Once upon a time, people who first gathered in caves and around campfires to form the earliest human civilizations opened their mouths and the stories began. At a time when information was scarce, each story came with an implicit promise that whatever followed would be worth listening to.
Times have changed, and there are far more people gathered in that circle around the flames, but when storytelling is at its best, that unstated promise remains. The question facing today’s brands is how to best fulfill it.
The answer is simple: Today, the need for compelling stories is greater than ever. The Internet has become a traffic jam of campaigns, each shouting to be heard amidst a melee of bargains and once-in-a-lifetime deals.
Research suggests that by 2016, existing digital customers will make up 77 percent of online retailers’ sales in the United States and 78 percent in China . So for businesses that have built up a strong following, retaining the loyalty of those consumers must be the number-one priority.
Surprisingly, though, it isn’t. A survey done by Acxiom and Loyalty 360 found that 60 percent of businesses have committed just 20 percent or less of their marketing budget to retention strategies. Even within this 20 percent there is a misconception about how to maintain loyalty. The most effective approaches to retention are not those that divulge boring facts about the product or offer financially oriented deals. Those bargains will only remain attractive until they are trumped by a better one. While businesses might wait in the traffic jam, the fickle consumer can weave comfortably between the gaps. Instead, brands must recognize how to foster emotional loyalty.
Good storytelling is fundamental to any campaign looking to build this type of loyalty. For example, in over a century of advertisements, Coca Cola has almost never turned towards its product facts. Instead we are fed images such as Santa Claus wearing the red cloak that Coca Cola gave to him. This exchange practically led to the brand’s sponsorship of Christmas!
Stories survive through their ability to provoke and inspire. The enduring ones are related time and time again because of the emotional response they achieve. Without that emotional connection, the story will perish. A brand is no different. If a brand achieves emotional loyalty, it may be possible for it to overcome significant issues associated with expansion and consumer retention.
Studies have found that a huge 78 percent of Internet users in both the United States and China would show loyalty to a brand by telling others about it. What is this but a kind of storytelling? What’s more, it’s free. Roll down your window, hand your message over, and let the loyal consumer tell your tale.
Historically a story may have taken generations to gain a foothold—but today the Internet has allowed for overwhelming speed of communication. But beware: this pace of dissemination comes at a high price and the story can be forgotten as quickly as it is spread. What this means is that a brand’s story is outside of its control. Rather than seek to manipulate how the consumer uses the story, companies must recognize the consumer as its bard, troubadour, and fabulist, exploring the possibilities of what these people can give towards rather than take away from it.
If the consumer is to gain this agency and become the storyteller, then social-media hubs are the new campfires around which these tales will be retold. A key focus here must be on user-generated content. Netpop research states that user-generated content influences 58 percent of all purchase decisions in China. This is a significantly different figure compared to the United States, where that number stands at just 19 percent. If emotional loyalty can be understood as trust, it would seem that U.S. buyers have more trust in the brand directly, whereas China puts its faith in the popular opinion the brand generates.
These statistics are essential both in recognizing how the story must be applied in different markets and in understanding where the challenges lie. Brands must do ever more to break into the “real life” of the Internet rather than look in on it from the periphery. The consumer storyteller is not merely an inevitable side effect of campaigns, he is key to their success.
Individual campaigns, carried out on whatever platform, are no more than chapters, or even sentences, within a brand’s story. Cartier’s short film, L’Odyssee, is a paradigmatic example of a well-executed campaign that undoubtedly contributed to the brand’s recent successes. The film in its own right is a brilliant demonstration of style and sophistication, and it’s a story consumers intrinsically want to connect to and share.—but it remains totally integrated within the greater story of Cartier. By focusing on the collective story of the product, brands enter a realm of infinite possibility.
Brands that don’t appropriate fantastical identities that trigger emotional loyalty—the red cape, the big cat—are far more vulnerable to parallel markets. In reality, all that separates your product from the alternative is something fact-based (different parts, craftsmanship, and so on). But only the “real” product—the one you’re trying to sell—will be part of the story.
In this age facts are no longer remembered, but rather accessed on demand by a single click. A good story, however, lodges itself forever in the heart and mind of consumers. What’s more, it is worth retelling. So drop your facts and work to feed our insatiable appetite for a good story. Do this, and the brand and consumer will … live happily ever after.