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Warwick Cairns, Strategist,
The Effectiveness Partnership

The power of story-telling in building brand value

Stories sell.

This has always been the case, to some extent, but the world has changed in ways that profoundly affect everything we do. Today we live an age in which globalisation, online shopping and the outsourcing of production have rapidly eroded the ability of brands to use product features and local distribution advantages to maintain their positions of strength. These changes were already under way, but with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the closure of physical shops for many months, the process has been turbocharged. Today, whatever it is that you sell, chances are your customers can now get something the same, similar, or cheaper, delivered to the doorstep. It’s becoming harder than ever to maintain a rational, ownable product-driven competitive advantage. Which is where stories can make all the difference.

Products perform functions. Stories can give those functions status and meaning.

Think of your typical Swiss watch, for example: your Chopard or Patek Philippe, tens of thousands of dollars, pounds or euros and, essentially, it tells the time. It actually does this a little less accurately than the kind of cheap digital timepiece you might pick up for a fiver from a corner shop. But as the bearer of an emotionally-potent story of craftsmanship and discernment, a Swiss watch is something else.

Stories can create value.

Back in 2012, an American filmmaker by the name of Miranda July explored the relationship between storytelling and commercial value in The Auction, a 90-minute event she put on at UCLA. As part of the show she got members of the audience to come up on stage to talk about their lives and their relationship with an object they happened to have on them. A woman talked about her plastic comb – something she got for free with a purchase of Clarins. A man talked about his creased and dog-eared Subway loyalty card. Another woman talked about her drug-store lip-balm. At the end of the show the items were auctioned. None was ‘worth’ more than a dollar or two at most. But the stories had done something to their perceived value. The comb sold for $60. The subway card went for $70. The lip balm fetched $58.

Stories can change the way we feel and create desire for things we’d otherwise reject.

A good example of comes from a recent campaign for the Deutsche Bahn network, which achieved the seemingly-impossible: it got people all over Germany clamouring for the exact same rail ticket it could barely give away just a year before. Same price, same destinations, same conditions, different story.

Like all rail networks, Deutsche Bahn has busy times and quiet times. The quietest times of all are off-peak, off-season, midweek journeys in November and February. To try to fill trains they offered some amazing Super Saver deals – just €19 to any destination, anywhere in Germany. €19 is a good price: more than good, in fact. But the problem was, few people fancied the idea of a wet Wednesday excursion to Bremen or Dusseldorf, not even at that price. It was a problem that had been getting worse over years. As the new generation of Germans grew more affluent and more accustomed to international travel, domestic rail trips were no longer cutting it.

So Deutsche Bahn’s agency, Ogilvy Frankfurt, started by looking at what German travellers did want – exotic, Instagrammable locations, essentially – and then considered how to tell a story about a €19 domestic train ticket that might meet that need. Using people’s social media holiday feeds and image-matching algorithms, they found awesome German doppelgangers for pretty much every place you might ever want to visit, with surprising visual matches for everywhere from the Grand Canyon to the Gobi desert. They also worked out live side-by-side price comparisons for the cost getting there.

This gave them a new story to tell. You might not want an off-season domestic break, however cheap. But as an opportunity for telling your own story on social media, with amazing travel selfies, a €19 ticket is something else. In the space of a single year, revenue from Super Saver tickets jumped by an astounding €28 million.

In a hard-nosed, balance-sheet-led business environment the word ‘story’ has a floaty, ‘touchy-feely’ air to it. But the impact of storytelling on business effectiveness is anything but floaty.

As behavioural science advances, we’ve become ever more aware of the power of emotions on human decision-making and purchase behaviour. We like to think of ourselves as rational beings, but in truth we never have been. We’ve always been driven by our emotions. And stories, in effect, are mechanisms to stir the emotions.

As the world around us changes and as markets, technologies and consumers transform in ways unimaginable only a few

First published on WARC.com, 11 August 2021