Evidently Storytelling Works

Yesterday I passed an advertisement in Toronto’s underground PATH walkway in the downtown. Well, I probably passed scores without noticing. Oversized posters, television screens, storefronts, employees offering samples, consumers with purchases in bags with retailers logos. These were just a few examples of marketing on a relatively short walk to an ATM at my bank that flashed an ad during my transaction.

Anyway, back to that big poster that stopped me. It was nothing special. A bunch of text on white background. At the top it had a statistic, we make 35,000 decisions every day. That’s what gave me pause. People had to move around me as I read the entire ad. It was for a private health clinic and overall was very poor. The clinic needs to tell a more visual story and the ad’s placement sucked.

That is not why I share this story.

I thought about that stat for the rest of the day. It made me recall another. We have 65,000 thoughts every day. That adds up to 100,000 intentions in our head or close to 4,200 every hour and 70 every minute. No wonder we are all stressed, drink and cannot wait for marijuana stores to open.

Those of us in the communication business know we are exposed to over 5,000 ads every day. I deliberately chose the word, “exposed”. We don’t actually see them. We have become inured. Just as I was on my walk until something compelled me to stop. And that is the crux of marketing today.

In a world full of communications inhabited by people with busy lives and minds … how can brands meaningfully connect? The answer is as old as mankind. Storytelling. It has been, is, and will continue to be, the great connector.

Here is an assemblage of evidence proving the power and impact of storytelling.

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Buy Now, Rationalize Later

This article originally appeared in The Toronto Star.

Buy now, rationalize later.

Advertisers are growing ever more sophisticated at understanding how emotions lead to sales. Some politicians have picked up on the lessons.

Toronto marketing expert Jeff Swystun gets philosophical when he talks about the advertising game.

“Plato wrote (that) ‘human behaviour flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowledge’,” he says.

“Marketing works when it makes us feel something. From a psychological perspective, when we feel strongly about something, we are pushed to action,” explains the president of Swystun Communications, who has worked more than 20 years in branding and advertising at several agencies.

Of course emotion has been used in advertising for decades, from Heinz ketchup’s classic “Anticipation” commercial and Mikey liking Life Cereal to Coca-Cola teaching the world to sing with hippies on a hill.

And today companies are even more sophisticated in their approaches to emotional advertising, informed by a deeper understanding of decision making and techniques to ingrain brands into our psyches.

Perhaps the biggest brand these days — Donald Trump — has shown the importance of appealing to customers’ emotions and self-image.

In his business career, Trump was a master of marketing, and these lessons served him well in his campaign to become U.S. president. Even amid the Russia scandals, White House staff turmoil and a stream of official lies and obfuscations, he’s maintained his fervent base of support.

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Consumer Misbehaviour

An episode of the U.S. version of the television comedy, The Office, involves a Halloween costume contest at the paper supplier Dunder Mifflin. The top prize is a discount book offering coupons from local businesses. The retail cost of the book is $40.00 that offers $15,000 in savings if all coupons are redeemed. One character on the show, Oscar Martinez, is an accountant who takes exception to the irrational exuberance of his colleagues towards this prize.

The employees throw themselves into the contest. They produce topical and highly detailed costumes to best each other. The competition dominates the workday. Oscar’s frustration grows to the point where he challenges their thinking, “Everyone realizes this coupon book is not actually worth $15,000 right? You would have to spend $200,000 on crap you don’t need to get $15,000 of benefits. I am not the only one who sees this, right?”

Apparently, he is.

The employees escalate the competition by upgrading their costumes and strategizing how best to present them. Oscar tries one last time to educate his colleagues on the economics and their behavior. They aggressively rebut or outright disregard his argument.

To them, the coupon book represents $15,000 in real value. Oscar chooses to confront this irrationality head on. He switches from a colorful disco themed dance outfit to a very staid and generic ensemble worn by an everyman. Oscar explains to his colleagues using air quotes that he is now a “rational consumer”.

The contest commences with the participants showing off extremely elaborate creations including a samurai, Lady Gaga, a mummy, film director Michael Moore and a sexy nurse. Each employee casts a vote for the winning costume and to everyone’s surprise Oscar wins but the victory is greeted with little enthusiasm. The show cleverly reveals that the reasons why people voted for Oscar were as irrational as their view of the prize.

Given our confusing behaviors, it should come as no surprise that the earliest writers in marketing were psychologists. Understanding why people do what they do is at the heart of marketing. Yet, marketers constantly struggle to better their performance.

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