The man is Walter White, and I’ve spent nearly every night over the past three weeks crawling into bed with Walter—binge watching the past five seasons of Breaking Bad. My husband is supportive because he’s a season behind and has established his own relationship with Walter on our living room TV. He’s more than happy to have me cuddle up in the bedroom with my computer.
As it turns out, I’m not the only one with undercover relationships with the likes of Walter White, Claire and Frank Underwood, and Piper Chapman. People are changing how they consume information, and over-the-top content is growing at a phenomenal speed.
Netflix just reported that it has more than 62 million subscribers who are spending 10 billion hours per month watching and binging original programming. HBO Now recently launched on Apple, allowing Game of Thrones fans to unplug from cable television entirely.
Information and entertainment consumption rates are skyrocketing when people can consume on their own terms. We are addicted to good stories and we devour them anytime, anywhere. If you’re like me, you’re riveted to your screen well into the wee hours of the night.
As marketers, we struggle to create this same type of relationship with our audiences. How can we get people to binge on our brands? Everyone loves a good story. But why? What is it about story that is so addicting? According to recent studies, it’s the emotion drawn from the story—not the facts—that move us to action. Emotion is what inspires us to keep watching—to crave the next episode more than a junkie craves crystal meth.
Dr. Paul Zak, a prominent American neuroeconomist, conducted an experiment to study the effects of storytelling on the brain. He showed people a video of a dad telling the story of his son, Ben.
The story goes like this. Ben is a two-year-old boy, and he has brain cancer. Ben has just finished two rounds of chemo. He feels good for a change and is playing happily. His dad, as with most dads, is relishing Ben’s happiness. But as the dad tells the story, his voice begins to crack because he knows something that Ben doesn’t know. Ben is dying. In the video, the dad talks about how difficult it is to play with Ben knowing that he will soon be gone.
Through blood tests taken before and after the story, they discovered that during the story the brain released two chemicals—one was cortisol, which focuses our attention on something important and correlates with our feeling of distress. The second chemical released was oxytocin, which is associated with care and empathy. The more oxytocin released, the more empathic people felt toward Ben and his father.
Zak’s team then took the experiment one step further, and they asked the individuals in the experiment to donate money to a charity event for children who were ill. They found that those people who produced more cortisol and oxytocin donated the most money. They were moved to act.
What’s the difference between a story that bores us and one that makes our heart beat like crazy? Like any art, there is a craft to great storytelling. Suffice it to say, there is a universal structure that changes the way our brains work and potentially changes our brain chemistry, inspiring us to act.
Robert McKee, renowned screenwriting lecturer, refers to this structure as the Purpose-Told Story design. It includes the development of a core character, an event that causes imbalance, the desire to restore balance, a plan of action, turning points, crisis decisions, and eventual resolution. Of course creating a story within this structure is not easy and requires way more than creating content for content’s sake.
It’s not enough to understand the importance of brand storytelling as marketing leaders. We must first learn the craft ourselves, and we must train our teams to be great at it. Just as chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-cook, Walter White, poured years of education and experience into his recipe for crystal methamphetamine, we as marketers must work to get the art and science of brand storytelling just right.
Watch the video below, which combines scenes of conflict and resolution between characters, and write down every emotion you feel in the comments section below.