How to use storytelling for marketing with strategic empathy

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Claire Brooks
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Marketing executives often use storytelling to communicate the brand message in a meaningful way to consumers or customers. Increasingly, executives are also using empathetic storytelling to communicate strategy within the organisation, and inspire targeted and effective strategic action.

The challenge for the marketing strategy team is not just to present marketing strategy but to bring the strategies and customer insights to life in a way that connects with the audience and builds empathy

This is what we call Strategic Storytelling. HR specialists predict that over the next few years, storytelling will become one of the top three skills required by insights and strategy executives. In my new book, I explore how and why this is done; the following article is an abridged extract from my book, Marketing with Strategic Empathy.  

Why storytelling?

Why is storytelling so powerful at communicating a strategic message so that it’s not only remembered but acted upon? 

Neurobiology, psychology and anthropology all play their part in helping us to understand this. Neuroscientists have demonstrated that storytelling causes the same area of the brain to light up simultaneously in both storyteller and audience, suggesting that the storyteller’s audience does not just listen to the story but connects emotionally with it (and may even demonstrate this emotional connection by smiling or crying). 

Other research evidence suggests that character-driven stories consistently cause oxytocin synthesis, which enhances human beings’ senses of empathy. Presentation approaches which use character-driven stories with emotional content have been shown to make complex information persuasive and memorable. Anthropology also helps us understand the emotional impact of storytelling with reference to the earliest forms of stories: myths. 

For example Claude Lévi-Strauss noted the astonishing fact that myths, despite seeming to be arbitrary and meaningless, are surprisingly similar across human cultures of different periods and geographies. Myths are powerful because they help human beings understand who they are and where they come from. 

In organisations with thousands of employees and stakeholders, bringing the marketing strategy to life and building empathy with consumers and customers through storytelling is a challenging proposition. Here are some things to consider at the outset:

  1. Firstly, consider the different types of people who make up the audience. How do they absorb information and what level of detail do they need? For example, senior management have many demands on their time and attention span. They need a high level overview of marketing strategy. Product designers, by contrast, tend to thrive on nuance; they will gain inspiration from a high level of visual detail.       
  2. Next, consider what types of media would reach the target audience most effectively. For example, a 3-minute video summary may be right for time-sensitive senior management or retail buyer presentations, but lengthier audio podcasts or narrated video may be more insightful for sales teams who spend hours travelling by car or plane. Interactive online media or office installations may reach office-based workers best.
  3. When considering media for strategic storytelling, the goal should be to make communications as visually-based and contextually-based as possible. Humans remember pictures much better than words, because pictures more effectively engage the memory-related regions of the brain. Pictures which show people, especially those that show them engaged in some sort of context, whether active or social, are the most memorable of all. This is hardly surprising. From the earliest cave paintings, humans have depicted people in the context of their lives, social relationships and hierarchies. In the twenty-first century we follow reality-TV characters like the Kardashians and tell stories about our own lives, minute by minute, on social media. Quite simply, we fascinate ourselves. Moving pictures are more impactful than static. 

In my consulting business, I’ve used the following types of media to communicate customer insights and strategy widely across the organisation:

  • Consumer documentary video. 20-30 minute edited video using footage of real customers, which can be enhanced with text slides to communicate key strategy points can be posted on the company intranet. A 2-4 minute executive edit can be produced for senior management.
  • PowerPoint presentations. PowerPoint is challenging for storytelling because of its inflexible information architecture, but it is low cost.  There are some simple approaches to bring the story to life and build empathy, such as:
    • Creating customer archetypes which bring different customer segments to life through a single individual.
    • Using contextual photographs or verbatim consumer language.
    • ‘Look-Feel’ pages, made up of customer photographs and other imagery. Design and creative audiences use imagery extensively to inspire their work. 
    • Animated PowerPoint with a narrated voice-over. This is not a lower cost option than edited video but it does allow for greater text and graphics inclusion.
  • Printed media such as books or laminated cards. While more expensive to produce than some other media, they can look impressive enough to have staying-power on a bookshelf. For example, my consultancy produced a 20 page booklet for a food brand manufacturer which told the story of the changing landscape of home cooking and food shopping. The booklet was sent out to the grocery trade in order to position the manufacturer as an expert in the field. 
  • Installations on company premises. Some organisations (apparel retailers, for example) create a ‘customer room’ which builds out customer archetypes using photos, video, posters or artefacts such as clothing can tell the consumer story in an experiential way. 
  • Internal conferences are a great venue for customer storytelling. For example, my consultancy created a video edit of ethnographic interviews with gaming enthusiasts, which was shown at am internal sales conference for a gaming corporation. We then introduced the customers shown in the video on-stage in a live talk-show format, opening up to questions from the floor.

Consumer documentary video is my preferred medium for Strategic Storytelling because it is character- and context-driven.  It shows customers in the product or marketing context, as well as human thoughts, feelings and motivations. Dramatic tension can easily be built using narrative, dramatic pacing and music. Consumer documentary film has its roots in early ethnographic film which visualised context as well as an experience of social reality or ‘being there’. The researcher spent long periods of time with the subject, recording the experience as if the camera were an extension of eye and arm. 

Consumer documentary film is different from other types of documentary, in that it has marketing strategic purpose and context. It merges approaches from ethnographic and documentary film. We immerse with the subject like the early ethnographic filmmakers, but for half a day rather than six months. We are independent observers of social reality but we do loosely script the experience through an interview guide.  And we do reconstruct the experience through editing which visualises the consumer through the lens of our marketing strategic purpose. 

In summary, storytelling which evokes empathy for customers is proven to be a powerful way of communicating strategy to employees at every level of the organisation and inspiring effective strategic action. It should attract as much creativity and investment in time as brand storytelling through marketing communications.

Claire Brooks is president of ModelPeople Inc., a global brand insights & strategy consultancy to global Fortune 500 corporations and SMEs. Claire is the author of Marketing with Strategic Empathy, published in 2016 by Kogan Page in London and New York and available on Amazon.  Claire has 30 years' experience in brand management, brand planning and deep insights research with Fortune 500 companies and advertising agencies in both Europe and the US, and was also a graduate professor, designing and teaching marketing MBA programs. She holds an MA in social sciences from Cambridge University and an MBA.

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22nd Feb 2017 13:12

What a great article, some very interesting points you put across about how to implement storytelling in large organisations. I like how you provided examples from your own personal experience in your consulting business. I feel like I'm definitely coming across more content that effectively utilises storytelling as a marketing strategy. I think stories are very powerful things, like you it causes a simultaneous brain connection and allows much great depth of emotional response in the audience. In my own personal experience, I've noticed that I remember stories much more compared to someone just talking about facts and figures.

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