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Digital Storytelling: The Ultimate Survival Skill for Innovators, Educators and Brands

Storytelling, the ancient communication method that enabled our earliest ancestors to stay informed, strengthen bonds and create a shared identity, is gaining ground as a marketing strategy. Consumer brands from Corona to Patek Philippe are wielding digital storytelling to boost brand awareness, engagement and sales with measurable success. Meanwhile, the tradition of storytelling remains essential to the search for meaning, with digital tools making it more accessible, memorable and collaborative for individuals across generations.

For expert advice on how to leverage storytelling to amplify both brands and ideas, I invited Associate Professor of Marketing Mario Gonzalez-Fuentes of Trinity University to share his knowledge. Click here to watch our full interview on Zoom or read below for the highlights on how to craft a great story and how advancements in technology can keep your big idea or brand alive well into the future.

Q: In reading some of your research, you posit that storytelling has value in both education and consumer marketing. What makes it so effective for teaching people?

Just as you said in your introduction, stories have been used since ancient times to inform, inspire, teach and pass on common lessons across generations. They have been part of human civilization since the Stone Age. They’re part of our DNA. They also have given rise to huge industries: news, books, Broadway musicals, Hollywood and Bollywood to name a few.

But stories are more than the form in which they are presented to the audience, be it a book, a movie, or even a song or a news report. They are universal ideas with the potential to transform the cultural landscape. Stories encapsulate information, knowledge, context and emotion. In this sense, stories tend to be high concept, or more idea-driven than character-driven. They achieve this by using analogies and emotional involvement of the audience as vehicles to deliver insights.

It’s important to note that storytelling as a pedagogical tool does not substitute analytical thinking. Instead, it complements it by empowering students to imagine different lenses to see the world around us. This is also true for the audience. By listening to different stories about the same theme—or in marketing a brand or product—we learn about unique perspectives, benefits and points of view.

Q: What makes for good storytelling? 

Good storytelling leverages three key elements: Change or conflict, tension and involvement.

Fundamentally, all stories are about change. Either the protagonist goes towards change or change comes towards the protagonist. Think about your favorite stories. Most of them fall in the archetype of the “hero’s journey.” You know, something happens in the life of the protagonist that pushes them to embark on a journey, adventure or quest, either to solve a problem or respond to a force. The protagonist learns something—about themselves, about the world or society—something that changes the way they see things, and comes back full-circle as a changed person in some way. They may be in the same place as they started, but they’re different. They’re changed.

Besides the hero’s journey, there are a lot of other archetypes. But long story short, they’re all about change. And that’s life, right? We humans are constantly changing, growing, maturing, progressing, falling and getting up again, failing and finally succeeding, getting promoted, changing careers, graduating, retiring…you get the picture. Why wouldn’t we love stories? They reflect the ultimate oxymoron: the only constant in life is change.

Good stories, when we listen to them, change us. Good stories compel people to change the way they feel, the way they think, the way they act or behave. They change the way we see something. They provide insights. They shift our perspectives. But change also comes with a price because it brings conflict, and good stories show a protagonist changing through the escalation of conflict. That builds tension, our second element of stories.

Q: How do you describe tension in a story?

Tension rises when the protagonist tries something to solve a problem and it backfires. Tension builds when what is expected to happen in a story doesn’t and the audience asks: “Why?” Good stories build tension by creating increasing doubts about the final outcome for the protagonist. Will she save the world? Will he recover his wealth? But neither of these two elements, change and tension, would matter if we are not engaged with the story or the characters.

Involvement or engagement hinges on emotions, and in order to generate emotions in a story, good storytellers are very successful at building empathy between the audience and a story’s characters. The more we identify with the protagonist and his or her problems and tribulations, the more we care about the decisions they make and about what happens next. Really good storytellers also build empathy by constructing a narrative that conveys a universal lesson, a lesson that all of us can relate to, that transcends the story itself—just like my teacher Cesar did with his plays. (Click here to hear this backstory and more on our extended Zoom interview).

Q: On the commercial front, can you cite any examples of how companies use storytelling to achieve aims like increasing sales performance or engagement?

Some companies are rookies that have just hopped on the bandwagon of storytelling, but others have been doing it for a long time. Take, for instance, Patek Philippe. They make high-end watches. They usually run print ads in newspapers or magazines. Their slogan and the illustration accompanying it tell a story, a simple but potent story. A story of sharing, of passing along, but also of change, of maturity, of growing, of life changes.

Change is about transitions, about finding a moment in which things turn, or there’s a change of pace. Corona has used storytelling to focus on those moments. Moments of peace. Moments to relax, to unwind, to disconnect, to reflect. Moments in between moments. Moments to share.

Q: What about consumer psychographics? How do you adapt this method for Millennials vs. Baby Boomers, for example?

This is a very interesting question and one that I am currently working on in one of my research projects. Every company or organization that I’ve had the privilege to advise in these matters knows that I always start tackling their questions by saying: “Let me talk to your customers!” Why? Because if you want to successfully apply storytelling to your brand or product you need to put your customer at the center of your stories – not your company or your brand. Your customer must have the leading role in the stories your company crafts.

Successful brands are very good at showing potential customers how their lives can be changed as a result of doing business with them. They’re also very good at showing empathy for their customers’ struggles when looking for the right solutions to their problems or needs. When brands construct narratives that focus on how customers’ lives are positively changed by their products, they connect with them at an emotional level. And that, in turn, plants the seed for returning and loyal customers.

Customers belonging to different generations differ in the stage of the life cycle in which they are, which means their end goals may be very different. But, regardless of their generation, they all love to be the heroes of their stories. Remember when we talked about how tension in a story can be understood as doubts about the final outcome for the protagonist? For customers of different generations, a product or a brand may be empowering them to achieve different outcomes. A house may be providing a roof and status for newlyweds, but it may be an asset to afford paying for their children’s college for a middle-aged couple. Or, here at Heirloom Digital, your products may be empowering a young man or woman to show their parents how much they appreciate their upbringing or, alternatively, allowing grandparents to capture their heritage in a tangible way so their legacy can live on for future generations.

Q: How does cultural background factor into effective storytelling?

According to the pioneer in the application of literary criticism to consumer research, the late Barbara B. Stern, stories “are a cultural staple since they are universally engaged by all communities in the world.” But stories are also cultural artifacts and thus reflective of the context in which they are created and told. As such, stories echo idiosyncratic understandings of life and society prevalent in the cultural contexts they are conceived and shared. Ultimately, culture provides the preferred narrative forms and arcs out of which people make meaning of their lives and experiences and come to terms with society.

Research has found stark differences in the way people tell stories about themselves or their loved ones depending on whether they come from a more collectivistic type of society or a more individualistic one. The ones coming from collectivistic societies, usually found in Latin America or East Asia, tend to emphasize interdependence with other family members or even with society as a whole, whereas those originating from individualistic types of societies tend to be more self-focused and the independence and uniqueness of characters. Other research has found collectivistic societies relying more on past stories to talk about lessons learned whereas individualistic societies tend to rely more on stories that may be one-time events and focus on the protagonist’s emotions and role in said events.

Q: What can you tell content marketers and storytellers, or students who aspire to be, about the value of this role in society today?

The purpose of a story is to be shared. If not, why do you tell a story? Because from its conception, you’re hoping it will be shared. When you see something that’s funny or shocking, you want to share it to see if others agree. The most inspiring stories are those that are massively shared and find a place in our common unconsciousness to live on forever. As Oscar Wilde once said:

The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself.

I teach future marketers the same thing. Marketing is also about sharing. That’s what viral marketing is all about. The more people are talking about your brand, your ad, and your products, the better. The more people tell other people about your company, the less you need to advertise or promote.

Ever wonder why companies like Ancestry.com or 23andme.com are popular? People are longing for stories, about themselves, their origins, and who is connected to them. We’re looking for stories that connect with us. All these examples show that storytelling is a fundamental human experience that unites people and drives stronger, deeper connections. Perhaps the real reason that we tell stories again and again—and endlessly praise our greatest storytellers—is because humans want to be a part of a shared history.

Q: Finally, what do you see for the future of storytelling as technology continues to advance?

One thing for certain that I can see coming is interactivity in stories. Stories have already evolved to adapt from cave paintings to handheld devices, such as our smartphones. They’ve gone from merely contemplative experiences to opportunities for engagement and participation with other media formats. In other words, stories have gone from being unimodal to transmedia. For example, nowadays we can watch a movie like Jaws on our TVs and tweet about it to other Jaws’ fans on Twitter. Maybe a couple of books would be written about Chief Brody’s backstory and his life after the events depicted in the movie. Maybe there would be a TV show based on the movie, but with different characters and settings…and a website with fans’ theories, etc. I can see that sort of interactivity increasing.

And when you think about the technology available, such as Virtual Reality (VR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), I can imagine how all those things will come into play to allow people to “live” a unique story, something like a “Choose your adventure” book, but in a world influenced by digital technology. For brands, this interactivity must also translate into increasing sharing capabilities, because what’s good about a story if we can’t share it? For brands to remain relevant, they’ll need to harness interactivity to ensure that consumers pass on a brand and its stories to generations to come.

Need help? The Heirloom Digital team is pleased to offer you a free consultation on our personalized storytelling service. Get in touch today and let’s visit. 

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