Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

The Extraordinary Power of Storytelling

Published in Sep-Oct 2022

In times of crisis, smart brands resort to stories rather than consumer promotions.

The world is in crisis, Pakistan the more so. Political turmoil, economic uncertainty and now the floods. Brands are trying to make sense of what makes no sense and keep going. Marketing budgets are being cut even if conventional wisdom and history have shown the opposite needs to be done to succeed. The inevitable outtake is consumer promotions and more functional advertising. A good stop-gap solution but nothing more than a band-aid. 

If we look back at another global economic crisis which led to the Great Depression in the US, there are some very interesting lessons to be learnt. Especially from those companies which came out of the depression thriving and stronger than before. 

The film industry took a massive hit when the Great Depression started. Once promising studios started to shut down and cinemas resorted to promotions such as two tickets for the price of one, two shows on one ticket and the most popular, a free dinner plate for every ticket bought; the latter targeting women. The studios too changed track, switching to genres ranging from comedy to gangster flicks, westerns, and films with social issues, giving rise to what became known as the Golden Age of Hollywood. 

A small studio by the name of Disney had already introduced animated features. Walt Disney who had successfully launched Mickey Mouse was living from pay cheque to pay cheque until a lucrative merchandising contract helped him to realise the potential of the character he had created. By the end of the thirties, Disney was thriving partly due to millions of dollars’ worth of merchandising contracts, but more so because of the content that the now profitable studio was producing. Disney invested heavily in innovation – from the technicolour (three colours) Three Little Pigs to the full-colour Snow White produced for the then princely sum of $1.5 million. Disney understood the power of stories and despite the success of Mickey Mouse, he realised the need to continue telling stories to keep animation alive. 

Another brand that thrived during the depression was Coca-Cola. While the brand had used images of Santa Claus during the twenties to boost sales in the flagging winter months, the image was the same stern and traditional one. Realising the need for joy in a joyless time, the brand evolved its character to the rosy-cheeked, cheerful, wholesome one we are all familiar with today. He also gave him a story. He was a friend to children, bringing them presents if they were good. He lived in the North Pole with Mrs Claus and worked with a green elf called Sprite (the drink of the same name was launched much later). It was the story behind Santa that gave the brand a warmer image and created an emotional connection that made the brand one to be reckoned with.

Procter & Gamble (P&G) was the most prescient of all in understanding the power of storytelling and as a result came out of the Great Depression stronger than ever. Like Coca-Cola and Disney, P&G did not cut budgets but, in fact, invested in the previously unheard concept of branded entertainment. They produced a radio show called Ma Perkins, which in time came to be known as Oxydol’s Own Ma Perkins – forever linked to the brand that was sponsoring it (thanks to the persistent plug of Oxydol eliminating dirt 40% faster and making clothes whiter). The story was often full of melodrama and heightened emotions, with Ma Perkins, a kind widow with young children always ready to help out her community. Oxydol maintained a healthy market share and the ‘soap opera’ was born. P&G Productions switched to TV in 1951, producing soaps such as As The World Turns and Guiding Light as well as teen drama Dawson’s Creek. As of 2020, P&G was exploring ways to develop content for streaming. 

In times of crisis our resolve is tested in ways that cannot be imagined – and this is when we need stories to keep us grounded. They help us face the toughest realities through escapism and empathy, creating a safe distance between us and the fear of what may come. It is how we care for ourselves and each other. The archetypes in a narrative, the Warrior’s courage, the Lover’s commitment, the Rebel’s zeal for change, the Magician’s ability to transform, and the Jester’s joy, all give us strength to power through, and the stories they are part of, become timeless. 

Storytelling has held sway over our minds and hearts for as long as human beings have existed. Stories have the power to entice and unsettle, engage and intrigue. Stories create empathy, bring our imaginative process to life and convince and convert with an equal degree. And now in a time of crisis, our need for stories is greater than ever. 

Liz Neeley of The Story Collider says, “We all know this delicious feeling of being swept into a story world… You forget about your surroundings… and you’re entirely immersed.”

Neuroscience has proved how our brain reacts to stories – the eyes blink, the heart flutters, facial muscles change. MRI scans of people listening to stories have revealed that different parts of the brain light up, and the brain networks that process emotions arising from sounds and visual movements are instantly activated.

Uri Hasson, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University, recorded brain activity in two people simultaneously, one who told a story and the other who listened to it, and discovered that the brainwaves synchronised with both. As the story progressed, brainwave patterns in the listener started to match those of the narrator. 

Stories create connections. Watching a story invariably makes us imagine and attempt to understand the motives and actions within the story, and see a situation from a different perspective. A great story can help change beliefs and as it engages and intrigues us, we keep thinking about it and feel the need to talk about it. Melanie Green, a communications professor at the University of Buffalo, studied doctor-patient interactions and discovered that doctors who gave anecdotal evidence of a diagnosis based on the experiences of other patients were seen as more credible. 

The reason that stories work better than cold information is simple. According to one study, there are three different kinds of learners – 40% of people learn visually, 40% are auditory and 20% are kinesthetic (experiences, feelings). Storytelling in a video format works because it brings all three together. This is validated by Jerome Briner’s research that people are more likely to remember something when it’s told in the form of a story. 

According to Clare Patey, Director of the Empathy Museum, “stories are the way we understand and make sense of the world we find ourselves in. Stories have a transformative power to allow us to see the world in a different way to the way we encounter it on our own.” 

Stories trigger debate and discussion, eventually forming a connection. Movies have used this to brilliant effect. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner created empathy with the lead black character at a time when race relations were fraught in the US. Philadelphia created empathy and a better understanding of a new disease.  

In times as uncertain as these, companies need to work harder than ever to win consumers over. Yes, consumer promotions will be required and advertising may need to become more functional to convince consumers to choose one product over another. Because products are tangible things. But for consumers to give undying allegiance to a brand (that un-tangible thing of mystery) brands will need to tell stories. Stories that consumers find solace and inspiration in. Stories that keep them coming back for more. 

Rashna Abdi is CEO, Vitamin C.