As our very own social media shaman Danny put it, “storytelling is the gateway to human emotion” (as opposed to feline emotion, which, I am reliably informed, can be tapped into via cheese). This concept that storytelling offers a unique way of connecting to people emotionally is very true, and can be used in marketing to make your audience fall in love with your brand. What’s more, I have the science to prove it.
In an earlier blog post, I mentioned narrative transportation theory in relation to persuasion in storytelling. This psychological theory provides a cognitive explanation behind the experience of being ‘lost’ within a story. What’s more, it posits that when people are engaged in a story, they are more receptive to its message, and more likely to be persuaded compared to if they were presented with the same information in a purely factual manner – a phenomenon known as narrative persuasion. The idea that storytelling affects human emotion is quite literally true – whilst adverts using reasoned arguments tend to elicit cognitive responses, narrative adverts tend to elicit affective (that is, emotional) ones (citation).
Narrative transportation relies on two main factors: empathy and imagination. It requires that a) audiences are empathetic towards the characters of a story (in other words, they can identify with them), and b) that the imagination of the audience is captured in such a way that they can imagine themselves within the context of the story. With these two factors being sufficiently strong, audiences experience the sensation of being ‘lost’ within a story, temporarily oblivious to the real world around them. This effect happens with all manner of storytelling, from comics to poetry, films to novels and videogames. When audiences are in this state they are more receptive to the message of a story and can experience long-term attitude change in line with the characters with whom they identify as a result (citation).
This is what makes storytelling so uniquely powerful. Other theories regarding long-term attitude change, such as the dual-processing models of cognition, require an audience to be motivated to engage with a factual, informative method, and to consciously consider it over time (citation). Persuasion using storytelling does not require a conscious effort or motivation on the part of the audience – nor is it even obvious that persuasion is being attempted! This is perfect when used to teach children, who as Dr. Suess said, “can see a moral coming a mile off”, but are more receptive to a subtler approach. Similarly, this subtle approach can be used in marketing to soften the sell.
One caveat that must be considered when using storytelling as a method of persuasion is that the story being told must be well-written, engaging and true to your message. Breaking immersion with a story rife with inconsistencies, boring or unlikeable characters will disengage an audience and have them looking elsewhere in no time. To use storytelling as a marketing technique most effectively, it is essential to craft a consistent, genuine and unique brand identity from which engaging stories can be told.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t use stories if your brand identity doesn’t include traditionally engaging story elements or characters. You can make an engaging story out of almost anything with a little imagination. One excellent example of this is the recent Tesco campaign, Food Love Stories. These adverts are effective not only on TV, but also as still images. These simple yet versatile stories can elicit responses with the most minimal copy and imagery. The campaign works on multiple levels, because as there’s a series of adverts, people start looking out for the others, and they’re bound to find characters that they can identify with or that they feel they know. The situations are mundane but familiar and they feel good to empathise with, as they all have happy endings involving food (which is the great unifier!): from “Alice’s ‘peacemaking’ cupcakes” (to make up for a teenage argument) to “Nana’s ‘magic’ soup” (making an ill child feel better). This is so much better than ‘we sell food – you can make stuff with it!’
So, to conclude: everyone loves stories, and they are an effective method to enhance your marketing and your brand itself. With a bit of care (a good copywriter helps!) you can create a story about almost anything to connect to audiences emotionally. But there are ways of using emotion and storytelling – and then there are ‘DO NOT DO THAT’ ways of using emotion and storytelling. In a follow-up blog post, I’m going to tell you how not to tell stories. Stay tuned.