You are here

Hardwired to Hear: The Storytelling Six

Driven by an innate desire to find patterns in a complicated world, human beings are hardwired to tell and process stories. From cave drawings to traveling minstrels, we have always found ways to communicate information in memorable and interesting narrative formats. That means storytelling can pack a pretty persuasive punch.

In fact, storytelling is a crucial component to reaching your audience. When you present facts and bullet points, your audience begins to refute or accept the information. But when your marketing tells a story, your audience’s brain switches into problem-solving mode. Suddenly, instead of agreeing or disagreeing with arguments, it’s as if the listener is walking alongside the advertiser hoping for a favorable outcome — a good ending to the story. If you can get people to walk with you, they’ll be more likely to hear the point of the story: your unique selling proposition.

Ready to apply narrative techniques to your marketing? Here are six components that will give your marketing story a happy ending.   

1. Message Development

In the old days, it was all about the product. Now, a growing body of research supports a storytelling approach to message development. People really don’t care about what you’re selling; they care about how the product helps them on their personal journey. Each person is the star of his or her own story. Your product should assist with personal achievement while not pretending to be the magic pill.

2. Emotional Impact

In this over-communicated world, it’s increasingly important to be remembered during the buying phase. Emotional recall is much more powerful than factual recall. For example, when a mother is standing in the aisle considering which laundry detergent to buy, she’s more likely to feel an emotional attachment to the product in a commercial showing a mom getting grass stains out of her kids’ jeans than one telling her the product is “three times more effective than the leading brand.” Scrubbing grass stains is more likely to be part of her personal journey as a mom.

3. A Clear Brand Tie-In

When done correctly, storytelling can make your brand top-of-mind in a category. For example, take the mattress industry — arguably one of the most low-interest, low-awareness categories (aside from tires). A former Serta executive said the company developed the famous “counting sheep” storyline to make Serta a demand brand — one consumers asked for when they came into the store.

The mattress maker created a reverse storyline in which the animated sheep disliked Serta for putting them out of business. (Since Serta mattress-users sleep so well, they no longer need to “count sheep.”) In pop culture, sheep are tied to sleep, and most people know counting sheep is supposed to help you doze off. For Serta, there was a clear connection between its product and the story’s characters — a brand tie-in. When formulating stories, look for a reference point that already exists in your audience’s minds, and put a unique twist on the idea. Prime the consumer with a story; then pay off your message at the point of sale.

4. A Good Plot

According to Christopher Booker, there are seven basic plots, and most stories fall under one of them:

• Overcoming the Monster

• Rags to Riches

• The Quest

• Voyage and Return

• Comedy

• Tragedy

• Rebirth

Think of Volkswagen’s Super Bowl commercial from 2012. A little boy is dressed like Darth Vader from Star Wars, and he is trying to use “The Force” to move objects. Nothing works. Then suddenly, he points the palm of his hand toward his dad’s car, and the engine starts. He jumps, surprised by his own powers.

That 30-second ad follows the format of the basic “quest” story pattern: The boy is on a mission to harness magical powers of “The Force.” In the final scene, he has found them  — ending his quest and concluding the story. Use the seven basic plots as inspiration for crafting your brand’s story.

5. A Moral

You might look at the Volkswagen commercial and wonder, “What is the moral of the story? What can we learn from young Darth Vader?” The answer: Never give up, and always believe. Good storytelling delivers a moral, either an insightful nugget or a warning.

6. Campaign Legs

State Farm’s “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there” campaign is a brilliant example of taking the existing elements of a brand (the jingle) and incorporating that memorable component into a modern, story-driven campaign. It appears the plot for each commercial is built around “overcoming the monster.

In one memorable television spot, two friends find themselves on an open road, and suddenly a buffalo comes through the window. They say the magic phrase, “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” The State Farm agent appears in the back seat, assesses the scene, and says, “Say it again.” The two guys utter the magic phrase, and the agent follows with, “in my office.” They appear, safe and sound, back at State Farm headquarters, and the story is complete. This is a good lesson for any brand that thinks it has no story to tell. They overcame the monster and the moral of the story is “make sure you’re protecting yourself.” State Farm is the assistant that provides that protection while you continue as the hero of the story.

Your audience is hardwired to accept your story, and nothing makes a marketing campaign successful like building on this innate desire. By telling your audience how your brand will help them live their lives, you’ll connect on a deeper level than any sales pitch ever could. As the evolution of advertising continues, harnessing the power of narrative is the next step.