“People don’t always remember what you say or even what you do, but they always remember how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
In late 2008, a few weeks after Lehman Brothers filed the largest bankruptcy in US history, I quit my finance job, packed up a rental car — knotting a shoelace to keep the trunk closed — and drove to Boston to join a nine person startup. When I got there, my first assignment was to “learn and develop the brand voice” and create marketing reports.
Back then, nobody called this content marketing — we just noticed publishing free or low-cost research helped customers discover us. The more we told stories about important industry trends, the more leads we’d get for our inside sales team, and the easier it was to grow the company.
In the years since, I’ve spent my fair share of time turning ideas, experiences, and data into brand narratives. I even spent a year working on a startup that helped brands tell more effective video stories through talent-sourcing and audience analysis. And during this time I’ve learned two dead simple but important principles about storytelling that everyone in business should take to heart.
The first is that the most powerful way to communicate with your audience is a killer story.
Whether it’s in the form of a Hemmingway novel or an episode of House of Cards, rich stories stimulate our brains in ways simple language processing doesn’t. In fact, when researchers from Emory University read test subjects elaborate metaphors about texture, they observed that their sensory cortex — a part of the brain responsible for perceiving texture through touch — became active. When they told the same subjects simpler descriptions that meant the same thing, no sensory response occurred.
Other early research suggests there’s substantial overlap in the brain networks we use to understand stories and the networks we use to navigate social interactions with individuals. In other words, a gripping story can cause us to feel the same type of connection to a fictional character we might experience interacting with a real person. Our brains physically can’t always distinguish the two.
The second is that storytelling is incredibly hard to do well or at scale, particularly for brands.
Whereas marketers usually approach narrative content with a business objective (i.e., “what can we blog about to rank better in SEO?”), great storytelling prioritizes strong — and sometimes unintended — emotional objectives. Sales, press and social engagement went up for Intel and Chipotle after they released “The Beauty Inside” and “The Scarecrow,” respectively, but it was a secondary result of the fact that both brands brought their audiences awesome, interactive stories. Telling your CMO or executive team they should forget about metrics and focus on winning hearts is a hard sell, no question, but that’s the type of risk-taking that produces marketing people remember.
The last time I was in Austin, working on a previous startup, I managed to get a meeting with an executive from Red Bull I wanted to pitch a deal to. In the spirit of solution-oriented selling, I asked him what he wanted his marketing to achieve.
After considering my question for a second, he said: “Well, we make content. But we don’t make content so people love the drink, or the product, we make it so they’ll love Red Bull.”
He never bought anything from me, but to this day I still love Red Bull’s marketing, which might be the point.