Crafting stories that inspire action, change, movement
“Tell the truth but make the truth fascinating. You know you can’t bore people into buying your product, you can only interest them into buying it.” — David Ogilvy
Want to benefit from the persuasive impact of more meaningful marketing, then imbue your outreach with deeper meaning. At Emergent’s home page, your first encounter is a statement that reads: Crafting emotional, meaningful, powerful brand stories…
This phrase captures a core essence of what we do. Yes, we focus our communications work in the tactical areas of earned (publicity), owned (content) and social media. However, the real power and exceptionalism we bring to the table is in building stories well-told, where a brand’s customer is always the hero and thus finds themselves in it and benefits from the guidance and useful help a client’s brand provides.
Here we chart the path to better, more effective brand storytelling.
In the end great stories are respectful of the language used to tell them.
“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” – Mark Twain
Anyone who reads the Emerging Trends Report knows we publish early and often here on a wide range of topics from sustainability to brand strategy and media best practices. What these stories really ladder up to, beyond their inherent message, is an audition of our storytelling chops. Said another way, through our articles we’re demonstrating the importance of words and their meaning.
For the most part our published works are about guidance and coaching, thought leadership on topics of value to CEOs and CMOs and heads of Communications and PR. This in fact is a leading-edge strategy for more effective marketing. When you lean in to help, inform and inspire your audience to improve, you are casting the brand in its proper role of offering help over hype.
This is different than self-promotion that speaks endlessly to brand features, technology and formulation facts. While these elements of brand benefit remain integral to the storyline, they shouldn’t lead it for the very reason to do so embeds the communication with an intractable disconnect.
Every single day your customer wakes up believing they are the hero of their own life’s journey. When the brand is preoccupied with itself, it competes with the consumer for the hero role, and so the outreach is ignored while the consumer moves on to find a brand that can help and support them in fulfilling their dreams and aspirations.
The power of relevance, words and context
Very early in my agency career I discovered that language and inspirational storytelling can have an immediate and profound effect, even in unlikely settings. I wrote a pitch to a business editor about a regional packaged foods client that found itself sandwiched between giant national brands with endless resources and store brands nipping underneath with lower priced versions of their products. I cast this as a power struggle for hearts and minds that could only be won with unique, strategically-elegant moves to separate and differentiate their brand from the adjacent competition. I invoked emotion by making it appear to be a very human conflict, a mini movie of sorts where the intrepid, nimble regional brand ultimately prevails.
The editor loved it. The outcome was a series of interviews that produced a front-page story with a gigantic illustration of a David-like figure toppling a gigantic national brand Goliath. The story wound up in retail account presentations as a key piece of evidence about why the brand deserved stronger placement, more facings and retailer support.
The pitch was unorthodox and unconventional to be sure, but then that’s where the magic came from. The right words can have profound impact on outcomes. All business, ultimately, is storytelling. Stories that are imbued with deeper meaning are far more likely to change hearts and minds than the clinical expressions of facts and figures.
Brands are famously in love with their technologies and mousetrap, believing that once the world is made aware of their formulation prowess, people will beat a path to their door in droves. But here is where we separate perception from reality. People are not analytical decision-making machines. They are in indeed feeling creatures who think and not the other way around. It is always going to be heart-over-head.
- If you know that the humanization of your brand storytelling has got to be job one. It may sound counterintuitive, but when you ruthlessly let go of reflexive tendencies to self-promote and focus instead on how you can improve the lives and wellbeing of your key users, suddenly an entirely new world of powerful brand storytelling unfolds.
“Tell a story and put your audience at the center. Give them a role to play. Solve their anxiety and help them believe in what you’re selling. It’s the nervous kid at basketball tryouts who gets injected with a splash of confidence the second his feet slip into a pair of Nike’s. This is the sheer power — and magic of a well-written advertisement.” Jonah Malin
In the brilliant, animated movie Ratatouille, Remy the culinary genius chef rat tries to inspire his more ordinary rat-ish sibling to embrace the love of flavor experiences by combining a bite of cheese (flavor bomb) with piece of fruit (flavor enhancer). Alas his less appreciative rodent brother couldn’t make the gustatory leap out of the garbage can. The love of flavor and taste experience lesson though is ultimately about the result of food enjoyment. Cheese romance isn’t in the cheese-making, it’s in the taste experience and social bond of sharing these moments with people we care about. Remy has it right!
Setting up a successful story
Two important moves can help ensure the path to better storytelling prevails.
First is hyper focus on building personas of the various marketplace consumer cohorts you wish to reach. Go deep on their behaviors, interests, concerns and passions. If our client permits insight research ahead of the persona work, all the better as we get underneath the pieces and parts of how users think and operate.
This work serves as inspiration on the story topics and narrative paths we pursue. If a story isn’t relevant to the lifestyle of its intended recipient, it will not be resonant either. How can you truly cast them as hero of the story if you don’t know them? When consumers see themselves in the story like holding up a mirror, you’ll have their attention – which is the whole point. The biggest hill to climb in modern marketing is securing the time and attention of those you want to engage.
If the story offers no intrinsic value or relevance to the audience, it’s unlikely to be seen or heard.
From personas we move to message mapping based on that study. It’s here where the client’s product bona fides are woven together with the emotionally-inspiring stories that bring the ‘deeper meaning’ requirement to life.
The message map also serves as a terrific interactive tool for internal discussion on how brand stories will be created and what will be conveyed.
There are two specific goals in better brand storytelling practices
- Remove risk. Nearly 100% of the time consumers operate with one singular goal in mind: to avoid making a bad decision. If for any reason they think a product experience will be unsatisfactory, they will avoid it. Removing risk through verification and validation from respected, credible sources that affirms outcomes will be key to success.
- Build trust. Here, the character of the storytelling and the voices deployed become essential to gaining attention and trial. Quite often we bring in third-party subject matter experts to help inject trust by validating the fundamentals of what we want consumers to believe. Social media plays a key role here as a tool for proof: people believe the stories told by their peers before they’ll believe what a company claims.
Language matters. Trust building words like endorsed, proven, tested, quality and results can be invoked to help cement confidence. That said, the most powerful and important narrative device at your disposal is emotion. If people feel something through your story it can have a profound impact on behavior and attitude.
Relate-able stories of personal transformation, struggle and achievement will have bearing on engagement and takeaway. This is where deeper meaning lives. People want to be part of something greater than themselves. Help make that a reality. Use your brand’s Higher Purpose to create the foundation of deeper meaning and belief. If there’s a clear and compelling mission, it will become a rallying point for people who “join” the brand as advocates not just users.
- Relevant, emotional, human, credible stories are the grist of business growth and enviable brand equity. Now you’ve got something relevant to talk about!
If you think a little fresh thinking would be helpful to refine your brand story, use this link to start an informal conversation with us.
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Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact [email protected] and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.