Editor's note: this article was adapted from the first episode of the CMO Convo miniseries, Story Masters with Gastón Tourn. At the time of recording, Gastón was CMO of Appear Here, but he is currently CMO of Curio.
I'm delighted to be back here, discussing one of my cherished topics: the power of storytelling in marketing. I originally aspired to be a fiction writer, but my path led me to marketing. In my opinion, it's a field that's not far removed in terms of creativity and writing.
I'm currently serving as the CMO of Appear Here, the world's largest marketplace for retail spaces. I've previously held roles at Google, spanning multiple marketing disciplines and regions, starting in my homeland of Argentina. I've also been CMO at Badoo Group (now Bumble Group) and Emma, a B2C company. All in all, I consider myself both a marketer and a storyteller.
This dual identity makes me realize the importance of traditional literary techniques in marketing. This may seem out of place, after all, marketing students aren't having these techniques hammered into them like literature undergrads.
However, the principles literature students learn about have held true about storytelling for thousands of years. And if you're telling stories in your marketing strategy, why shouldn't they apply? Good stories are one of the most effective ways to influence people.
As marketers, we sometimes get lost in new metrics, platforms, and marketing channels. But we must remember that marketing fundamentally boils down to influencing someone's behavior.
The human brain isn't purely rational—it connects more deeply with stories than with facts and data. This tendency allows stories to tap into the emotional side of the brain, making storytelling techniques particularly relevant for marketers. They’re the key to influencing and persuading.
Even as the mediums change, the core principles of storytelling remain the same, relevant even in fiction, film, and marketing. It doesn't matter how advanced our technology gets; the building blocks of a great story have remained consistent over time. This is why storytelling is such a critical skill.
And it's not just important to CMOs for their marketing, but also for other important things like fundraising, presenting to boards of investors, and negotiating a promotion. One of the things we do poorly as marketers is "marketing ourselves". To show the value of marketing, you need to be able to construct a narrative around it that non-marketers understand.
In this article, I’m going to be taking a look at two fundamental principles of literary storytelling and why they should be the goal for all of your brand storytelling.
The first is “ostranenie” or ”defamiliarisation”. This is all about engaging your audience by presenting ideas, concepts, or even physical locations and objects in ways that are fresh and new.
The second is the “willing suspension of disbelief”. This is keeping your audience drawn into the narrative you’re telling through internal logical consistency.
These might seem paradoxical, but I’m going to explain how they’re both of equal importance to effective, engaging stories. They're essential brand storytelling techniques.
Engaging brand stories should defamiliarize the audience
An essential aspect of storytelling is the concept of 'ostranenie', a term coined by Russian formalists in the early 20th century. It represents the idea of making the familiar unfamiliar or the unfamiliar familiar. This approach can shake people out of their mundane routines, offering them a new perspective on everyday things.
The magical realism genre is a perfect example, such as Gabriel García Márquez's 100 Years of Solitude. The book introduces magical elements into an otherwise ordinary reality, creating a defamiliarization, causing you to reassess the mundane.
However, the concept of ostranenie isn't just about inserting unusual elements into the ordinary. It's about altering reality in such a way that encourages the audience to perceive their current reality differently. A prime example of this in brand storytelling is how car advertisements don't focus on the mechanics. Instead, they focus on the feelings and potential experiences associated with owning the car.
Marketers need to do more than simply explain a product's functionality. They need to create stories that resonate with the audience and elevate product experiences. By making the familiar unfamiliar or vice versa, you ignite people's imaginations and foster a stronger emotional connection with the product.
Defamiliarising brand stories in practice
A case in point is Google Analytics' 'Google Analytics in Real Life' campaign. It cleverly translates digital metrics into real-world situations. For example, what would a bounce rate look like in a brick-and-mortar store?
Humor and satire are excellent ways of defamiliarising the audience in a way that they feel comfortable. It holds up a mirror to life's absurdities and makes users more aware of potential issues that might need solving.
One of the greatest storytelling techniques is the use of irony or metaphor to captivate the audience. Aristotle beautifully summed this up in his Poetics. If you present the conclusion first, allowing the audience to infer the premise, they'll find your narrative much more interesting. It makes them feel intelligent, making them feel closer to your brand and more likely to engage with your message.
An excellent example was introduced to me by Will during this CMO Convo: the Guinness surfer advert. The ad narrates the story of a surfer who waits his entire life for the perfect wave. When it finally arrives, he rides it, the moment perfectly timed with the pounding of dramatic drums. Then, it cuts to a pint of Guinness and the slogan, “Good things come to those who wait.”
The connection between the thrilling ride and simply waiting for a pint of Guinness to settle is left to the viewer's interpretation. They become a part of the story as they fill in the gaps, either through their own experiences or imagination.
When applying these principles in my work, a great example was Appear Here's 'Save The Street' campaign during the pandemic. In the campaign, we amplified the voices of struggling independent brands. We wanted to make their concerns more appealing and compelling to people who wouldn't usually care about independent stores or high streets.
So, we decided to create a poem for our high streets. It explores the unfamiliar aspects of how we interact with these familiar locations and what they mean to people across the country. This unconventional approach helped us to engage with people on an emotional level. It made them really think hard about the importance of local, brick-and-mortar businesses.
Willing suspension of disbelief: consistency in brand storytelling
When discussing advanced literary techniques in the context of marketing, one cannot overlook the concept of the 'willing suspension of disbelief'. Originally coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria, this concept has become an essential aspect of literary storytelling.
The suspension of disbelief is about noticing the inconsistencies that disrupt the inherent logic of a narrative. A story is more immersive when it has a consistent logic from beginning to end.
For example, if we have a mundane story with human characters and suddenly introduce a talking cat without any previous hint of animals speaking, it disorients the audience. They're left puzzled and question the story's logic. Eventually, they'll disconnect from it.
In contrast, a story like Roald Dahls Fantastic Mr. Fox introduces highly anthropomorphized animals right from the outset. Foxes, badgers, and other woodland animals all behave and interact with each almost exactly like humans. This concept is introduced right from the outset of the story, so we don’t question their human behaviors. However, if the story was about normal foxes, and then suddenly, halfway through one of them whipped out a pipe and started acting like a human father, the audience would be thrown for a loop.
Applying this principle to marketing, a brand narrative needs to be consistent. Discrepancies will be picked up by customers, pulling them out of the brand's story. If something seems out of place or unreal, people will switch off, thinking, “This doesn't make any sense.”
It doesn't matter if they're the perfect target audience. Brand loyalty takes consistency.
One of the most glaring examples of this inconsistency is poor product placement. Many placements feel forced and interrupt the narrative. It's obvious that they’re there for commercial reasons rather than to serve the story. This breaks the suspension of disbelief.
Product placements can be done in an organic way, but many fail. They're like a deus ex machina tactic, an unexpected and unexplained event that solves an unsolvable problem. However, this move is glaringly evident and disrupts the believability of the narrative.
The same applies to celebrity endorsements that make little sense. When wealthy individuals, who clearly have a team of stylists, promote an at-home box dye, it's jarring. The audience struggles to find a logical connection between the endorser and the product.
Be consistent, not repetitive with brand stories
In my marketing approach, I've come to realize the importance of brand consistency. It's not just about language, but also upholding the brand's values. Initially, I was frustrated with how the term 'consistency' was often used as a gatekeeping term that held back innovation.
I even penned an op-ed for Adweek expressing this frustration. But over time, I've come to appreciate the significance of consistency. Not as a repetitive action but as a display of authenticity and trust.
A prime example of this is Patagonia. Its commitment to fighting climate change, even to the point of giving the company away, reflects a consistency of values, not just repetition of words. This kind of consistency builds trust and makes the brand feel more human. A brand shouldn't be like a robot repeating the same words.
In my role as a CMO, I apply these concepts when telling our customer stories. For instance, we have an incredible customer, Steve, whose journey from homelessness to becoming a Michelin-starred chef almost seems unbelievable. His story might be extraordinary, but we maintained authenticity and consistency throughout his narrative by emphasizing how he's always had a passion for cooking and food. The suspension of disbelief is maintained because his journey, as incredible as it is, always stays true to his character.
The bottom line is, suspension of disbelief and consistency of brand values are fundamental in the realm of marketing. They serve to build trust and authenticity, crucial elements for a strong brand narrative. In essence, consistency shouldn't mean repetition. Instead, it should signify staying true to the brand's values, an approach I've found to be incredibly effective in my work.
Defamiliarization and logical consistency at the same time
One thing that might seem paradoxical about these storytelling techniques is that they can appear almost antithetical to each other. Surely the best way to defamiliarise your audience is to strip away logical consistency? But I believe they work perfectly in tandem in the right types of stories.
The concepts of ostranenie and willing suspension of disbelief are crucial for compelling storytelling. They aren't at odds with each other; rather, they enrich the narrative fabric. Ostranenie has the power to render the unfamiliar so familiar that you start believing that it could actually happen.
But to accomplish this, it must be done believably. The oscillation between the familiar and unfamiliar, while ensuring the constructed world is plausible, is what makes stories captivating and prompts us to engage with them.
Ultimately, we're drawn to stories because they provide insights into our lives and offer ways to grapple with the complexity of our world. If a story appears too implausible or we can't glean any learnings from it, we're likely to disengage. So, it's essential to create narratives that resonate with people on a human level and establish a world that feels real.
We've only begun to scratch the surface of these concepts. The realm of storytelling is vast and layered, and there’s so much to explore when it comes to your brand storytelling.
Looking for more ways to improve your storytelling skills as a marketing leader? Don't miss our Storytelling Certified: Masters course.
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