January 8, 2016

Tell Stories, Sell Things

There’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen this video some time in the last 12 months. It does the rounds every now and then, normally under a title about how it’ll change your life or make you cry, and usually with the final title card conspicuously absent. It’s three minutes, but absolutely worth your time:

It’s a beautiful little piece of storytelling that skillfully picks at the heart strings. There are Hollywood blockbusters that wished they had the emotional impact of this three minute commercial.

But isn’t it a little bit strange that the video doesn’t actually sell you a product? They are a life insurance company, but where’s the young couple talking about how peace of mind costs less than a cup of coffee a day? Where’s the voiceover saying I can be approved in a week so long as I’m not a smoker with an existing medical condition?

Australian retail giant Myer ran a series of advertisements on television, online, and in cinemas about “Bring Wonderful Back” [NOTE this article originally contained a link to the advertisement, but it has since been removed from Myer’s YouTube channel]. Again, this ad featured almost nothing about what they actually sell. What they do mention is only a fraction of what’s on offer, and even then, I’m not sure they actually stock handbags for mice. I might be wrong, and the commercial has certainly got me interested in visiting Myer to find out.

Then there’s Apple, who are almost allergic to mentioning specific products when talking about themselves:

So what’s going on here?

Instead of selling you a specific product or service, they’re selling you a narrative and an emotional connection which you then associate with their brand. Wherein a previous article I spoke about using emotion to communicate, here we are looking at companies using communication to emote.

Since not everyone wants or needs something every day of their life, traditional commercials that simply inform people about products or services are really only useful for people who are already at the rear end of the buying process. Emotive storytelling, on the other hand, plants a seed in the mind of the audience that gestates and grows until they need something, at which point the story — or at least the emotional connection — is back in their memory.

And it’s not even necessarily conscious; you might be passing by a store, or browsing a web page and see a link to a product from one of the companies, and feel compelled to investigate. Emotions stay with us much longer than fact: trying to remember something you were taught ten years ago is generally a lot harder than remembering something embarrassing that happened at the same time.

We use stories to get to emotions because stories engage us and move us in ways that most other forms of advertising simply can’t. These stories may come in the form of short narratives (the life insurance video); impassioned musings (Myer); or an emphatic celebration of desirable qualities (Apple). Stories let us build worlds, imagine possibilities, explore the future, and create a sense of togetherness, all of which speak to people on powerful and universal levels and which are remarkably effective tools for a business to have at hand.