Data is Not the Story. The Story is the Story.

Which one of these anecdotes is more memorable1?

1. Coffee is a beverage brewed from the ground, roasted seeds of the coffee berry. Coffee has been grown since the 15th century in the Arabian Peninsula.

2. Legend has it that coffee was discovered by an Ethiopian goatherd. One day, Kaldi noticed his flock munching on the red berries of a tall shrub—and frolicking energetically to the next bush. He tried a few of the berries for himself, and shortly he was dancing right along with the goats.  A monk who happened to see Kaldi’s coffee-induced dance decided to gather some berries for his brothers – who found that the fruit took them to a higher spiritual plane.

If you picked the first anecdote, I can’t help you. But if you picked the second one (most of you), it’s because the image of munching goats getting high on raw coffee beans is the more interesting and memorable story. A story like this, in its simplest form, is a connection of cause and effect. And scientists say this is exactly how we think all day long, whether it’s about the search for great coffee, managing our complicated work lives, or slaying dragons to protect our loved ones.

We live in and remember stories, not data. And that’s why storytelling is so huge in marketing these days.

Thinking in stories

The best stories have a simple purpose and tap into the audience’s imagination, so they willingly go along for the journey. And the shortest ones can sometimes be the best.  Here’s one, a founders’ story, about Innocent Drinks2:

We started Innocent in 1999 after selling our smoothies at a music festival. We put up a big sign asking people if they thought we should give up our jobs to make smoothies, and put a bin saying ‘Yes’ and a bin saying ‘No’ in front of the stall. Then we got people to vote with their empties. At the end of the weekend, the ‘Yes’ bin was full, so we resigned from our jobs the next day and got cracking.

This simple anecdote makes for a powerful story because something important is at stake and people acted. In other hands it might have been reduced to a statement declaring:

From day one we’ve been a customer-centric food and beverage company producing brands that match people’s lifestyles.

Are stories strategic or tactical? Who cares!  It’s simply about honest human connection, the only way to build trust and loyalty with the people you need to reach.

Data and stories

We must not forget that commerce is fundamentally a human endeavor. To be successful, businesses must sell not just a product but an emotionally satisfying, problem-solving experience.

Today, however, much of the human-to-human interaction has been taken away. While the convenience and speed of online business and marketing will be with us for the foreseeable future, data alone isn’t enough.

Of course, “big” data provides enormous value in helping marketers identify important trends, buying patterns and customer profiles, but these days the trust that comes from real customer interactions is negligible, if not entirely lost.

Human insights – and effective marketing communications – come from feeling empathy, seeing context and understanding needs and motivations – the proverbial walking a mile in someone’s shoes… Seeing people, not just digits.

When a young girl slips into a pair of Nike soccer shoes after watching the U.S. women’s team dominate the World Cup championship, she is formulating a story about herself  – her identity, her aspirations and her values.

That’s why combining insights from data AND the human experience must shape messaging. It means telling stories that reflect your customers’ experience and aspirations, to show them you really do understand what they’re going through and how to address their particular concerns.  It’s about them, not you.

With more media channels for engagement (maybe too many), marketers continually strive to make their content more captivating.  In such a cluttered environment, a great story can create some magic and might just boost your brand into the spotlight. A bad one, not so much!

So before you start formulating a marketing strategy, stop a minute. Make sure you can “see” your customer or prospect, know their story, tell their story, and meet them where they live in the real world.

  1. From a 2016 article by Eric Hinson, “5 Effective Storytelling Techniques You Need to Use”
  2. From a 2013 article by Tim Rich, “Why Stories Matter”

Don Heymann

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