Why Storytelling Works: The Narrative Science of Your Marketing Plan
What do you remember most about sleepover parties when you were a kid? Is it sitting around huddled with your friends long after the parents had told you to go to sleep telling scary stories? Is there a story that still sticks with you: one with the hook hand, the ghost hitchhiker, or maybe the baby alligator that now roams the sewers fully grown?
Consider the power of mnemonic devices. Why is it so much easier to remember “Never eat soggy worms” than the order of “north, east, south, west?” When people are first learning music, why are the notes of the treble staff taught as “Every good boy does fine” instead of expecting students to remember “EGBDF?” It’s because one tells a short story, and the other is a dry recitation of facts.
Stories are memorable because stories have power. Before humans had books, we had stories. Storytellers kept our history. They were revered in clans and maintain a high status to this day through movies, books, plays, etc.
Humans are communal, emotional beings. We need societies to survive, and we thrive on connection. This is why storytelling is such a powerful marketing tactic. When you make an emotional connection with your audience, you make a memorable impact. It’s how our brains work.
The Science of Storytelling
In 2014, Budweiser released a Super Bowl commercial titled “Puppy Love.” The ad featured a yellow lab befriending one of the famous Budweiser Clydesdale horses. At some point, the dog is almost adopted and removed from his friend, but the Clydesdale prevents it. The final shot is the horse and dog playing in the field.
The ad aired toward the end of a Super Bowl where the Seattle Seahawks demolished the Denver Broncos. At halftime, Denver had not scored a point, and the final tally was 43-8. Still, despite airing toward the end of a pretty boring game, “Puppy Love” was one of the most popular ads to air during that Super Bowl.
It was followed in 2015 by “Lost Dog,” where the puppy is accidentally locked in a horse trailer, which travels to a city before the dog escapes. As various shots show the horse and a farmer looking worried, the dog makes its way home. When the farm is in sight, a wolf appears to threaten the dog. The horse senses trouble, rallies the other horses, and saves the day. The final shot shows the farmer washing the journey’s dirt off the happy dog.
These two commercials are considered among the most iconic Super Bowl commercials of all time (along with other narrative ads like Apple’s “1984” and Volkswagen’s “The Force”). Research published in The Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice examined 108 Super Bowl ads and found that the most successful ones told a story.
“People are attracted to stories,” Keith Quesenberry, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of the study, said in a Harvard Business Review article. “Especially in the Super Bowl, those 30-second ads are almost like mini-movies.”
Story structure for a linear narrative is typically broken into five acts (also known as “the hero’s journey):
Act 1: Exposition – this is the inciting incident (in “Lost Dog” it’s when the dog is locked in the horse trailer)
Act 2: Complication – when the action starts (the dog escapes the trailer and journeys home)
Act 3: Climax – when all seems lost and the hero makes their move (the wolf threatens the dog, and the horse rallies his compatriots)
Act 4: Reversal – the outcome of the climax (the wolf runs off, and the animals return home)
Act 5: Denouement – the resolution (safely home, the happy dog gets a bath)
Our brains release different chemicals during specific acts. During cute parts of a story, such as when a couple gets together or a cute dog befriends a horse (typically the exposition), our brain releases oxytocin, known as the “cuddle hormone.” Oxytocin promotes empathy and trust and helps strengthen memories of an event.
While the tension is rising during the complication and climax, our body starts pumping out cortisol, the stress hormone. Have you ever sat up and leaned forward during an exciting part of a movie? That’s due to cortisol making you pay attention and focus.
Once the excitement is over and we’re heading toward the happy ending of the denouement, our brain sends out dopamine to tell our body to chill out after the tension caused by all that cortisol. Dopamine helps us relax and feel optimistic.
Paul J. Zak, Ph.D., the Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, conducted a study where people watched 30-second public service announcements (PSAs). All of the PSAs told stories about social issues, but none of them solicited donations. Participants in the study were given either 40 IU (international unit) of oxytocin or an equivalent amount of saline (a placebo).
According to a summary of the study printed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “To incentivize people to pay attention to the videos, each of the participants was paid five dollars if they could correctly answer a factual question about the ad immediately after watching it. For example, “Was there a car in the video?” Then, our software asked participants if they would like to donate some of the five dollars they had just earned to a charity associated with the cause shown in the PSA.
“We found that those who received oxytocin donated, on average, 56 percent more money to charity compared with participants who received the placebo.”
Incorporating Storytelling into Your Marketing Plan
Since stories are so powerful, it’s fortunate that your brand has a story to tell. Your message is your story. Your job as a storyteller is to convert your message into a narrative. As long as you know what you want your audience to walk away remembering, you have a head start.
Know that a sales pitch is not a story. A PowerPoint presentation is not a story. Both of those tend to be recitations of facts (with varying degrees of personality injected into them). The problem with just saying facts is that an audience tends to create their own narrative around them. When this happens, you relinquish all control over that narrative.
However, if you present those facts within the frame of a story, you are entirely in control of your audience’s emotional journey. Relate your facts to a personal tale. Don’t just say your product is the best at solving a customer’s problems. Use customer testimonials or describe the difficulties your company encountered until finally achieving success.
However, to earn the highest amount of empathy from your audience, do not make your brand the hero of the story. The customer is the hero. Even if it is your brand making the journey, you are doing so in service of the true hero of the tale: your customer. Think about “Lost Dog” (and “Puppy Love” before it). There’s no mention of Budweiser in those commercials at all until the very end. No one even holds a bottle. The only connection to the brand is that Clydesdale horses are closely tied to Budweiser.
Finally, remember the five acts of the hero’s journey – and the science behind its effectiveness. To get someone to pay close attention, you need to boost the production of cortisol, and that is only going to occur if your story contains tension. Be sure to highlight a conflict or struggle to engage your audience.
Your story does not need to be complicated or lengthy (both “Puppy Love” and “Lost Dog” are 60-seconds long). There is a lot of competition for your audience’s attention, so simple is better. If you can captivate your audience and keep their attention from start to finish, they will remember your message and build loyalty toward your brand.