Five Things Marketers Can Learn From Stories

Stories are one of the most powerful tools in our communication arsenal. Since the beginning of language, they have inspired, motivated, and engaged us like no other form of communication has been able to.

There are good reasons for this. And some of those reasons provide lessons for marketers. Here are five worth noting:

1. All stories have meaning or some reason for being told. Consider this story:

The young athlete who trained by doing 100 leg squats every day ended up winning the marathon.

In effect, this is a story about the functional benefit of leg squats for runners.

Now, consider this revision:

The young athlete who trained by doing 100 leg squats every day ended up winning the marathon. He has a prosthetic leg.

The first story conveys meaning in the form of useful information (i.e., leg squats build running endurance). However, the second story is more than just useful. It's inspirational. By contrast, it has Meaning—with a capital M. The additional five-word sentence makes the second story about the same runner far more significant.

One of the most important questions marketers need to ask about their brand is whether it conveys meaning or Meaning. Facts about unique features and benefits may be useful but not necessarily Meaningful. To go for Meaning, brands have to associate with personal values like exploration, determination, hard work, or ingenuity, just to mention a few. And if the communication of those values provokes an emotional response, all the better.

2. We are more drawn to stories that leave the Meaning to us.

Andrew Stanton, the creator of Toy Story and Wall*E, refers to his "unifying theory of 2+2" as our desire to come to our own conclusions. We do not want to be told the answer is 4. We'd rather figure out the problem for ourselves. This is one of the principles of stories that attracts us to them as a communication device. Movies, novels, poems, or songs do not explain the meaning behind their messages. Meaning is left to the audience's interpretation.

This is very unlike much of what we see in advertising. Advertising often gets in its own way when it sets out to convey Meaning. By telling us what values to associate with brands, or by telling us how to think about a given brand, we often resist or put up our protective BS shields. Consumers don't need or want to be told your brand believes in caring about its customers or that your brand works hard for its money.

Taking a lesson from stories, it is far more engaging and believable to pull Meaning from the mind of the consumer than to push from the voice of the brand. Notice in the second story above, there was no mention of what to think or feel. If you thought or felt anything about the winning marathon runner with the prosthetic leg, it was because of your interpretation, not mine. Storytellers cause you to see what you see, but do little to cause the way you think or feel about what you see. Doing so would be like the comedian explaining the punch line of his joke.

3. Audiences gravitate to Meaning that arouses identification.

Another reason we are so drawn to stories is because of their ability to help us see ourselves. Identification is a story's ability to help us feel recognized for who we are and what we value. Besides helping us realize that we are not alone, identification also helps us examine what are sometimes unconscious beliefs that motivate our behavior.

Too often, brands that set out to create their identities ignore the benefits of creating identification. Creating a brand identity involves telling or purposefully positioning a brand to help consumers see what makes it different or better as compared with the alternatives. By contrast, creating brand identification is about helping the prospect relate to what the brand stands for, or its cause. It's about helping prospects see that your brand is for people like them. Creating a differentiated brand identity may influence buying. But creating strong brand identification will influence joining. It's always better to have joiners than buyers. Joiners are the ones who stay buyers and wear your logos.

4. Storywriters don't use focus groups to decide what their Meaning should be. Storywriters don't manufacture meaning on the basis of what will sell to the greatest number of people. Rather, they start with an authentically held core belief that they want to share and express in their own way.

Lack of authenticity is one of the many reasons consumers have become cynical about advertising. Today's consumers are just too smart to fall for forced intimacy. They know when you are trying too hard to fit into their lives. Rather, consumers want and need brands to be true to their own causes. And, if you think what you say or even imply about yourself is enough, think again. As far as consumers are concerned, your brand's truth will always be revealed more through actions than anything advertised. Trustable people don't tell you they are trustable. And friendly people don't put you on hold for 30 minutes.

If consumer research is required, better that it be used to compare expressions of Meaning than to derive Meaning. Meaning is an inside job.

5. For great storywriters, Meaning is expressed in a similar fashion, from story to story.

If you go to any best-selling list of books, you'll often find it consists of many narratives written by authors with whom we are familiar. Having enjoyed their previous works, we clamor for their newest work. And we do this out of an affinity for both their interesting perspectives and their individualized expressions. We are not only drawn to messages they want us to read, but also to the way they consistently write them.

The reason some people will camp out in front of the Apple store the night before a new product launch is simple: The new product is from Apple. As their thinking goes, if it's from Apple, it's got to be something worth having.

Each new product Apple produces is recognizably linked to the one it updates. The new offering may provide improvements, but more importantly, it remains a continuance of Apple's Meaning. Just as writers remain true to their voice, Apple takes great pains to make sure its products deserve a rightful place within its family.

These are just five things marketers can learn from stories. The parallels between good stories and strong brands are rich with more.

Jim Signorelli is the founder and CEO of ESW Partners, a Chicago-based marketing firm, and author of the book StoryBranding: Creating Stand-Out Brands Through the Power of Story. For more information, visit

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