Storytelling is more than bedtime entertainment for kids—it’s something that connects us to the core of our humanity. The power of stories to move us to tears, laughter, or action has even been demonstrated at the neurological level. But why do stories have such a powerful effect on us compared with, say, encyclopedia entries? And how can your brand tap into that power to resonate its brand story with its audience? To answer these questions, let’s look to the distant past.
The practice of intentional human burial is at least 100,000 years old. Perhaps the earliest detectable form of religion, this not only betrays a “concern for the dead that transcends daily life,” but also an impulse to link the past, present, and future of the deceased: to construct narrative in a story. This storytelling impulse enabled our ancestors to foresee the future and strategize—a massive evolutionary advantage in itself. Stories served as containers for information vital to our ancestors’ survival. Where’s the waterhole? Which plants are poisonous? Information is up to 22 times more memorable when woven into a narrative. But stories contain more than simple information, and do more than hold a role as basic means of communications.
Myths and Meanings of Shared Stories
Whether it’s The Boy Who Cried Wolf or The Emperor’s New Clothes, as children we learn that stories hold morals or meanings. Scholar Joseph Campbell demonstrated how myths from all cultures and times share common characteristics and functions: they gave societies a sense of wonder, an image of the universe, rules and codes designed to promote cohesion, and they served as guides for successful passages of life. So the burial of the dead came with a feeling of awe that animals do not seem capable of. It painted a picture of the cosmos: life and the afterlife, heaven and earth. The ritual of the burial signified a respect for ancestry and unified the members into a single community. The exploits of the deceased survived in the oral tradition of storytelling. As civilization progressed, so did the stories. Countless family stories are told every Thanksgiving, every Christmas. Billions live their lives by the myths that became world religions. From grandfather’s rags-to-riches tale to the origin myths of nations, the community-bonding function of story lives on. And by focusing on shared stories, you can learn the community’s shared hopes and fears. Brands that eat, sleep, and breathe these shared stories—from the family to national level—can better resonate their own stories with their audiences.
Children who grow up knowing more about their families’ histories have higher self-esteem. Orphanage-reared children, conversely, show higher feelings of alienation and are more hostile toward society when compared to non-orphans. Clearly, family stories have a role in children’s mental well-being.
But despite these macro-level generalizations, no two families, family histories, or family experiences are quite alike, and it’s outright impossible to know which experiences any two people will share, or even consider familiar. For brands looking to prove that they understand their audiences and connect with them on an emotional level, that means a close examination of powerful narratives, and some research into human lives. If you’re seeking to align your brand story with your audience’s stories—as you should be—you can’t just guess at them. You need to get to know exactly what they are.
Rags to riches is a familiar story for many popular protagonists (think Harry Potter and Cinderella). Politicians use it to align their brand with the American Dream. Take, for example, the story Hillary Clinton shares about her father, Hugh E. Rodham, the son of a hard-working immigrant father who endeavored to operate his small drapery business and make ends meet. According to Clinton, he “just believed that you had to work hard to make your way and do whatever you had to do to be successful and provided a good living for our family.” Many brands also leverage the rags-to-riches theme to tell their stories. One example is Johnnie Walker’s short film, The Man Who Walked Around the World, which tells the story of a simple farm boy’s rise to greatness. Then there’s Gatorade’s The Boy Who Learned to Fly, an animated short that charts Usain Bolt’s heroic journey from humble beginnings to sporting legend. With golf courses and cruises, rags to riches has been a favorite theme of retirement advertising. In harder times, there’s a danger of alienating those who may be struggling. Using a rebirth twist, presenting retirement as a new beginning, was the strategy of Prudential’s Day One campaign. The concept is simple, but the effect is powerful.
Another typical family story is the descending “we had it all but lost it” narrative. Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign taps into this. His platform, “we don’t win anymore,” resonates with millions of families across America, especially in the Rust Belt where industry has decayed. In 1960, Detroit had the highest per capita income in the USA. Between 2000 and 2010, almost half the manufacturing jobs in Michigan were lost; by 2011, a third of the city lay vacant or derelict.
The award-winning Chrysler TV spot “Imported From Detroit,” which was credited with rebranding the city as well as the US auto industry, took the descending narrative and, like Prudential, gave it a rebirth twist. The two-minute epic depicts a gray-skied industrial Detroit. The narrator asks, “What does a town that’s been to hell and back know about the finer things in life?” We then see downtown architecture that suggests a glorious past. “You see, it’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel.” Cut to the giant bronze fist in Hart Plaza, the monument to boxer Joe Louis, and details from Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals: blue-collar workers toiling at a production line. “That’s who we are; that’s our story.” Cue the familiar and determined riff of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” and there we have it: the Chrysler 200, the phoenix rising from the ashes, driven by Detroit native Marshall Mathers.
The Super Bowl commercial was a game changer for Chrysler, resulting in a 50 percent increase in sales. But what made it so successful? The comeback kid narrative would have been lost on audiences in 2006. But in 2011, the story aligned perfectly with the Detroit story and resonated with millions of families in the Rust Belt, and more broadly with all Americans who take pride in US manufacturing and who may have suffered in the crash.
In 2014, Honey Maid released its commercial, “This is Wholesome.” We hear gentle optimistic music. We see two fathers with a baby and a multiracial family, all cut with classic Americana: baseball, suburbs, and rock ‘n’ roll. The narrator says, “No matter how things change, what makes us wholesome never will.”
While most families identify with the oscillating narrative “We’ve had ups and downs, but we always pull through when we stick together,” the use of diverse families here is significant. Had they gone with “traditional,” white, heterosexual families, it would have seemed clichÃ© and anachronistic. Single and multiracial couples with children, however, have endured a history of persecution. Such families have had ups and downs depending on the political winds as well as their own individual situations. Their story is one of fighting for acceptance. To celebrate “what makes us wholesome” (that is, by implication in the commercial, love and care) in the context of diverse families is refreshing to most people—and for me personally, as someone in a multiracial marriage, it is also deeply encouraging. The brand story of enduring wholesomeness wraps around the audience’s shared story like a comforter (an audience which, incidentally, does not necessarily wholly comprise single-sex or multiracial parents, but merely anyone who believes that “what makes us wholesome” transcends categories of race and sexuality).
Brand stories that overlap with shared family stories, whether ascending, descending, or oscillating, have a good chance of resonating with their audience. But, as we saw with Detroit and Chrysler, families are not the only unit bound by stories. The descending and rebirth narrative of families in the Rust Belt actually binds these families into a wider community. If you can see the overall community story, you can target your story with a more defined group.
Some communities have strong ties to their past. The Jewish community, thinly dispersed throughout the world, has survived centuries of persecution. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, religious leadership shifted from the high priests in Jerusalem to a dispersed community of rabbis and scholars, transforming Judaism into a religion which required study of the Torah. The study and retelling of religious stories, sometimes through ritual (such as Passover), has been and still is the glue that binds the Jewish diaspora. European immigrants in America retain strong ties to their “homelands.” Nowhere, not even in Ireland, is Saint Patrick’s day celebrated like it is in Chicago. While the legends of Saint Patrick may not be known to all Irish Americans, the celebrations and imagery provide a sense of heritage.
While Irish Americans can go “home,” it is much harder for most African Americans. As many as 50 ethnic and linguistic groups were severed from their ancestor’s homelands, and stripped of their culture, language, and stories. Nature abhors a vacuum, and humanity can’t live without stories. In the 1930s, the Rastafari movement developed in Jamaica and offered meaning and identity to Rastas throughout the world. Slaves changed the lyrics of spirituals to express endurance, resistance, hope for freedom, and religious belief.
After hearing stories about his family from his grandmother, Alex Haley managed to trace his family tree back several generations to Kunta Kinte, a young man from the Gambia who was captured and enslaved. His 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family went on to sell 1.5 million copies and spawned an Emmy Award-winning television series. The success of the novel and series marked the beginning of the billion-dollar genealogy industry, which had been the province of white socialites and racists.
The success of the novel and TV series, and the booming genealogy industry, reveals the deep human need to understand one’s heritage—the overarching story of your family and community. The story of Kunta Kinte and his progeny is symbolic of the story many African Americans share: the story of persecution.
Given their use of pervasive and harmful stereotypes, ad agencies do not have a stellar history when it comes to African Americans. In the 1970s, the industry, aware of the growing spending power of the demographic, began to move away from portraying African Americans in positions of servitude, but the results to modern audiences look, at best, deeply misguided. Take, for example, the McDonald’s Get Down and Dinnertimin’ campaigns. These campaigns display a profound ignorance and lack of respect for their target audience. Negative stereotypes are still prevalent in advertising: as late as 2013, PepsiCo had to pull a commercial for Mountain Dew which was deemed by one social analyst to be “arguably the most racist commercial in history.”
There have been improvements. The NBA “Barrier Breakers” commercial uses excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and images of historic NBA firsts to tell its story. The African American story has indeed been one of breaking barriers and the NBA commercial is an elegant example of storytelling without pandering, though some may find the use of MLK’s historic speech to sell tickets distasteful. The moral of the story is that great care must be taken when representing communities. You need to understand a target community’s shared story in order to resonate your brand story.
The concept of national identity is inescapably connected with founding myths and stories such as Genesis or the story of Romulus and the foundation of Rome. What if a country doesn’t have a well-defined national myth?
Canada has two official languages and is home to people of many ethnic, religious, and national origins. Canadian culture has its roots in the First Nations communities, the initial period of British and French colonization, and more recent immigration from Asia and the Caribbean. No single national myth binds the diverse people of Canada. So what makes Canada Canadian? The answer is America—or, more precisely, not-America. Canada lives in the shadow of the mightiest military and economic country on earth, which also happens to export its culture throughout the world. From Donald Sutherland to Keanu Reeves, many famous Canadians are assumed to be Americans. Canada is in danger of being ignored.
One commercial that perfectly taps into this identity is “The Rant” from Molson’s I Am Canadian campaign. A young man modestly takes the stage in front of a Canadian flag on a screen. First he tells us what he’s not. “I am not a lumberjack or a fur trader.” Elgar’s rousing and patriotic “Pomp and Circumstance” fades in. Then he rattles off a list of Canadian attributes, each time contrasting with America. “I have a prime minister, not a president. I speak English and French, not American.” On he goes with the formula, louder and louder. The music swells. “And it is pronounced zed! Not zee: zed!” He finishes, “I am Canadian!” The message is clear: Canadians are not Americans.
The American story completely ignores Canada, and is rooted in the Declaration of Independence which proclaims that “all men are created equal” with the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” On September 11, 2001, in what was the inciting incident for the War on Terror, hijackers flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon: symbols of US power. The American Dream was under attack. Balance was lost. The quest? Punish the evildoers, spread democracy, and make America safe.
At first, this story united Americans and their allies. While some companies chose to exploit the event to inappropriately market their products, United Airlines’ commercial, “We Are United,” was tasteful and to the point. It featured pilots talking about their love of flying. We hear a piano perform Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” itself highly evocative of New York. A woman, determinedly shaking her head, says “We are Americans, and this is not going to beat us down.” The post-9/11 narrative provided easily identifiable heroes and villains, as well as shared hopes and fears. Selling the War on Terror and the Patriot Act to an electorate hungry for closure was easy.
But before, during, and after the Iraq War, another narrative began to take hold in the West. In an article in The New York Times, Patrick E. Tyler stated his view that the demonstrations around the world were a reminder that “there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” The neocon agenda, which became synonymous with imperialism, secrecy, and surveillance was a new villain. Bush’s approval ratings dropped from 90 percent shortly after 9/11 to 25 percent in 2008.
In 2016, America remains divided. During this contentious election cycle, it’s clear that the battle lines have changed since the last decade. Even the current Republican candidate claims he had been against the Iraq War. The two political tribes are fighting to define America and take control of the narrative for the next generation. Is America stronger together, or do we need to make America great again? How will brands tell their stories to the two tribes before and after the election? Do they dare pick a side?
Or perhaps the divide is the story: Shortly before the 2012 election, Kid Rock and Sean Penn released a public service film whose goal was to tear down the overly simplified, one-dimensional political stereotypes portrayed by the media. It didn’t unify the country overnight, but it did serve as a reminder that Americans should be proud of their differences. Here’s hoping for another film this year.
Know Your Audience, Know Their Stories
We’ve all seen tone-deaf, dated advertisements that fall flat and offensive advertisements pulled for being racist. What did they get wrong? Maybe they didn’t take the time to get to know their audience, to know their shared stories, their hopes and fears, their heroes and villains. Brand stories that tell our story are the ones that stick; they are the ones that are shareable, powerful, and viral.