Communication strategist and an expert in branding, high-stakes pitching and strategic storytelling
I vividly remember a moment that happened about four and a half years ago. I had just left my baby girl at the nanny’s, and was walking back home after somewhat of a drama. Suddenly, all I’d learned about marketing in the last decade was rearranged and reshaped into a new, clear understanding.
I knew now that stories are the most effective means of getting any message across, and all other aspects of communication come in as distant seconds.
A few minutes earlier, my two-year-old daughter had been almost hit by a car as she ran into an intersection. I caught her at the last moment. It wasn’t the first time she’d pulled such a stunt and I was worried. I didn’t know what to do, and I felt like I’d already tried everything to get the message through to her: explaining, screaming, punishing … nothing worked.
So this time, I made up a story about my childhood friend who used to run just like her, until one day he was hit by a car. I went into detail about how his small body flew in the air, about bones he broke and about long days he spent not moving on a bed. My hand was on her back and I felt a shiver going down her spine.
There was something magical about this moment. I knew I’d reached her this time! She never did anything like that again.
During my walk home, my mind rushed back through all the times I had used stories professionally and personally, through all the times a brand or a person had been able to convince me or change my mind, through anything that had ever touched me or allowed me to touch others…. Stories were always there.
The Misconception About Stories
Stories and narratives weren’t new to me. They’re integral parts of almost every marketer’s vocabulary, but most marketers treat stories more as metaphors for what they do, and not as a framework. They ask, “What’s the story?” and expect to hear a value proposition, not a real narrative. They tell behind-the-brand/founder stories, not a strategic story of a brand.
Yes, many ads also tell some type of story, but those aren’t mandatory, and many times don’t have anything to do with the strategy.
Even today, when I meet advertising and branding professionals and start talking to them about stories, I feel the judgement and skepticism in their eyes: Don’t try to bullshit the bullshitter, just do your job — your job is to help sell things, not to make up stories.
3 Common (and Wrong) Routes Used for Creating Corporate Value Propositions
A few years before I had this epiphany, I worked in large advertising agencies as a communication strategist (a.k.a. brand/account/creative planner — all different names for the same thing). The main part of my job was to find the most attractive value propositions for the brands of my clients (it still is my main job, by the way). Selling those ideas to my clients was equally important to me in those days, and I have made a career of manipulating value proposition models to my advantage.
Here are the methods I tried throughout the years:
1. Finding the best framework to work with first, and then developing a marketing/brand/communication strategy based on this model. It didn’t work well. The strategy part was easy, but the messaging was dull, technical and uninspiring.
I wanted the best all-around tool, something that would help me create unique and powerful ideas that touch people. But what I found was that the tools all sounded great when analyzing concepts, but they didn’t help me much in structuring new ideas. (You won’t believe how many crappy directions Start With Why.)
2. Creating a concept and finding the best model to prove it. This made me do a lot of model and concept “stretching” — I would stretch the concepts to fit the relevant model, or stretch models to fit the concept. It worked better.
3. Eventually I got sick of stretching and started making up models. This worked almost too well. My made-up models would fit the communication concepts like a glove and were very convincing. To my surprise, no one ever questioned those models or checked their validity…
At this point I felt terrible about myself. I became a professional liar who didn’t truly believe in my own work. Stories allowed me to regain pride in what I do, and brought true meaning to my work.
Stories — The Hidden Driver of The Human Race
Stories are a big part of our lives. We tell bedtime stories to our kids before they learn to read or even speak; all religious teachings consist of stories, as do traditions passed from generation to generation. We dream in the form of stories, and we hear stories on the news, in movies, on social media feeds, etc.
Humans have been telling stories for about 100,000 years and by now they are deeply wired in our brain structure and chemistry. Or, in the words of Professor Paul Zak: “Stories are powerful because they transform us to other people’s worlds, but in doing that they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry.”
Marketing is a very rational field, although it’s not always perceived this way. Most marketing people struggle to embrace the rationale behind abstract and proven notions such as brand authenticity, empathy, and tone of voice. When looking at marketing through the perspective of storytelling, all those notions suddenly make sense.
Marketing without stories provides only a partial perspective and understanding of the marketing collateral. Thus, I urge all marketers to embrace stories as a main framework methodology for creating corporate strategy. Meanwhile, you are welcome to contact and consult us at [email protected], or simply to ping me here.
As for my daughter, stories have become a major part of our relationship. She also tells stories now, to me and to her peers, and knows how powerful this tool is to influence people. Try it, please, and let me know how it worked out for you.
In my next posts, I will cover my storytelling framework, and show how story structure hides behind all successful brands and behind all efficient precaution models. Follow me if you want to stay tuned.
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