Consumers Ignore Ads That Aren't Telling Their Stories

It's All About Them: Marketers Must Listen to Customers on Their Home Turf to Get the Real Story

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I was recently hired to investigate the viability of a beverage for surfers. What turned out to be an eye-opening experience involved interviewing surfers at surf shops, pizza places, bars and the beach. Each casual interview began with some discussion about brand preferences, mostly related to surfing. While I was looking for patterns, their thoughts were all over the map and conveyed little brand loyalty.
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STORYTELLER: Tide's 'Talking Stain' commercial for Tide to Go sent viewers to a dedicated website, My Talking Stain, where consumers could create customized ads.

Typical responses included the Spicoli-esque bit of wisdom, "Sometimes you want to go classy, and sometimes you want to go slashy."

Then we talked about the surfer lifestyle and culture. Invariably, the interviewees started talking about the key players and prominent personalities in the surfing world. They told me about the laid-back attitude of Australian surfer Mick Fanning, who shook up a Foster's and pounded it immediately after a winning ride. Or "mutant-talented" Kelly Slater, who somehow won an event in Tahiti after breaking his foot.

But they also wanted to tell me about how a hugely talented kid from Huntington Beach got into a brawl with the locals at Pipeline or how their rowdy buddy always manages to derail plans for mellow nights at home. That was when the interviews had real consistency: in the stories that demonstrated tribal codes and rituals. And that was when the interviewees were enjoying the interviews.

Surfing tales
I soon realized that this group likely would ignore the advertising for a new beverage -- or any product -- if it didn't tap into their stories. That is not because they wouldn't want to know, for example, that a new beverage flavor perfectly complements the taste of fish tacos. They actually might like to know that. The problem is, if that's what the ad is about, the surfers won't see it or hear it. Simply put, if the ad isn't a story about them, they will ignore it.

Nearly all of us are getting better at tuning out the cacophony of rational claims. Smart advertisers recognize that. And that's why the most liked, most memorable ads usually are stories about the audience. How else could Procter & Gamble's Tide brand engage the mostly male 2008 Super Bowl audience? It certainly didn't spend 30 seconds explaining the innovative features of its stain-removal product. Instead, its commercial, "Talking Stain," portrayed a clearly identifiable situation among men: an older man interviewing a younger man who has a coffee stain on his dress shirt. As the hapless candidate discusses his interpersonal skills, he's shouted down by the loud, gibbering stain. At the end of the commercial, the stain is erased -- and silenced -- by the Tide to Go product.

By the end of Super Bowl Sunday, the ad had driven more than 30,000 unique visitors to mytalkingstain.com. Some visitors just read about the product there; others created more than 5,500 customized ads. The spot also received more than 100,000 views on YouTube that day and has had more than 1.5 million views since.

So how might you gather the stories that will capture the attention of a new segment? The ideal research method is ethnography -- observing and talking with people "on location." But whichever interviewing method you use, here are a few tips:

Trigger memories through the senses
Take advantage of the fact that particular environments, sounds, products, scents and flavors can stir up memories. The senses are critical to putting your target customers at ease, so they can think, feel, talk and -- most important -- behave in an authentic way. For example, if your brand involves social experiences, consider talking in restaurants, bars, etc. If you're in the car business, buckle up and go for a drive. If it's impractical to pursue ethnographic or on-location story gathering, be creative: Even a sterile market-research-facility room can be transformed with "artifacts" of your customers' experience, including products, photography, music and food.

Know how to identify a good story
Know the basic elements. All good stories have a plot -- a sequence of related events. That's a no-brainer. Secondly, all good stories have conflict. Conflict is possible only when we have a protagonist with human-like motivations who takes action that is in conflict with an antagonist. In the "Talking Stain" ad, the job-applicant protagonist was clearly in conflict with the antagonistic stain.

Add an element of surprise
The definition of surprise is the situation produced when an expectation about life comes into conflict with reality. Keep in mind that it's not necessary that we in the audience are surprised, although we usually are. Rather, it must be plausible that a character is surprised.

The function of surprise in a story is to illuminate the fourth element: a lesson or theme or moral. A lesson is what we learn at the conclusion of the conflict. It is possible only when we have the preceding elements of plot and conflict. And surprise is what gives a lesson its power.

The lesson of a good story needn't be philosophical or complex. The lessons demonstrated in the surfers' stories often are very simple -- for example, respect the locals. The lesson of FedEx's advertising is that using FedEx eliminates risk. (FedEx's Super Bowl ad was also a big hit among viewers.) The lesson of the "Talking Stain" is that Tide to Go makes sure you put your best foot forward. So how do you evoke these good stories?

Focus on the markers of a good story
While every powerful story has four elements, you don't have to look for all four. The fast track to evoking good stories is by asking about surprises and lessons. They are far more memorable than the zillions of plots, conflicts and boring chronologies floating through our minds.

So here's an example of a question that might evoke a good story: "Do you remember a time when you were surprised by [brand XYZ's] customer service?" Surprises and lessons reveal plenty about someone's experience. And they do it in way that won't put a creative team to sleep.

If you find it difficult to jump-start storytelling with your customers, try telling a story or two of your own. That's what the Tide marketers did with "Talking Stain." They told a good story and then dedicated a website to collecting all of the YouTube spoofs. They likely knew that when people hear a good story, they become better storytellers themselves.

If you want to break into a segment, try evoking its stories. And listen for the good ones. The insights revealed may lead you to new innovations. More important, the stories themselves may provide the inspiration for your next, truly engaging campaign.
Tom Neveril is president of Storybrand Consulting, a market-intelligence firm in Santa Monica, Calif. Clients include Hilton, Volkswagen and Nestle. Previously, he was an account planner at DDB Worldwide in Los Angeles.
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