Storytelling in marketing isn’t new. In fact, brand stories have anchored some of the best marketing, advertising, and public relations campaigns since the invention of, well, brands.
Marketers love stories, and not just because stories position their brand in a positive scenario. Us marketing types are creative and want to express ideas and touch emotions. We want to motivate and inspire and engage on a level that transcends a sale. We want to be storytellers.
There’s that, and then there’s what we actually end up doing.
Look, we love our brands. Really and truly. We spend hours thinking about how to get other people to love them the way we do. We get mugs and t-shirts printed that feature our logos.
So why do we end up telling such lame marketing stories? Maybe it’s because we’re not thinking about what makes a great story.
Let’s consider two important points about storytelling, one about marketing stories, and analyze them all through the lens of a blockbuster movie.
- Stories are about people, not events, or objects.
- Stories are about people’s problems and how those problems get resolved.
- Marketing stories should be about solving people’s problems.
Let’s unpack these three simple points and talk about what they mean for us as healthcare communicators.
Stories Are About People
You can tell a story about an unsinkable ship that sinks, and it’s very interesting and ironic. Or you can tell a story about Rose and Jack and their tragic love affair, and you have Titanic.
The first one is an interesting historical story, but the second one is about storytelling. Titanic took an epic event (with an ending we already knew) and made it about people. There were 2,223 passengers on the Titanic, but in the end, we cared about two people. Two.
Titanic worked because it established the main characters as people. You cared about them deeply. And when the inevitable end approached, you hoped for their safety, since you knew that at least some people survived the Titanic.
Highly simplified? Sure, but you know that a story about a ship that sinks is only as interesting as the people who survived and those who perished. It’s a people story, not a boat story.
Stories Are About People’s Problems
Jack and Rose clearly have a few problems, which is important. Without conflict, there’s really no story. Conflict raises the stakes and makes a story interesting.
Once we’re invested in the characters, we’re rooting for their survival. We care about the people and want them to survive, fall in love, and share this epic story. For a while there, we think they might just make it.
We know what happens to the ship, which is historically significant. We care about the people on the ship, but not the wealthy investors who made it.
The only stories that matter are about the people trying to survive. Once the characters are established, then the conflicts and resolution matter. If you set up a character, establish what they want, and create conflict, you have the basic building blocks of a story. Your reader or viewer will want to know how they resolve the conflicts. This creates tension and interest.
Marketing Stories Should Be About Solving People’s Problems
Titanic could have been a fictional film about an epic rescue. A modern Hollywood version might have featured a dramatic, climactic scene where Jack and Rose escape just as the Titanic sinks to a watery grave. With explosions, a smart-aleck kid, and a dog. And more explosions.
Audiences are wired for happy endings. We want the hero to survive. We want to see the villain get proper comeuppance. We want all of the loose ends to be tied up. We like to release endorphins.
In an ultramodern version, the hero might save the day in a Dodge Hellcat. We’d be okay with that and would even forgive the product placement if it worked for the story.
What It Means for Pharma Marketers
If Titanic teaches us anything, it’s that you can find a compelling, relatable story almost anywhere. Great writing, acting, and directing made you care about the people and their problems. You knew exactly what happened with the Titanic voyage, and yet you stuck around for 194 minutes to see how the STORY ended.
In pharma, we are dealing with life and death and health and conflict and resolution and hope and everything else that makes a great story. It’s all right there. From the scientist who toiled in a lab to create a new molecule to the patient with an untreatable disease. The clinical trials and the brave patients with nothing to lose. It’s the doctor willing to try a new drug on a desperate patient. Every step of the process has a dramatic story about people who overcome challenges to reach a goal.
It makes that little pill sitting in the palm of your hand more than just a brand. It highlights will, determination, and effort to bring this pill to market—something of a modern miracle.
Pharma marketers who want to tell a compelling marketing story are often skipping over the really interesting parts of storytelling. We spend so much time talking about the facts that we forget sometimes to talk about what it means to people. Behind every treatment, there are hundreds of amazing human stories that will never be told.
We are fortunate to be in a business where we actually get to help people. The products and solutions that we represent can change lives or even save lives. You are part of a chain of important people who are aligned to get the right treatments in the hands of someone very important. Every patient matters to someone, and we’re part of a treatment that matters deeply to them personally.
We have a responsibility to accurately explain how our drugs work, how they are dosed, and what kinds of side effects patients can expect. We’re very good at fact-based communications. There’s always a need for clear articulation of features and benefits, and we’ll never stop doing that.
But we are in the health-behavior business. We’re in an industry where early diagnosis can mean the difference between life and death. We can tell stories that will help motivate people to talk to a healthcare professional, learn about their treatments, and be compliant with their doctors’ recommendations. Facts and figures may work for some patients, but for others, not so much. If straight ol’ facts motivated people, we’d have 100% compliance.
Storytelling is the bridge from understanding to motivation. It’s the missing link between feeling a lump and seeing a doctor. It’s the difference between taking medication as prescribed and taking a drug holiday.
We know great stories and can learn how to be more effective storytellers. But we need to go beyond the label…to dig deeper to show how real people with real problems are being helped by our brands. We don’t even need to create fictional characters. We have patients, caregivers, doctors, researchers right in front of us, ready to tell their story.
Not too long ago, our team had the opportunity to interview the scientists who have dedicated their careers to cure cancer. These are top researchers with multiple degrees, and they could work anywhere in the world. Yet, they have devoted their considerable brain power to looking for a cure to cancer. It was amazing to sit with them and hear their personal stories. These scientists could do almost anything with their careers, yet something deeply personal brought them to the research bench in an attempt to cure cancer.
Every one of those scientists has a fascinating personal story that fuels their professional passion. As readers and viewers, we love stories about dedication, focus, and vision. We devour these “genius who changed the world” stories, yet we rarely articulate them as part of the brand story. These behind-the-scenes stories should be part of the unique brand narrative.
If you love your brand, and you know that you do, find the stories that matter. There are amazing, true stories on both sides of the exam table. Introduce the world to these people and help them tell their stories. If they are alive today because of your brand, let them tell their own story. We will care, we will be motivated, and we will take action.
Great stories have started revolutions and toppled governments. Stories have inspired people to take action, to pursue their dreams, or to just improve their own lives. Storytelling is at the root of our human experience.
Behavior is not static. It can be changed, but we need to give people motivation. Great storytellers know how to create characters, articulate their motivation, and put them into a conflict where they must make a decision.
Health behavior is not static either. We can find the stories that will touch people on an emotional level, engage them, and get them to take action. And that may be something as simple as taking your prescription every day.
It’s time to start telling better stories. Lives depend on it.