funding cuts required a local fire station to “improve the efficiency and reduce the costs of its processes”. The solution? “Integrated IBM® Blueworks Live™ with IBM Business Process Manager on Cloud.”

What a let down! Here was an opportunity to tell the story of dedicated group struggling to protect the local village from the ravages of fire (sound familiar?). Instead, IBM chose to stifle our interest with a string of techy jargon.

This case study fails to reach us because there are no characters in it with whom we can identify. Imagine if the story had been about Glen and his wife, Anne, pregnant with their first child. Glen faces redundancy if the Doveton Fire Station can’t find ways to cut computer costs. His manager and best friend Jake contacts IBM to make sure his buddy keeps his job.

Sure, it’s corny – but now the story is alive. It’s not about Integrated IBM® Blueworks any more, it’s about the future happiness of Glen, Anne and little Carl/Carly.

Marketing is at its best when an emotional identification in the consumer is met, and this is exactly what storytelling does best.

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