The Storyteller's Passport
In the epicenter of a 5,000-year-old Celtic ring fort stands a woman with flowing red hair. Surrounded by thirty listeners, she raises both her arms and proclaims, “This is the story of Cu Chulainn, the hero of our people.” At that moment, thunder cracks. Despite the storm, or rather in tandem with it, she recounts the stories of Cu Chulainn’s war strength and skill. The audience feels anxious and fear in anticipation of the narrative. The storyteller’s voice reverberates off the ancient stone of Grianan Ailligh that encircles both speaker and audience. The storm reaches its pique as she proclaims Cu Chulainn’s victory in battle. Her listeners, entranced by the power of narrative and natural elements, raise their arms and cheer. They, like Cu Chulainn, feel triumphant and relieved. The storm passes.
Such was my experience eight years ago when I traveled to Ireland with university classmates and professors. Since then, I have traveled to many different places, but the aforementioned travel encounter stands out among the rest. Why? It demonstrated the power and effects of storytelling. When I now speak to my fellow travelers, they all recall our ring fort moment with great fervor. The thing is, they may not remember in detail the story of Cu Chulainn, but they are certain of how they felt as the storm rolled through as our professor’s story rolled on.
This notion is not specific to our Ireland tour group. All individuals seem to thrive off the power of meaningful cultural narratives. Consumers especially are propelled by emotion because it is the very factor that impacts memory. Therefore, if branders begin associating the act of storytelling with the experiential learning process (i.e. traveling), they will not only yield influx in sales, but more importantly, more engaged consumers.
Like traveling, branding should tap into consumers’ emotions. Associative memory is greatly influenced and shaped by feelings. Imagine the last place you traveled. Regardless if it was Germany or the grocery store, your mind first remembered why you went there, but then what you experienced emotionally. Were you frustrated with the long line at the cashier? Were you overwhelmed with gratitude when you clinked steins with a once-stranger/now-friend? At the end of the day, when we imagine where we’ve gone and what we did, we end up tapping into our emotional responses to recall and recreate memories.
Thus, brand builders need to consider themselves storytellers above all else. They should start creating passports for their clients and consumers. In other words, those in charge of branding must angle their strategies toward creating experiential, emotional moments for those who invest in them. Especially in our current cultural climate, effective storytelling must transport an audience in not only a meaningful way, but in a quick manner. Effective ads hook an audience by the story, and successful storytellers know how to compel their audiences from the onset. For instance, during this year’s Super Bowl, branders are producing six-second commercials. This means urgency is at stake. Just like briefly traversing a new place, a brand builder must be able to tap into the consumer’s emotional experience within a short timeframe, or else the effort—the adventure—will be unmemorable.
With all this information, the question remains: How can a brand builder produce an experience for the client and consumer that is in line with the kind of experiential learning that comes with traveling? Well, one must undergo the same process a storyteller does. This will yield the emotional encounter necessary for consumer connection and sales increase. For a simple, easy to remember rule-of-thumb, try O.D.D.: Observe, Describe, Develop.
Before a brand builder can do anything, it must observe. This involves knowing the client’s product and vision, and what both will result in emotionally for consumers. It means that a brand builder must utilize empathy to fully understand the emotional import of any idea or goal. Think about yourself as a traveler in a foreign land. If you walked around without observing your surroundings, you wouldn’t fully invest yourself in the area’s culture. You might miss a phenomenal hole-in-the-wall restaurant, or forgo the opportunity to hear narratives of the land’s rich history. In addition, observation requires research. Very rarely do globetrotters embark on an endeavor without at least some research, even if that research means simply consulting a map. Similarly, brand builders should be familiar with internal and external strategies that have been successful and those that need improvement. This will help guide the narrative journey. Audiences are often changing, and hence, emotions are, too. Observation requires brand builders to ask questions such as “What feelings are consumers currently experiencing?” and “What do consumers currently need that the product can emotionally satisfy?” Observing via research will aid in brainstorming a successful action plan that adheres to both the client’s vision and the audience’s emotions.
Once observation is complete, a brand builder should begin describing. This involves articulating the emotional benefit of buying or investing in the product at hand. Just like an effective story, a successful description is one that shows, not tells, the feeling consumers should be experiencing upon encountering the product. For example, Liberty Mutual’s Helping Hands commercial does an excellent job at describing the emotional import of choosing their organization over competitors. Instead of proclaiming how their product is better than others, Liberty Mutual taps into what motivates their consumers: feeling good about making a difference. Through images, rather than ‘too much talk,’ Liberty Mutual is able to evoke feelings of compassion and love of neighbor—both emotions that are culturally relevant and needed. All brand builders should attempt to successfully utilize and hone a descriptive storytelling technique that launches audience members into their emotional capacities. The goal is to describe through showing, not telling, either the good feelings related to having the product, or the fear of not having the product (aka FOMO).
After brand builders have observed and described, they must develop. Development truly piggy-backs off description and could even happen simultaneously with it. To be clear, though, development involves decision making and execution of the action plan established at the onset between agency and client. This third part of the process is similar to creating an itinerary for a trip and then journaling about sites visited and food consumed. Travelers put on their list of things to do, see, and dine only what will be—or what they’ve heard will be—worthwhile. Itineraries are highly influenced by research (a main component of step two), whether that research was first-hand or via word of mouth. Once visited, travelers decide whether or not to pass along these sites to other travelers based on how those places or restaurants emotionally affected them. The same goes for products. When attempting to navigate and complete this third step (development), brand builders should ask questions such as, “Is the medium through which the product is disseminated meaningful and memorable?” and “Does the message yield an emotional response to the point of paying it forward?”
A single story can host a multitude of emotions. In order to understand the value of anything—a product, a journey, a memory—one must first relate the story behind it. To be gain consumers’ attention and investment, brand builders should aim to create narrative passports that will tap into audiences’ emotional capacities. This will help create meaningful memories between the product and their emotions, and thus, produce relevant experiences between consumer and product. As Maya Angelou once concluded, “People will never forget how you made them feel.” Brand builders, let’s make them feel good. And make them remember it.