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Five Things Marketers Can Learn from the Meaning of Stories

JimSignorelliToday's blog post is by Jim Signorelli, founder and CEO of ESW Partners, a Chicago-based marketing firm, and author of the new book StoryBranding: Creating Stand-Out Brands Through the Power of Story. For more information, please visit

ImagesStories are one of the most powerful tools in our communication arsenal. Since the beginning of language, they continue to inspire, motivate, and engage us like no other form of communication can. There are good reasons for this, and some of those reasons provide lessons for marketers. Here are five worth noting:
1. Stories clothe facts with “big M” Meaning: All stories have meaning or some reason for being told. Consider this story:    
The young athlete who trained by doing 100 squats every day ended up winning the marathon.  
In effect, this is a story about the functional benefit of squats for runners.
Now consider this revision:  
The young athlete who trained by doing 100 squats every day ended up winning the marathon. He has a prosthetic leg.  
The first story conveys meaning in the form of useful information, i.e., squats build running endurance; however, the second story is more than just useful. It's inspirational. By contrast, it has Meaning – “big M” Meaning. The additional five-word sentence makes the second story about the same runner far more significant.
One of the most important questions marketers need to ask about their brand is whether it conveys meaning or Meaning. Facts about unique features and benefits may be useful, but that are not Meaningful. To go for Meaning, brands have to associate with personal values, such as exploration, determination, hard work, or ingenuity, to mention just a few. And if the communication of those values provokes an emotional response, all the better.
2. We are more drawn to stories that leave the Meaning to us.  
Andrew Stanton, creator of the films Toy Story and WALL-E, refers to his “unifying theory of 2+2” as our desire to come to our own conclusions. We do not want to be told the answer is four. We'd rather figure it out for ourselves. This is one of the principles of story that attracts us to stories as a communication device. Movies, novels, poems, or songs do not explain the meaning behind their messages. Meaning is left to the audience’s interpretation.
This is very unlike much of what we see in advertising. Advertising often gets in its own way when it sets out to convey Meaning. By telling us what values to associate with brands or how to think about a given brand, we often resist or put up our protective BS shields. Consumers don't need or want to be told that your brand believes in caring about its customers or works hard for its money.
Taking a lesson from stories, it is far more engaging and believable to pull Meaning from the mind of the consumer than to push from the voice of the brand. Notice in the second story above, there was no mention of what to think or feel. If you thought or felt anything about the winning marathon runner with the prosthetic leg, it was because of your interpretation, not mine. Storytellers cause you to see what you see but do little to cause the way you think or feel about what you see. Doing so would be like the comedian explaining the punch line of his joke.  
3. Audiences gravitate to Meaning that arouses identification.  
Another reason we are so drawn to stories is because of their ability to help us see ourselves. Identification is a story’s ability to help us feel recognized for who we are and what we value. Besides helping us realize that we are not alone, identification also helps us examine what are sometimes unconscious beliefs that motivate our behavior.
Too often, brands that set out to create their identities ignore the benefits of creating identification. Creating a brand identity involves telling or purposefully positioning a brand to help consumers see what makes it different or better vis-à-vis alternatives. By contrast, creating brand identification is about helping the prospect relate to what the brand stands for or its cause. It’s about helping prospects see that your brand is for people like them. Creating a differentiated brand identity may influence buying, but creating strong brand identification will influence joining. It’s always better to have joiners than buyers. Joiners are the ones who stay buyers and wear your logos.   

4. Story writers don't use focus groups to decide what their Meaning should be. Story writers don't manufacture meaning on the basis of what will sell to the greatest number of people. Rather, they start with an authentically held core belief that they want to share and express in their own way.
Lack of authenticity is one of the many reasons consumers have become cynical about advertising. Today’s consumer is just too smart to fall for forced intimacy. They know when you are trying too hard to fit into their lives. Consumers want and need brands to be true to their own causes, and if you think that what you say or even imply about yourself is enough, think again. As far as consumers are concerned, your brand's truth will always be revealed more through actions than anything advertised. Trustable people don't tell you they are trustable, and friendly people don’t put you on hold for 30 minutes.  
If consumer research is required, better that it be used to compare expressions of Meaning than to derive Meaning. Meaning is an inside job.
5. For great story writers, Meaning is expressed in a similar fashion from story to story.
If you go to any best seller's list of books, you'll often find it consists of many narratives written by authors with whom we are familiar. Having enjoyed their previous works, we clamor for their newest work, and we do this out of an affinity for both their interesting perspectives and individualized expressions. We are not drawn only to messages they want us to read, but also to the way they consistently write them.   
The reason some people will camp out in front of an Apple store the night before a new product launch is simple: the new product is from Apple. As the excited consumers’ thinking goes, if it’s from Apple, it’s got to be something worth having.
Each new product Apple produces is recognizably linked to the one it updates. The new offering may provide improvements, but more importantly, it remains a continuance of Apple's “big M” Meaning. Just as writers remain true to their voice, Apple takes great pains to make sure its products deserve a rightful place within its family.  

These are just five things marketers can learn from stories. The parallels between good stories and strong brands are rich with more.

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Sunshine Coast Bookkeeping

Stories are just more interesting compared with lectures. People can relate with them and they interpret the stories on how they understand it. This is a great way in connecting with people and adding the “M” or meaning I one’s brand.

Dr. Steve Bedwell

Interesting post Jim,

The prosthetic leg example was especially intriguing.

I can't help but feel that, regardless of the story (or indeed advertising message), it's the individual listener/viewer who finds the meaning for themselves.

People interpret a story with reference to their mental associations and the connections they make can often be surprising to the storyteller.

I look forward to reading your book

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