Opinion: Want Stronger Creative? Find The Story In What You’re Selling

As published in adage.com

Growing up in Queens the cool kids didn’t greet each other with “Hi.” They said, “What’s the story?”

So imagine how jazzed we were when a popular TV campaign for a New York appliance store opened up with an announcer shouting, “Hey Jerry, what’s the story?”

We’re forever learning about new formulas for sales success. But nothing can beat a formula that has conflict, characters you care about, escalating excitement and a satisfying ending.

The story is the single most motivating sales technology known to advertising.

No one likes being told what to think. That’s why no one likes straightforward selling. But storytelling is different. It’s a form of gameplaying you willingly give yourself over to. It provides a seductive way around our mental pay wall, beguiling the rational self by making a pleasurable emotional connection with the brand.

News, drama, people you love, hate, sympathize with – the story has it all. And we’re wired for it. Think of all the bedtime stories you were read, all the cable series you’ve binge-watched. Think of Chinatown, On the Waterfront, The Shining, City Lights and hundreds of memorable films. Our mind nestles into stories like a head into a pillow.

Watch this spot for the French cable channel Canal+: It has a compelling narrative arc. Starting in medias res, the action grows more outrageous, leading to a denouement that makes you realize the whole thing was a demonstration of the quality programming Canal+ offers. The brand message is so deftly woven in you absorb it without blinking.

Or take this end-of-the-world tale from Jose Cuervo: The brand message is carpe diem, but the way this story tells itself, that ancient advice is strikingly contemporary and weirdly moving.

What makes these stories work? A combination of empathy and chemistry. As we watch our protagonist try to overcome his situation, tension rises and our brain secretes dopamine, so at the brand reveal we feel rewarded and hopeful.

Stories activate our brain’s language processing centers, sensory cortex, motor cortex and any other areas we use when reacting to the events in the narrative. As viewers, we share the emotions of the characters and turn the story into our own experience.

It’s been said there are no new stories, just new ways of telling them. This spot for The Guardian shows how one of our fundamental stories might be treated by contemporary media: As the news swiftly unfolds from front-page headlines to social media discussions to the nasty revelation that the villains are actually the three little pigs, we see just how The Guardian shows all sides of the story.

In the words of a YouTube viewer, “If this were a movie I’d watch the shit out of it.” Headlong suspense, being unable to stop watching or listening – these are critical to storytelling. Smart marketers know the longer your prospect is involved with your message, the better the chance of being persuaded and taking action.

Print media was once a home for beautifully crafted storytelling ads. With declining readership the venue has shifted. Today it’s about seeing how close we can come to spending nothing on our advertising.

Century 21 realtors did just that by taking advantage of a well-known story. Instead of running a costly commercial on the media event finale of “Breaking Bad,” they listed the actual Albuquerque house that Walter White owned on Craigslist. This singular image calls up many memories of the series, putting every “Breaking Bad” fan right in the center of the action. Such pennywise ingenuity gave Century 21 over 80 million impressions and gave fans an unforgettable experience.

One particularly successful brand trend has been immersive story experiences.

Last year, Manhattan’s iconic Carnegie Deli, which closed in 2016, was reincarnated for the second season premiere of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Every detail of this popup store, from décor to food to prices, screamed 1958, when the series takes place.

Stories have always been at the heart of myth, which is what our greatest brands are built on.

In an era without a national myth we can all agree on, along comes Colin Kaepernick: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” With this tweet Nike launched its new campaign based on the story of the man who brought attention to racial inequality through the NFL kneeling movement. What better way to bring attention to the values behind “Just do it” than with real stories of athletes who did just that?

What’s the secret to the best stories? Confounding expectations. Whether it’s butchering the star in the first act of “Psycho” or not explaining the hyper-passionate runners until the very last moment of this classic spot, being surprised violates our expectations and gives us a visceral jolt. Couple this with your message and your message hits deep.

Want stronger creative? Find the story in what you’re selling. It’s a time-tested persuasion system, as deeply human and inventive as you are.