by Ruth Eckles
Humans have been telling stories for as long as history has been recorded. One could argue that the recording of history is, in and of itself, a story. Words, images and music are all mediums humans have employed to craft narratives for educational, spiritual, moral, and entertainment purposes throughout history. This paper takes a particular interest in how and why stories are engaging in the context of marketing and will focus on the literature regarding the business world’s use of personal stories, myths and various universal story plots. The first section will define personal stories, myths and universal story plots and the ways in which they engage audiences. The second section investigates how these types of stories are being used in the area of marketing and what the research reports about their effectiveness. The third section explores the criticisms of using stories in the context of marking, while the fourth, and final, section synthesizes the literature into concluding comments addressing the overall effectiveness of storytelling in marketing.
What is a Story?
Storytelling’s pure staying power is reason enough to take a closer look at what exactly makes this medium so compelling. While defining a story through the available literature spans a broad range, there are some basic principals that can be generalized. One, stories are generally plot-based narratives whose characters move through time, and are structured to have a beginning, middle and end. It is generally agreed upon that basic story structure rests on five core elements: setting, characters, plot, conflict and resolution (Ruger, 2010). Two, a story is a method for arranging human experience and events in a manner that extracts the meaning from those experiences and events (Johnson, 2000). Three, stories often address universal human dilemmas: desires, obstacles to desires, and overcoming challenges in the way of fulfilling desires (Hamstra, 2011). In other words, effective stories generally incorporate conflict and problem-solving.
Perhaps the most commonly used story is the personal story. Personal stories are often stories told in first person narrative. In other words, a story is personal when the narrator describes and makes meaning out of their own experiences, from their own perspective. Personal stories are told every day, through simple social conversations. Personal stories differ widely in content and style, but are universally relatable in the sense that every person has a story and most people are sharing and listening to these types of stories all the time.
Miller’s (2009) research outlines three different kinds of personal stories: stories of personal experience, life stories, and stories of vicarious experience. Stories of personal experience involve a specific past event the narrator has experienced (a war story, for example). Life stories are told from a broader perspective and involve lessons learned and challenges overcome throughout the lifespan of the narrator. Stories of vicarious experience are stories told in third person about another person’s experience and provide a “what if that was me?” effect for the reader (Brooks, 2010).
Miller (2009) argues that because these types of stories are personalized, they are more relatable, and therefore one of the best ways to connect with people. Personal stories are told by a real person, not a fictional character, and often create a sense of empathy, authenticity, and a vicarious sense of another person’s reality (Miller, 2009). They can also provide a sense of inspiration and therefore an influence (Dandavate, 2012). For example, upon hearing an inspiring story of a person who struggled to lose weight, the listener might be so affected by the story that they set out to change their health as well. After hearing an elder’s life story, a younger person could gain more insight about where they are within their own personal journey. Hearing a war story could help one feel more empathy for soldiers of war and the struggles they go through. All of these stories serve to gain a deeper level of engagement.
Myths are yet another storytelling method humans have implemented for thousands of years in an attempt to comprehend and give meaning to their life experiences. Myths help to understand and give context to universal rites of passages such as birth, adolescence, adulthood, old age and death. Myths speak to the human condition, often using symbols and metaphors to address fears, desires and confusion. They provide context and structure for these human dilemmas and a map for finding one’s place in the world (Woodside, 2008). Campbell (1949) identified several recurring mythical themes he called the “monomyth.” These themes have come up repeatedly in different cultures for eons, indicating universal truths about human nature that are seemingly imprinted upon our psyches.
In its most stripped down form, the monomyth is a symbolic journey that takes place in several stages (Campbell, 1949). The first stage involves a call beyond ordinary life to take on a monumental challenge. In the second stage, the challenge is taken on and obstacles are presented. In the third, stage, an intense crisis ensues and then escalates. In the fourth stage, challenges are overcome, lessons are learned and the protagonist comes back to ordinary life with great wisdom ultimately used to help improve society.
These stages are metaphorical representations of universal human challenges. Most humans have these basic human dilemmas that come up again and again, and myths serve the purpose of providing guidance with these recurring issues. For example, if a person is struggling with a huge challenge in his or her life and views this challenge through the lens of the Hero, he or she feels more dignity, more purpose, and less despair. Myths are engaging precisely because they reach us at that visceral level and give us the structure with which to view our struggles in a more meaningful way.
Universal Story Plots
Booker (2004) also outlines story plots that have been repeated over history: overcoming the monster, rags-to-riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth. Like Campbell’s monomyth, these themes involve overcoming obstacles, challenges that often involve elements of tragedy and comedy, and ultimately greater wisdom and a new outlook on life. Within these stories, there are also characters that repeat themselves (helpers such as the wise old man or woman, good mother and companion and also enemies such as the dark rival, temptress or tyrant).
These stories represent challenges that most people relate to, and are often seen in the cultural landscape. Because they are the challenges, hopes and dreams that most people identify with, they are the stories that people seem to want to hear again and again. This would indicate that incorporating these types of scenarios into narrative would be an important factor in making them engaging.
To summarize, personal stories, myths and universal story plots all have in common the central theme of a character with a conflict to solve and the meaning that is made within that scenario. Because these scenarios often mirror the scenarios humans encounter in their real lives, they are relatable and relevant. The fact that these narrative themes repeat themselves over and over again throughout history indicates that they are reflecting core human motives and desires and are therefore important to take into consideration. The next section will explore why these factors are important to marketers and how they are making use of the elements of personal stories, myths and universal story plots in order to engage consumers to purchase products or become involved in their organization’s mission.
WHY USE STORIES IN MARKETING?
Humans Think in Stories
Human’s long history with stories is part of the reason marketers are increasingly using stories to promote products. Woodside’s (2008) research shows that humans tend to think in stories, and thoughts are episodic. In other words, our thoughts are often sequential in nature (i.e. ‘this happened, then that happened’). We tend to make sense of our current experiences through our past experiences, and interpret our experiences as stories. Stories enable consumers to see patterns and connections, provide inspiration and guidance, help to retain memories, and help to develop problem-solving skills (McLellan, 2006). Studies conducted by Zaltman and Coulter (1995) indicate that 80% of human communication is non-verbal, most thoughts occur as images, senses are linked with emotions, humans tend to understand concepts via metaphors, and human brains process information in the format of stories. The increase in blogging, photo sharing, video and other communication via the web shows that humans, left to their own devices, will tell stories.
Stories Engage the Mind and Emotions
Marketers use stories because they have a way of engaging emotions that feel natural to humans (Hamstra, 2011). Simmons (2001) argues that stories, in particular personal stories, engage both the mind and the emotions. They can be a good way to transform the cold, impersonal environment of the corporate world, often filled with corporate jargon, into narrative that is both informative, down-to-earth and emotionally engaging. This American Life storyteller Ira Glass says, “Everything is more compelling when you talk like a human being, when you talk like yourself.” (Reynolds, 2007).
Stories Make Facts More Understandable
Stories reach humans on a level that facts do not (Simmons, 2001). Because stories are more personally engaging than facts, they tend to make information more memorable (Simmons, 2001). Stories are something consumers can relate to, and “facts aren’t influential until they mean something,” write Simmons (2001). Stories can be used to influence facts. Good stories will help make facts more understandable (Simmons, 2001). Simmons (2001) argues that facts in and of themselves don’t mean nearly as much to consumers as the meaning they place on the facts. In this sense, marketers have an opportunity to put their own slant on the facts. Creating stories, based on facts, about a company’s mission, its beginnings, its values, the struggles it has overcome, and the triumphs it has accomplished provides companies with a way to distinguish themselves from other competitors. It also gives consumers a sense of who the company is, in a more personal sense (Scanlon, 2012) and makes the consumer more likely to feel personally invested in their products.
Stories Help Build Community
Along these same lines, Poletti (2011) argues that hearing stories from a diverse range of voices helps to create a more intimate and universal understanding of humanity that can be of use in the political and social realm. The understanding and empathy stories bring can help create civic engagement with social causes. Stories shared on the Internet bring together people from diverse backgrounds. People who otherwise wouldn’t socialize can talk about things they have in common.
All of these examples portray storytelling as an effective way to sidestep corporate jargon, or bland non-profit mission statements, and communicate with consumers in a way they can relate to, empathize with, be interested in, and remember.
HOW ARE MARKETERS USING STORIES?
One example of how companies are utilizing personal stories are blogs. Referred to as “eWOM” (electronic word-of-mouth), blog discourse is a way for customers to share their stories and experiences regarding the products they buy. Consumers are increasingly using blogs to research products before purchasing and factor other consumer stories regarding products and the level of expertise of the company blogger into their purchasing decisions (I-Ping & Chung-Hsie, 2011). As of this writing, there are 31 millions bloggers, expected to increase by 50% in the next year (Durant, 2012). In 2012, 329 million people viewed blogs (Bullas, 2012) and statistics show companies who have a blog have an increase in site traffic (Durant, 2012).
In order to better understand in what ways customers engage in the online marketplace, Bickart and Schindler (2001) conducted a 12-week study on e-WOM in the context of e-commerce sites. Study subjects were asked to gather information on five different products based on both user-generated content or company-generated content, and were surveyed regarding which content was more engaging. The study showed when users were able to communicate and develop relationships with each other, it led to increased sales on company web sites, leaving marketers to conclude it’s not only telling good stories that is important, it is equally crucial they make sure they build venues for their customers to share stories.
Another form of e-WOM that uses personal storytelling can be found in the travel industry. Tussyadiah and Fesenmaier (2008) found that tourists sharing their travel tales on the company website helped to generate publicity. In this context, the blog writer serves as a first-person narrator through which readers can vicariously experience travel adventures. Travel stories reflect the core elements of effective storytelling, often incorporating conflicts and obstacles into the narratives (planes being missed, drinking bad water and getting sick, meeting and befriending strangers) that are later resolved and processed into a meaningful experience. Strange, unexpected and often comedic things happen when people are out of their normal element. People often learn important and unexpected things about themselves when they travel, making travel stories a part of a meaningful narrative for readers. In addition, because travel is essentially selling an experience rather than an object, it can be more easily linked to consumer’s personal growth than other products.
Content marketing is yet another branch of marketing that utilizes storytelling in the form of articles, videos, magazines, blogs, and other content to drive sales. Storytelling in content marketing covers a broad range—from entertaining stories that utilize myths and universal story plots to personal stories of consumer’s experiences with products. Studies conducted by Pulizzi (2012) indicate consumers are increasingly engaging with content media before purchasing a product. Content marketing and traditional media venues operate in similar ways. Both publish articles, videos, magazines and require compelling stories in order to be successful. Content marketing stories are often targeted to niche markets and remove the brand from the story in an attempt to create credibility and trust.
Pulizzi (2012) notes three previous barriers (content acceptance, talent and technology) to success no longer exist because of the Internet. Content acceptance is no longer an issue because corporate media is no longer the only relevant voice of authority. Finding talented writers is no longer an issue because print media is shutting down and quality journalists are now being hired by corporations to create content. Technology is no longer an issue because the Web has brought the cost of publishing content down. This indicates that the current trend with storytelling and marketing via the web is likely to continue to increase, and therefore an important reason to look more closely at storytelling as a marketing tool.
Another rising marketing strategy that utilizes narrative is brand documentary, a hybrid that combines elements of the classic storytelling themes mentioned earlier with documentary filmmaking and product marketing. Branded documentary films are cinematically composed micro-films with a different tone than traditional corporate videos. Because these micro-films hit at the emotional level, and have a sense of authenticity, they are more engaging to a consumer than traditional advertising copy. Avoiding the flagrant use of brand builds trust with the consumer (i.e. they don’t get the sense that they are being solicited to) and avoids distraction from the story (Modigliani, 2012).
Branded documentaries tend to be socially conscious in nature and tell the stories of real people who have been affected by the brand, usually by a socially conscious or humanistic initiative that the company has undertaken (Modigliani, 2012). They strive to mention the brand as little as possible and focus instead on the personal nature of the story. Brand documentaries are becoming more popular because both consumers and employees want to be associated with companies who are helping to improve the world in some way (Modigliani, 2012). Surveys have shown, if given a choice between a socially responsible product and a non-socially responsible product, consumers will purchase the socially responsible one (Modigliani, 2012). In addition, if employees feel the company they are working for has a wider purpose, they will be much more productive and motivated to rally around the company’s product (Modigliani, 2011).
Marketers Use of Myths
Marketers often borrow from mythology in the creation of their brands. Schembri, Merrilees, and Kristiansen (2010) explore the use of brands in the creation of a consumer’s persona. Their study looks at how consumers relate to their preferred brands and what sorts of narratives they use to construct their personal identity. The results of the study indicate consumers form narratives in three different ways: symbolic, iconic, and indexical. Symbolic narratives are focused more on the meaning that a consumer gets from a brand (i.e. Harley Davidson lends an air of danger). Iconic focuses more on an object that makes the consumer proud to be associated with (ex. a University of North Carolina fan wearing a Tar Heel jersey), and indexical references brands that connect the consumer to memories of the past (ex. Cool Whip triggers memories of Thanksgiving at grandmother’s house). Their research showed that because brands have different personalities, consumers often want to align themselves with a brand that they interpret to be close to their own personality.
Cooper, Schembri and Miller (2010) studied marketing narratives modeled after popular culture in the form of archetypal myths such as the lover, the hero, and anti-hero. They argue that brands serve humans in creating their identity in the same way that actors serve as role models to aspire to. Personas are modeled after the characters on the screen, while brands serve as props that lend credibility to consumer’s personalities. For example, James Dean, a rebel or anti-hero, wears a leather jacket. James Bond, the hero, has the latest gadgets. We see these sorts of metaphors all the time in advertising because marketers have realized that they speak to consumers universal desires to present a certain image of themselves to others in the human tribe.
Universal Story Themes
Consumers are no longer satisfied with dry, boring, or sappy content (Brown & Patterson, 2010) and marketers are growing more aware of the qualities needed to make a story stand out from the crowd. One major quality, it appears from the research, is an element of conflict. The overwhelming success of the Harry Potter brand indicates that classic tales of good versus evil can be successful in marketing (Brown & Patterson, 2010). “Suspense, surprise, struggle, and strife are crucial when it comes to keeping readers/consumers interested, involved, and, ideally, infatuated,” (Brown & Patterson, pg. 554). It is generally accepted that the best stories, scripts and movies incorporate conflict.
All of the stories and myths mentioned in the early part of the literature review reflect this need for conflict. Humans relate to characters struggling to overcome obstacles (whether those obstacles are fictional monsters, our own inner demons, or something more concrete like being under the foot of poverty or a tyrannical leader) to achieve something. Companies are beginning to realize the same is true for marketing stories. While traditional branding has focused on harmonizing narratives, research is showing that consumers want their marketing content to be just as engaging as the movies they watch, or the video games they play. In today’s world, with so much stimulation and distraction available at every turn, marketing content is now competing with those entertainment fields for consumer attention.
In summary, marketers are using a variety of storytelling methods to sell their products. Blogging, content marketing, brand documentary, myths and universal story themes are just a few of the ways advertisers use narrative to engage customers. The prevailing theme with all the story methods described in this paper is their use of a story structure that involves compelling characters (whether real or fictional) with compelling conflicts as a method of engagement and the meaning the consumer draws from them. The research indicates that customers are responsive to these types of stories and are engaging with these types of narrative more and more. While the literature looks promising, there are also arguments that are critical of storytelling as a marketing method.
This next section explores three current criticisms of storytelling in marketing. The first criticism involves concerns of social irresponsibility when storytelling and marketing are combined. The second criticism suggests that marketing stories are mostly marketed images too superficial to be considered real stories or to be meaningful in any way. The third criticism involves the lack of systems in place for the engaged listening to stories (particularly in the context of non-profits). This next section explores these criticisms in further detail.
There’s a great responsibility that comes with brand storytelling, particularly for socially driven causes. McLellan’s (2006) research is a reminder that when a company gets its story wrong and portrays itself as one of the ‘good guys,’ and wrong doings are later exposed, the public can feel betrayed and customer loyalty is lost. For example, Nike’s brand suffered when Nike postured as the champion of the everyday man, and consumers later learned about their involvement in using sweat shop labor to produce their products. When Google, posturing as the great democratizer of information access, complied with the Chinese government to suppress information to Chinese citizens, people were leery. Another example of a company’s story not being in alignment with their values is when cancer advocacy group Susan G. Komen for the Cure paired up with Kentucky Fried Chicken for a fundraising effort called “Buckets for the Cure”, consumers quickly reacted to the hypocrisy in the message (Hutchinson, 2010), since eating fried chicken is the last thing doctors or nutritionists recommend to prevent cancer.
Also of concern is the phenomena of corporate “greenwashing,” a term that has been coined in response to the many environmentally conscious ads we now see. Desiring an edge with consumers, companies are quick to jump on the “green” bandwagon, but they lose the trust of these consumers when they run slick advertising campaign telling tales of environmental responsibility when their actions actually harm the environment. Exxon, for example, runs ads touting their low emissions and concern for environmental issues, while simultaneously taking part in natural gas fracking operations (Huffington Post, 2011).
Each of these examples brings up important concerns for marketers to be mindful that the values encompassed in their story (i.e. their image or brand) are consistent with their actions in the public and private sphere.
Not Real Storytelling
Salzer-Mörling and Strannegård (2004) argue that branding is not real storytelling; real stories have more of a focus on meaning, whereas branding’s focus is more on images. Real stories, they argue, involve our cognitive abilities more, whereas branding involves our sensory abilities and subconscious feelings more. They suggest there’s been a shift of focus from the quality of the product to the image of the product; that companies are spending more energy creating images than quality products. This kind of advertising, the authors argue, has become so prevalent that it is an invasion of public and private space. Burgess (2006) finds this aspect of brand storytelling to be distasteful as well. She feels that many of the loudest voices we are hearing since the democratizing of the internet are not those of ordinary, every day people, but rather marketing content that plays itself as “seductively cool” (pg. 202). The voices that are getting the most airtime are stylized and commercial and lack the plain, unadorned yet sincere voice of ordinary folk.
Everybody Is Talking but Nobody Is Listening
Dreher (2012) believes stories should be the starting point to engage deeper discussion that effects real change, rather than an end in and of itself; a product, so to speak. She argues that although the new media is bringing access to many diverse voices, what we seem to be lacking these days is deeper listening (Dreher, 2012), particularly in the non-profit arena. While Dreher (2012) is in favor of more stories being heard, she’s interested in finding more meaningful and effective ways to engage audience listening and responses to these voices, and this, she feels, should be more of a focus than it currently is. The concern is that if no one is really listening to all these new voices we are now able to hear, substantial change will not result. Her research found that the community stories being told via socially conscious mini-films or brand documentaries with the purpose of rallying the troops around a cause mostly reach a sort of mutual admiration society rather than reaching the people who actually make policy. She also found these films were too individualistic or sentimental to be taken seriously or to create real political action. Brand documentary is still a relatively new form of marketing and more research needs to take place before substantial conclusions can be made about the effectiveness of these films.
The increase in personal stories in the form of blogging, eWOM, and documentary branding in the marketplace would seem to indicate there is a desire for more personal, less business-like discourse in the commerce world. The current research also indicates that the market is turning towards more engaging and personal content in favor of traditional advertising copy (Miller, 2005). Some consumers want content that is exciting and adventurous, like the Harry Potter brand, or brands that utilize myths, while others want to feel a part of more authentic socially conscious content, as in brand documentary. The research does seem to indicate that one of the oldest tools to reach people, telling stories, is still one of the best tools because of it’s ability to compel and engage audiences. However, when stories are used as tools to sell products, research indicates that certain precautions should be taken into consideration. Special attention needs to be given to the kind of story that is being told. Is the brand story consistent with the company’s actions in the world? If a company’s real world actions and values are not in alignment with the brand, the public is bound to find out sooner or later. Precisely because stories affect consumers on a personal level, companies need to be extra vigilant because just as in any relationship, once trust is lost, it’s hard to regain it (McLellan, 2006). In addition, Dreher’s (2012) argument that companies and individuals are clamoring to market their products and missions, but few people are putting the same attention into actually listening brings up the need to put practices in place to assure deeper listening so that socially conscious stories are actually heard by the parties that can effect changes in policy.