The principles behind your story: On brands, storytelling and online persuasion

A couple of days ago I was invited to a press screening for a dramatic love story that I knew wasn’t necessarily my cup of tea. I already had some idea about it and even knew how it was going to end, so I didn’t expect much. Yet 2 hours passed without me noticing or having my mind wonder anywhere else. The story still haunts me now. I keep having flashbacks on different scenes and all these questions about life and death keep popping in my head. It didn’t just surpass my expectations, it completely hooked me, made me empathize and feel for the characters, it made me strongly feel what they were feeling.

When was the last time you were totally captivated by something? What is the last story you remember being entranced with? And what is it that makes us react like that? Well, buzzwords like storytelling and building experience keep on floating around. After all, we are homo narrans, storytelling creatures and story lovers, we’re hardwired to learn about the real world and escape from it, both through fiction.

Brands make no exception. If you want something to sell, you have to tell me a compelling story, you have to make me relate and idealize that situation / experience / story. Yet there’s nothing to worry about, for the science behind stories already has some answers for you. From Aristotle’s rhetoric principles to Cialdini’s rules of persuasion, content marketing has you (the brand) covered.

There are already plenty of studies showing that the decisions we make are instinctual, and then the rational mind kicks in, the late arrival to the party. So, these principles also appeal to our emotional side:

Aristotle’s pathos

Appeal to people’s empathy, sympathy or even fear so as to get the point across. Think about all the social campaigns regarding climate change, child abuse or. You already have a story in mind, don’t you? The idea is to create a moral setting and to entice certain values and principles that the public shares with you.

A brand that does it well? United Colors of Benetton is the example that comes first to my mind even now, after all these years (I studied it in our semiotics and visual studies class in my bachelor’s years).

 

Cialdini’s scarcity

We are hardwired to instantly react to the idea of less, of something that is available for a short amount of time or in small quantities. We want something that is limited, exclusive or unique, because it appeals to what Robert Beno Cialdini terms as the scarcity principle (he has another 5 more defined). The smaller the amount, the more valuable a certain something is, because that’s how we perceive it.

Think of all the VIP tickets, limited editions and one-time only products out there.

The scarcity principle appeals to being special in terms of mindset, as, consciously or not, there is a certain appeal to standing out from the crowd by getting that limited or rare item. It is the principle that underlines a need to be different and be perceived as such by the others in a social context, through one’s consumer behavior.

A brand that does it well? Usually perfumes, just like this one below, which also has an influencer story etched as bonus:

 

Making a brand human

“The reason people are able to adopt brands as part of their self-concept is due to the natural tendency to humanize non-human objects.” – as said in the study Humanizing Brand Personalities by Kristen Calabro at Elon University. We do anthropomorphize brands all the time. They become our companions and “soul brothers and sisters”. This happens because we want to recognize our own idealized self in each and every one of them.

A brand that does it well? Think Apple. But also check out this Absolut Vodka 2016 commercial:

 

And my own two cents, drawing on storytelling practices, and rhetoric and online persuasion studies:

Authenticity and personal stories

What I’ve seen through the years, which relates to Cialdini’s liking principle, is that you have to make it personal and develop an authentic tone of voice. The liking principle underlines our way of connecting with people we like and enjoy being around. Being authentic takes it a step further and makes likeminded people react in a positive and empathic way to your story (even one related to a service or product).

Everyone, including myself as a communications professional, is tired of the same old commercials, tunes and stories.

Tell a personal story, don’t be afraid to show who you are, to be honest in what you sell. There’s also a narrative principle called show, don’t tell, meaning create the atmosphere, the characters, the setting, and let me draw the conclusion. It builds emotion and empathy in a more natural way.

Just watch this, I think I don’t need to say more:

 

Consistency

Cialdini talks about consistency in terms of aligning our outer actions and promises with our inner preferences and principles, or, I would add, our perception of ourselves. Yet, what I term consistency focuses on the brand, in the same terms. Aligning its promises with its client service and behaviors, so as to create the same feeling of consistency as the one described by Cialdini in regards to a person’s acts. And go even further by creating congruence and fluency at all brand levels: identity, strategies, building customer care etc. It’s a tough one, but there are plenty of examples of brands creating opportunities even out of blunders, mistakes, and crisis situations. Remember Oreo and the Super Bowl power outage?

This is where buyer personas come in handy, as they illustrate real client profiles (and a bit of their idealized versions) that a brand can relate to and satisfy, while other clients/fans/potential clients identify with the profile per se.  It is a process that the brand triggers through the stories it tells and its whole identity, of course.

A brand that does it well? Well, here’s Oreo at their best again:

 

In the end, stories make us human, meaning brand stories, too. They make us feel different or part of a community, they make us buy, share, even behave in a certain way. Brands that learn to do that in a natural and authentic way are usually the brands that convince us. I described some of the persuasion principles behind the process, but there are many more to explore. After all, we are designed to have various modes of being convinced.

What is the last story that convinced you? I would love to hear about it in the comments section.

If you want to know more about my take on all of the above, check out my work here or my content marketing class here (in Romanian).

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