Along with many of you perhaps, I recently braved a crisp early morning start to take part in this year’s ANZAC dawn service. While watching my children lay a wreathe for their Scout group, I realised that these commemorations are not about celebrating victory or success, nor are they a recounting of facts and statistics (those who wish to critique the veracity of the ANZAC memory should take heed), this is about partaking in the stories which define this nation.
The individual experiences of soldiers sent to war from a newly formed nation have cumulated into a collective story of national pride. A story about bravery and heroism, about sacrifice and loss and overcoming adversity through mateship and tenacity. The ANZAC story has been woven into the fabric of Australian culture for a hundred years, and as a result, has become an integral part of the Australian identity.
As this demonstrates, stories are powerful. They create culture. They create ideology. They create identity.
They are the way human beings make sense of the world around them and the rules or mores which they feel compelled to follow.
Stories are an infinitely human tradition.
Sages of all types imparted wisdom in parables and stories long before reading and writing developed. Stories have always been the way which the hard-fought wisdom needed for survival has been encoded and passed down for future generations.
Stories make us feel connected to our fellow human beings and part of something bigger than ourselves. They provide escape, inspiration, ideas… hope.
Ultimately, stories are an essential part of how we communicate with each other. We process and remember information much more easily when it comes in the form of a story, in part because the narrative cause and effect structure mimics the way our brains operate. We remember information and engage with that information more powerfully because stories engage more parts of our brain. The brain, it appears, does not differentiate between hearing the story and experiencing the story. In addition, because our brain naturally makes sense of sensorial input by referencing previous knowledge, metaphors create powerful connections.
Brand positioning is ultimately about creating a story around a product beyond its physical traits and benefits. We use these stories as a way for our target market to process important information about our products. Good advertising uses stories to encode brand messages into a compelling narrative that sinks deep into the subconscious of our would-be consumers. Stories help take our brands beyond rational decision making and into a powerful emotive space where they are perceived to meet far more than a functional need. Branding, at its most effective, is about weaving a story so compelling that people embrace the brand as part of their world.
Brand engagement and the rise and rise of content marketing is about creating or letting consumers create brand stories. RedBull is a long time expert at this. The Share a Coke campaign leveraged this well.
But what of the role of stories in market research?
Good market researchers use story-telling effortlessly to convey insights and information to their clients. But, can the power of stories be used to garner insight in the first place?
The stories consumers tell provides us researchers illumination into context of consumers' lives. And it is in this context that we find insight. It is the ability to use narratives to explore motivations than makes qualitative research useful.
However, often times even qual is used to try and elicit rational responses to behaviour.
The truth is we often don't know what really drives our decision making, and quite often those decisions are not rational. Instead of asking consumers to provide rationalised explanations for their behaviour or preferences we gain more insight into those drivers when we develop meaningful understanding about our consumers beyond their momentary engagement with our products.
Narrative - the power of story - provides this opportunity for understanding. Through their stories, we can start to understand the bigger picture of their lives. This in turn will open our eyes to the role our brands might play in those lives.
Because stories are how we human beings convey meaningful information to each other, perhaps it is also how we should gather meaningful information in our pursuit of insight?