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The Power of Narrative in Advertising: Brands that tell stories and win customers

We have all seen the power of storytelling in action. Stories most likely have even contributed to our decision to make a purchase, wear a particular item of clothing and drink a certain beverage. Narrative has become a weapon in the ongoing battle of the brands. The companies that are coming out on top have captured our imagination and won over our hearts NOT our head.

So what IS a story and why are they so powerful? Simply put a story can be broken down in to four elements (Fog, K., Budtz, C. & Yakaboylu, B. 2010):

Message – WHY are you telling the story?
Conflict – No conflict, no story
Characters – Protagonist and antagonist
Plot – The progression of the narrative

These items may make up the structure of a story but in order to win over consumers, brands need to engage a much more complex strategy. They need to ensure that their target audience can RELATE to the hero or antagonist and the problem or conflict (Fog, K et al. 2010). The brands outlined below and the campaigns they developed attempted to do just that. Let’s take a look at how some of the most memorable advertising campaigns of the last century used the power of story to move product.
 

 

1) Nike  Consumer = Michael Jordan

Nike has done an outstanding job of creating stories that star YOU – the consumer. In their latest ‘Just do it’ spots seen here: http://www.nike.com/us/en_us/c/just-do-it, Nike has juxtaposed regular people with sports superstars. The heroes of the Nike story are competitors everywhere trying to be better. The conflict is man overcoming his own limitations and self-doubt and transforming into someone better, someone who can change the world. Nike products HELP the hero make this journey from average to superstar.

Effective marketing strategists understand that crafting a story where the brand is a supporting actor enabling the protagonist to achieve their goals builds favorable consumer-brand relationships (Woodside, A. G., Sood, S., & Miller, K. E.,2008). They also
understand that narrative and story is a much more powerful connection agent than lecture-based advertising (Woodside, A.G. et al., 2008). Nike doesn’t even focus on their products during their ads. They don’t MENTION the product. Can you even imagine a Nike ad that rattled off features of their latest shoe? Nike has mounted a global movement by encouraging their consumers to be the hero of their own story.
 

2) Mazda  Games Engage

Mazda’s typical ad spots feature drivers taking on the open road. The hero of this man vs. nature narrative is the driver who want conquer the open road with the help of Mazda’s superior engineering. For better performance, drive a Mazda. Mazda has also positioned themselves as a brand helper, aiding the consumer on his quest for transformation. Mazda Canada recently took this narrative a step further by creating an interactive, Transmedia campaign called 33 Keys. The idea was to create a story about a fictional woman living in the future which was battling a society that had outlawed joy. She needed help finding the ‘essence’ that would free her people and bring joy back to their lives. This campaign included gaming elements by providing fans the clues to find 33 geocached keys, with one starting a new Mazda.

Games can help lead to transformation and promote a deeper level of engagement (Green, M. C., Strange, J. J., & Brock, T. C., 2002). By weaving elements of game play throughout their campaign, Mazda was hoping to keep the consumer engaged and allow them to experience the transformation that their hero would experience as the narrative unfolded. The literal story of saving a fictional woman from a lifetime of despair overlaid the implied meaning that by finding the ‘essence’ or a new Mazda you would find your joy.
 

3) Old Spice  Shock and Guffaw

Who can forget the Old Spice campaigns featuring ‘the man your man could smell like’? They have become marketing legend and used various components of good storytelling to make an impact. The hero of this story is the perfect looking man stereotype, who typically would star in male fragrance spots. The goal of this ad is to transform the consumers ‘man’ from one that smells like a girl, to one that smells like a man. Old Spice successfully used humor and elements of satire to retell an old marketing story that we all know very well: ‘If you use product X, you can look like me’.

Jonah Sachs does a good job outlining why the Old Spice campaign was such a hit and posits the theory that a good story needs ‘freaks, cheats and familiars’ (Sachs, J. 2012). He argues that the actor playing the hero in the Old Spice campaign is a freak  – freakishly perfect looking and willing to make fun of this fact. Old Spice effectively used the story element of character to provide viewers with something unexpected. Andrea Phillips warns storytellers about the pitfalls of using stock characters. They can often perpetuate stereotypes and she suggests adding something unexpected to make the character more interesting (Phillips, A. 2012). As Phillips says, ‘entertaining is the new marketing’ and Old Spice was able to tell one of the most entertaining advertising stories of the last century.
 

4) Dos Equis  Self-identification Satirized

Dos Equis has managed to create marketing gold by creating a fictional character that they have dubbed ‘the most interesting man in the world’. These ad spots feature a weathered yet distinguished looking actor taking part in outlandish activates while drinking a Dos Equis beer. The spots end with the line ‘I don’t always drink beer but when I do – I prefer Dos Equis.’ Like Old Spice, this ad campaign manages to effectively make fun of old marketing tactics. The conflict of man vs. self, trying to overcome feelings of inadequacy by drinking a particular product has been done to death. What hasn’t been done, is an ad campaign fearless enough to point out the absurdity in such tactics.

Using narrative in advertising isn’t new as TV and print ads have always featured product-laden heroes. They featured the people we WANT to be, the people we want to look like, the people we want to smell like, etc.  Ad execs that used this tactic were banking on the fact that within the narrative mode, the protagonist elicits personal emotions from the consumer and allows the viewer to identify with the character in the ad (Green, M.C. et al., 2002). The story element helps the viewer to put themselves in the hero’s shoes and taken a step further, allows the viewer to BE like the hero. So the consumer can get the girl, be rugged like the Marlboro man OR be ‘the most interesting man in the world.’ Dos Equis crafted a campaign around pointing out the

absurdity of such tactics while also admitting that such a character wouldn’t ALWAYS drink beer. This unexpected juxtaposition of satire, humor and reality provided audiences with something new and memorable.

References:

Fog, Klaus, Budtz, Christian, & Yakaboylu, Baris. (2010). Storytelling: Branding in Practice (2nd ed.). Berlin: Springer. (Chapters 2 and 3)

Green, M. C., Strange, J. J., & Brock, T. C. (Eds.). (2002). Narrative impact: Social and cognitive foundations. Taylor & Francis.

Phillips, A. (2012). A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, Section III, p. 103-149.Bruner, Jerome. (1991). The narrative construction of reality. Critical Inquiry, 18

Sachs, J. (2012). How To Build Positive Marketing Stories That Work. Fastcoexist.com article (http://www.fastcoexist.com/1680140/how-to-build-positive-marketing-stories-that-work)

Woodside, A. G., Sood, S., & Miller, K. E. (2008). When Consumers and Brands Talk: Storytelling Theory and Research in Psychology and Marketing. Psychology & Marketing, 25 (2), 103-145.