Storytelling assumes a captive audience. Marketer’s shouldn’t
“Storytelling” came into the marketing lexicon a couple years ago. It continues to circulate and some agencies have positioned their entire company around the idea. Personally, I have always been suspect of the term.
Storytelling may have worked back in the 70’s when all the advertising prior to it was dry, drab, and mostly about features and benefits. It even hung on as the dominant thought process in the 80’s while Bernbach’s ‘creative revolution’ was still playing out. Around the 90’s there were signs it was losing some steam. With more and more choices and more and more marketing noise people simply weren’t seeing and remembering as many TV commercials – and TV commercials were the dominant form of ‘storytelling’. And then there was this emerging World Wide Web thing to contend with…
Story telling in an elevator pitch world.
We all know it has only gotten worse since. More noise. More options. More ways to miss that clever joke or heartstring-tugging TV commercial.
Even today, TV (or more specifically, video) is still the best medium for story telling. Video’s strengths are in combining images and sound and music. As one who edits my own family video every year, I have sat teary-eyed in coffee shops on several occasions as I’ve laid that just-right song over images of my little girls playing at the beach. Such is the emotional power of video.
But as we conduct marketing in today’s splintered media environment when engagement is measured in ever shorter bursts of time, the notion of ‘storytelling’ seems like wishful thinking. Who is sitting still long enough to absorb a story and remember it? And do we really assemble a ‘story’ over all those brand touch points? A perception, maybe, but a story? How much ‘story’ do you really get from a mobile app? A banner ad? Search engine optimization? A Twitter strategy? Most of today’s emerging marketing tools are not especially good at story telling. Even when they do manage to eek out a story, those embedded videos or passages of well-written prose are usually surrounded by buttons, calls to action, share bars, tickers, etc. It’s a frenetic world out there. Storytelling works best with captive audiences. Today’s aren’t.
The same old story.
The other issue I have with story telling is that it assumes consumers care. I’m doubtful. If you’re like me, it feels like you have less and less time and more and more to do.
We’re all out there trying to balance our lives, further our careers, find time for friends and family, and sneak in a few moments for our own interests. Some of us even layer ‘personal brand management’ on there, Tweeting, Facebooking and Pinning lest we not constantly keep ourselves in front of our own personal audiences. With all that going on, are we really interested in brand-sanctioned story telling? If you want a good story you watch a movie, play a video game or read a book.
Frankly, I think brand “storytelling” is the old advertising model re-skinned with a modern veneer. I don’t think the average consumer or even many of your loyal customers care about your brand’s story and even if they did, I don’t think they have enough time (or the desire) to sit down and absorb it.
“Oh, but wait,” you say, “What about those brands people organize their lives around? Brands like Apple with its fanboys or Harley Davidson with its horde of weekend warrior execs-clad-in-leather.”
Yes, there are a number of these brands. I would argue, though, that it is not ‘storytelling’ about these brands that give them their appeal. Rather, I think it is our own innate narcissism at work. We’re attracted to brands that reflect back to us the values we see in ourselves.
Most viral video is funny, so in sending them along to friends, I become funny. Sometimes these videos are self affirming, as with Dove’s video portraying ‘real women’, and by sharing that around I tell you I too believe in real women. The entire premise of social media sharing is to be identified as someone who broke the story first among your friends. It is about being recognized for what you share.
In candor, I like what driving my Mini says about me. I like what Hendricks gin says about me. In the same the way I’m guessing you like what your shoes or shirt or coffee or game console or whatever you buy because in one way or another, it says something flattering about you. We don’t buy brands because we aspire to what their ‘story’ is about. We buy brands that reflect who we think we are. We dress up in brand decisions as a way of telling this to the world without having to say the words themselves.
But enough about me. Let’s talk about you.
When marketers embrace narcissism as the organizing principle behind their efforts it does a few helpful things:
1. It breaks you out of brand-centric, myopic, echo-chamber thinking.
It’s very easy for a company to get all caught up in telling you what makes them great. This is narcissism too, on a company level. It’s understandable, a company works hard at its products. Unfortunately, it’s also inward looking at a time when prevailing marketing wisdom is to focus on the consumer. You can’t be consumer-focused if you’re trying to tell your own story.
2. It helps organize how you communicate your value proposition.
You may have a nice list of features and benefits – emotional and rational. The question is how do you align these in such a way as to reflect back what your customer wants to say about themselves? The rational shopper may want four-wheel drive for New England winters but the consumer driving the Jeep does so because it says something about them, the outdoors and they’re willingness to go off-road – literally and metaphorically. This is the ‘emotional sell’ that accompanies the rational sell. It’s a part of every buying decision and its rooted in our individual self image.
3. Narcissism informs how your brand should behave.
We act the way we like to see ourselves. Brands should too. I’ve long held that brands are not claims or promises, but behaviors. We live in a post-advertising world where no one takes a headline at face value and where everyone can look up peer opinions. That being the case, you better live what you sing about because inauthenticity gets found out fast these days. Appealing to your customer’s self image can tell you exactly how to lay out a wireframe, what features to include (and omit) from an app, how to orchestrate that live event and what your social media community managers should do when a ticked-off customer starts flaming your Facebook page.
So what does buying your brand say to your customer about how they see themselves? Does it make them feel smart? What about sexy? Does it make them feel geek-chic? Like a first mover? Like an enlightened spirit? Knowing that (which should not be confused with taking a guess, because your own self image can interfere there) will go a long way to making your marketing resonate with the people you’re trying to appeal to.
After all, as every salesman or person on a first date knows, the best way to create a relationship is not to talk about yourself, but to talk about the person you’re with.