Imagine a sales campaign that had one simple, unambiguous message: “Buy our product!”. No attempt to engage, motivate or in any way persuade anyone as to why doing this might be a good idea; just a crude call-to-action. I don’t think it takes too much imagination to realise that this would probably be about as successful as a wax frying pan. What it lacks is the presence of a narrative or story, that might help us connect with the idea that following the call-to-action would benefit us in some way.

Why are stories so important?

For countless generations, our forbears shared ideas, beliefs and knowledge via storytelling, a process which continues to this day. From the crucial warnings, we give to children, wrapped in fairy tales, to the desperate plea for action on the environment wrapped in terrifyingly graphic narratives of extinction, every message benefits from storytelling of one sort of another. Many aspects of human culture are bound up in narratives of one sort or another: social, religious, and political movements, for example, are based very much upon creating narratives that engage the hearts and minds of followers into believing that this path, as opposed to that path, will lead to some form of salvation. 

The selling power of stories

For marketing, recognising and harnessing the power of narrative structure is hugely beneficial, as a well-constructed story helps the audience to engage with, internalise, and form an emotional relationship with your key marketing messages. While the story you tell can embody very clear and unambiguous information, key marketing messages can also be included covertly, entering via the backdoor while audiences guard is down. Good stories can temporarily place your audience in a different time or place, can appeal to their hopes, dreams, and aspirations, or entertain with humour or drama. Good stories are the bait, hook, and line with which you can land your prize!

But you’re no author!

The idea of using narratives to market your products and services may seem daunting. After all, you’re a business person, not an author, right? The simple fact is that, in essence, your story’s structure is already written, because, presuming you didn’t start your business on a whim, you have all the essential ingredients at hand in your business model. 

Story structure and the power of threes

For some reason, the number three has a great deal of power when it comes to storytelling: three little pigs, three billy goats gruff, three wishes, etc. There’s something about three which gives us scope to explore an idea, but also provide useful constraints at the same time. Unsurprisingly, good narrative invariably follows some variation of the following three-stage structure, be it a 30 second TV ad or a two-hour feature film:

  1. The equilibrium of life is disturbed by a problem (e.g. peaceful seaside town terrorised by oversized shark)
  2. A solution presents itself (three blokes go out to hunt down and kill said shark)
  3. With the problem solved, a new equilibrium is enjoyed (two blokes swim back to shore and life goes on)

OK, the film Jaws is somewhat more involved in terms of execution, but in essence, the structure holds true and the same could be observed in countless movies, books, plays, and so on. But you don’t want to tell a story about sharks, you want to tell a story about your products or services….right? OK, but the principle is the same:

  1. Highlight a problem that affects your target audience (backache, processing mixed data sets, stubborn stains, inefficient logistics, whatever)
  2. Introduce your solution to the problem 
  3. Show everyone how good it’s going to be to have their problem solved

As I hinted above, the products or services you provide will inevitably have been developed in response to a problem and will be capable of solving or reducing that problem, so you already have the basic building blocks for your narrative. From here all you really need to do is put a little flesh on the bones with characters, context and a little emotional glue, all of which will help engage your audience in the story.

Example marketing stories:

Tech startup story

Problem:

‘Looking around on social media we saw so many stories about graduates who were finding it difficult to effectively assess potential job opportunities in different locations, in the context of local living expenses. They were often shooting in the dark, not really knowing if they could make their career start work financially, or if they were doomed to sofa-surf indefinitely and even go hungry. There were some real horror stories of people taking on jobs that effectively ended up costing them money, because they had no viable way of assessing living expenses against potential earnings in advance. Some people were actually accruing debts because of where they were working, but at the same time feeling obliged to continue to avoid ‘difficult to explain’ anomalies on their CV.’

Solution:

‘We were able to create a database that aggregates information on the cost of local accommodation, utilities, transport and other service providers, so a job seeker can see very quickly see if a particular job is actually viable, given potential living costs in that town or city’.

Conclusion:

‘We’ve had so much great feedback from young professionals who were able to make informed decisions regarding potential jobs  and which companies to apply to in which town or city. Some of them have described our service as a lifesaver.’

Dating app story

Problem: 

Dave, Julia, Zack and Emily aren’t finding it easy to get an appropriate date: Dave is busy, Julia is shy, Zack just moved in from out of town and Emily doesn’t really move in a very broad social circle. 

Solution: 

Dateapp does the searching so you don’t have to. Find a date in minutes rather than months, by letting Dateapp’s intelligent algorithms work for you to search through thousands of members in your location.

Conclusion: 

Dave, Julia, Zack and Emily find romance and even love.

Authentic dining experience story

Problem: 

Diners have so  many restaurants to choose from these days, but so many simply offer predictable, mass-market tuned food, with nothing for the adventurous, discerning diner.

Solution: 

Authenticeat is a chain of themed restaurants, each featuring the cuisine of a particular world culture, offering only authentic dishes, cooked with traditional ingredients, prepared using traditional methods and served in traditional style.

Conclusion: 

Diners can now enjoy and are inspired by the flavours, textures and traditions, peculiar to the local cuisine of exotic and far off places.

Don’t forget your target audience

In short, there’s pretty much no limit to the scope of this simple three scene template when structuring an effective and engaging narrative for pretty much any product or service. All that remains is to ensure that the narrative you construct contains situations and characters, with which your target audience can easily identify, otherwise, your story will fail to engage and your message will be lost.

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