Emotional Storytelling: Why Some Marketing Messages Should Be Subtle
Creativity Creative Thinking

For Social, Be Subtle: How Emotional Storytelling Inspires Customer Loyalty


Think about the last time you made an emotional connection with someone new. Maybe it was a great first date, dinner with a new friend, or even an unexpected conversation with a stranger. The discussion probably began with the usual questions: “Where are you from? What do you do for a living? How do you spend your spare time?” But the moment it stopped feeling like an interview and started feeling like a connection was when someone told a good story.

couple gets to know each other

Backgrounds, professions, and hobbies are certainly important aspects of our lives, but our stories reveal who we are and who we want to be. Every story we choose to tell provides subtle insights into what we value, what we believe, how we see ourselves, and how we view the world. Just as importantly, our stories help us form emotional connections with other people by giving us a powerful way to say, “I know exactly how you feel. We should be friends.”

Emotional storytelling can be just as powerful for brand marketing as it is for budding romances and new friendships. By telling your brand’s stories—not just hitting people over the head with marketing messages—you engage your audience, build relationships with them, and earn their loyalty. You’re not telling them what to think or buy; your stories show them that you share the same values, that you believe what they believe, or simply that you “get them.”

In a subtle way, you’re also proving that you know your stuff and can help them solve their problems. That’s the sort of creative thinking that turns connections into conversions.

The Not-So-Subtle Difference Between Advertising and Brand Storytelling

Traditional advertising and marketing still have a place in business, but neither is as well-suited for the social universe as brand storytelling. Social media isn’t about selling; it’s about connecting, inspiring, and nurturing relationships.

Jon Hamm, chief creative and innovation officer at Momentum Worldwide, put it this way in a recent Adweek article:

We operate in a cultural and technological world where consumers know everything about a brand, from who owns it to where and how products are manufactured and sold. As a result of this, companies are now evaluated by much more than their products. We are in a world where a brand’s values and the emotions they evoke are narrative material.

The subtle nature of brand storytelling is new territory for many marketers, who have been trained to talk up the brands they represent, write about product features, communicate competitive advantages, focus on conversions, and brand the heck out of anything that crosses their desks.

Many marketers still believe this is the only way to go. Noah Kerner, an entrepreneur who founded three successful marketing and communications firms, takes a stance against subtle messaging in his Forbes.com post. He writes:

“Let’s not be so heavy-handed.” It’s a phrase bandied about in boardrooms across the country, all the time. It means marketing communications should err on the “subtle” side because consumers don’t want to be hit over the head with marketing messages.

And it’s crap.

The point of marketing is to hit people over the head, until they get the message, at least. Otherwise it’s just a huge waste of money…The purpose of advertising is to build brand recall and awareness.

He’s not wrong. All content marketing should be branded. Not taking credit for your content—whether it’s promo copy, thought leadership or brand storytelling—doesn’t just waste marketing dollars—it can also get your company into legal trouble. But there’s a difference between advertising and brand storytelling. The former is about brand awareness—the latter is about customer engagement.

Traditional marketing is important for sharing information with current customers who already know and love your brand and who want to hear more from you. But to engage new audiences, build connections with them, and earn customer loyalty, subtly branded stories trump the hard sell.

5 Subtle Marketing Messages Behind Emotional Storytelling

German philosopher Hannah Arendt once said, “Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” That’s exactly what emotional storytelling does for brands. It adds subtle meaning to marketing. Rather than telling consumers what to think, it makes them feel. Better yet, it makes them feel connected.

Consumers want to do business with meaningful brands: companies they believe add value to their lives and the lives of those around them. But in the eyes of American consumers, only five percent of brands fit into that category, according to Havas, a global communications group that surveyed more than 300,000 people to identify the world’s most “Meaningful Brands.”

Companies on this list don’t just get to brag about customer engagement. They also command a 46-percent higher wallet share, outperform the stock market by 133 percent, and deliver 100 percent more KPI outcomes, including intent and advocacy.

How do these treasured brands engage and convert customers? They understand their audiences, sell great products, and tell stories that build relationships. For example, here are five meaningful messages from some Meaningful Brands:

1. We “Get” You

This universal need to be noticed, understood, and appreciated drives relationships and buying decisions. By telling a story that proves you see your customers—and better yet, that you see a better version of them—you make them feel connected to your brand.

Dove gets this better than most cosmetics companies. Rather than telling women how to look better, Dove’s long-running “Real Beauty” campaign says, “You already look great.” Along with running an interactive website and large social community, Dove creates empowering videos featuring social experiments that drive home this message. Both “Sketches” (2013) and “Selfie” (2014) brought tears to my eyes, and this year’s “Choose Beautiful” is no different.

2. We Know What You’re Going Through

Most people can be pretty hard on themselves. Even those who seem like they have it all together worry about failing at something. Good friends help us feel better by empathizing with our struggles. They share their own fears and stories, so we don’t feel alone in our struggles.

That’s exactly what Coca-Cola is doing with its Minute Maid brand. The socially driven campaign, “Doing Good,” tells self-doubting parents, “You’re doing better than you think.”

Along with blog posts and social conversations focused on parenting, the campaign features a central video that lets self-doubting parents tell their stories…and their children respond. (Warning: This is another tear jerker.)

It’s heartwarming and meaningful, and has little to nothing to do with orange juice. But by sharing customer stories, Minute Maid says, “We can empathize with you, and we’ve got your back.”

3. We See Who You Want to Be

At last year’s Content Marketing World event, keynote speaker Kevin Spacey talked to brand marketers about a topic he knows well: storytelling. One of the key elements in a great story, he said, is conflict. “Conflict creates tension, and tension keeps people engaged with your story. This kind of conflict between who we are and what we want to be and what others expect of us is the central thread of the human experience.”

Nike taps into this central thread with “Better For It”—the latest marketing campaign aimed at women. Rather than featuring female athletes or avid exercisers, it tells stories about how the rest of us feel at the gym: out of shape and out of place.

Check out my favorite video from the campaign: “Inner Thoughts.”

4. What Matters to You Matters to Us

Shared values unite people. Whether you’re promoting a social cause like the brands that found creative ways to support gay marriage, taking strides to protect the environment, helping people around the world, or just making big differences in the lives of individuals, those are stories worth telling. Or better yet, letting your customers tell.

Google uses this strategy across its marketing platforms, featuring businesses or consumers who use Google products in new and interesting ways. For instance, the brand introduced the world to Saroo Brierley, a young Indian boy who lost his way home 25 years ago, got adopted by Australian parents, and then reunited with his birth family using Google Maps.

The stories a brand chooses to tell sends a strong message about what it values. In this case, Google said, “We value families.” And that’s something most everyone has in common.

5. We Can Make Your Life Easier

Emotional storytelling doesn’t have to tug at people’s heartstrings or make a big statement. With some creative thinking, you can win customers’ hearts by simply sending the message: “We understand your everyday challenges, and we’re here to help.”

This is a sweet spot for Samsung, the top-rated company on Havas’ “Meaningful Brands” list. To promote its new line of home appliances, Samsung has released a series of videos telling everyday stories, starring real-life celebrity couple and new parents, Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard. These videos and are funny and relatable, and therefore shareable.

What’s the most important lesson brand marketers can take from these emotional storytellers? You can make laugh or cry; just make them feel. That’s how we create connections—in our personal lives and in our marketing.

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