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Evidently Storytelling Works

Recently, 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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We Are Addicted to Stories

How many stories did you tell today? Think about that for a moment. I am not talking about the stories we tell ourselves because that is constant. Our head gets choked with rational and irrational sagas. I am talking just about the ones you tell. Did you share the tale of your commute with colleagues? Did you tell an anecdote from your high school days?

How many stories did you hear today? If you spoke with three people you probably heard upwards of twelve to fifteen stories. Little ones are seeded throughout our conversations. Big ones entertain and engage.

How many stories did you read today? Between newspapers, that novel you are working your way through, and even advertisements you will have read a ton of stories.

How many stories did you watch today? We live in an era of binge-watching. Movies are everywhere. We can load tv shows and movies on our devices and consume them anywhere. Most shows now have four or five subplots so there are plenty of narratives to follow.

John Gottschall author of The Storytelling Animal says, “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” Stories are the primary construct for human interaction. It is how we connect.

I have been practicing storytelling and narrative psychology for the past ten years. What has surprised me is we see narratives even where there are none. The storytelling format affords meaning to our lives. It is an engrained form of problem-solving. It helps us make sense of the world.

Humans have always been storytellers. We started with pictograms on cave walls then became masters of the oral tale before we took up the pen. Stories provide a way for humans to feel control over the world. They allow us to see patterns in chaos and meaning in randomness. They are sorting devices and educational vehicles for what has come before, what is happening now and what may take place.

Storytelling shows us how other people think. We compare and contrast when digesting stories. This may affirm our own beliefs and perceptions but more importantly they can throw them into question.

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The Hot Dog Stand Story

This business fable has stayed with me since I first heard it in university. Over the years, interpretations have popped up at conferences, meetings and in articles. It is an entertaining tale offering different lessons depending on what is emphasized. Apologies to the original author. I would gladly give credit if I knew who you are. Here is my version.

There was a man who ran a roadside hot dog stand. It was located far outside the city. For years he worked hard to make it a success. That effort paid off and eventually people would travel long distances for one of his hot dogs. It became a popular and sentimental institution. Families formed traditions around visiting the stand and tourists were told to fit it into their schedule if possible.

So what made it special? It was not one thing, it was a combination of quality and care that was difficult to match or copy.

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Trends in Association Branding

Years ago I spoke at a conference focused on crafting association business strategies. This was in the late nineties while in the Marketing and Customer Management Practice at PW (now PwC). My work to that point focused on professional service businesses and consumer products. To tell the truth I was filling in for a colleague who fell ill.

The presentation went well but it was the conversations following that stuck with me. In short, I was rocked by the complexities of the industry and the challenges faced by these entities. iacpconferencephoto1-520x346Associations have always been “up against it”. All share certain issues. After working with four associations in the past two years, we have discovered the following:

Cost Not a Benefit: in many cases, members join to maintain accreditation or there is a penalty for not keeping membership but not necessarily claimable upsides.

The “Nonprofit” Label: it suggests a softer culture, less talented employees than the private sector (but stronger than the public sector!), and lack of depth and sophistication in leadership, management and planning. Let me be clear…this is perception not reality.

Overlap: one only has to look at the marketing and advertising industry to see that an agency in the United States could belong to easily over twenty different associations. Imagine being a retailer or in healthcare and that number is many times higher. This makes it important for associations to differentiate. When you think about it associations are competing against every other association out there and be held to the standards of the best. Also note there are associations for every conceivable group in the world…there are even several associations for associations!

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Your Brand Story is Your Brand Strategy

So much has been written on storytelling in business that a subset of the marketing community is pushing back against its purported benefits. Yet, increasingly creative agencies big and small are specializing in helping clients better tell their story. More and more conferences are dedicated to the topic. Content marketing and copywriting professionals now fall under the umbrella of storytelling.

All of this activity is taking place with the hope that customers will identify with the story, tell it, and share it. This sounds a lot like the overall purpose of branding and IMG_4556marketing and that makes me a believer in the power of storytelling.

When it works, it really works. I am not a fan of overly simplistic stabs at business storytelling. Those attempts rob brands and businesses of what makes them interesting in the first place, namely, their depth and complexity. This does not mean everything should be “War and Peace” but it certainly should not be dumbed down to a tagline or strive for a one-word association.

I use two different constructs to help build an engaging narrative. The first answers seven questions and generally works better for B2B, professional services, and association clients. These require honest and uncomfortable answers to be successful.

  • Where do we come from?
  • Where is our world going?
  • Who are our communities?
  • What are we like?
  • How do we behave?
  • What is our purpose?
  • What is our brand idea?

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