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The belief that rationalism lies at the heart of our decision making has driven a lot of early twentieth century marketing. In 1923 the great advertising pioneer Claude C Hopkins proclaimed that “advertising is salesmanship.” But if you think back to the last memorable piece of video advertising you watched it’s more likely that you’ll be recalling the emotions it provoked in you, rather than the nuts and bolts of the sales pitch.

As consumers we prefer to think of ourselves as logical beings but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Emotions, it turns out, play a far more important role when it comes to the decisions we make on a day to day basis, no matter how rational we regard these decisions to be in retrospect. In other words, it is the more primal and instinctive part of our brain that is in control, creating these emotional connections, or ‘gut feelings’, that push us in one direction or another. It’s only afterwards that we look to rationalise these decisions with logic and reasoning. The fact that much of this processing is internal, and for the large part subconscious, has been of great interest to marketers for some time.

In this article I want to explore the rise of emotional storytelling as a marketing tool and explore some of the methodology when using it in video advertising. But first let’s look more deeply into the ‘why’.


The Psychology of Emotional Connections

There are two ways that we as humans make decisions based on external stimuli. In behavioural psychology and behavioural economics, these are referred to as System 1 and System 2 thinking.

  • System 1 (fast)
    This is a perceptual and intuitive process. As such it is involuntary and fast, generating associative impressions, feelings and emotions in our brains that cause us to react in certain ways. System 1 based thought processing is largely subconscious.
  • System 2 (slow)
    This is the considered, analytical and rule governed thought processing that goes on in our brain. It is the rational side of us that helps us make sense of the things around us, solve and circumvent everyday problems and justify our decisions.

The long held view from a marketing perspective has been that System 2 tends to trump System 1 when it comes to decision making and thus advertising has long been modelled on the presumption that clinching the sale involved walking the consumer down a rational path to purchase.

There is an increasing body of research however that is flying in the face of this preconception. A research paper in 2012 from Brain Juicer Labs found that emotional advertising that appealed to System 1 thought processing, was far more effective than message based advertising that worked at the System 2 level.

Furthermore, it concluded that “advertisements that perform well on evaluative measures (e.g., persuasion, cut-through, brand linkage, key message on message) do not see such strong performance replicated in market.”

Perhaps most importantly of all though, they also found that much of our System 2 thinking takes place at the point of purchase, not before it. It should be the role of advertising, therefore, to create positive emotional associations, or ‘rules of thumb’ (what Daniel Kahneman referred to as the “Affect Heuristic”), that allow customers to better circumvent this System 2 processing at the point of purchase.

In other words the way advertisers measure success is flawed and an alternative method, that focuses more on emotional tugs that rational pulls, might be better placed at honing effective advertising and content marketing strategies. The Brain Juicer study cites the famous and hugely successful Cadbury’s Dairy Milk gorilla advertising that failed to make an impact in pre-testing for brand linkage, cut-through and persuasion.

Understanding how and to what degree to introduce emotional storytelling in video advertising is dependent on a huge number of factors to do with audience and brand, but there are some general rules of thumb that do apply across the board.

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Charting the Consumer Journey

Emotional storytelling in marketing will follow many of the same structural characteristics that storytelling in any medium will follow. Perhaps most fundamental of these is the idea of a beginning, middle and end. In the often constrained time frames of video advertising it can be better to think of this as more of a narrative arc.

The key differentiator with storytelling in marketing is that, at some level, it has to bring two other elements into the story; the brand and the viewer. There are many ways to do this, from the subtle to the not-so-subtle, but the important thing is that neither of these elements derail or debase the story. They must instead become part of the story.

One of the best ways to approach this elemental weaving is to break the narrative arc down into three distinct elements.

  • Interest
    This is the emotional grab that you need to get the viewer’s attention from the outset of your ad. This first stage will allow you set the emotional tone, as well as the scene. With online video, the window of opportunity that this phase presents has shrunk considerably as a result of diminishing attention spans and content saturation. Both these factors require internet marketers to think less like advertisers and more like YouTubers.
  • Evaluation
    Once you have hooked viewer’s attention you have the space to introduce elements of your brand or company offering into the narrative arc. The key thing here is not to distract from the story though. Overt sales pitches tend to detract from emotional storytelling, but that doesn’t mean you can’t weave your brand’s story into the mix, or introduce your product. The transition from the interest phase to the evaluation stage is where a lot of emotional storytelling falls down.
  • Empathy
    As you bring your story to its natural conclusion it’s important that you draw the viewer into the story. This shouldn’t be confused with a simple CTA. Instead, the empathy stage requires a far more nuanced methodology to pull off, creating associations and turning the emotional capital the viewer has invested in your ad into positive associations with your brand. In other words, this is the point at which the ‘we’ becomes the ‘you.’

Understanding how these elements fit together to produce a cohesive brand story is part of the creative process but there are other important facets to consider when generating ideas and themes for emotional storytelling. Perhaps most important of all is establishing what kind of emotions you want to associate with your brand in the first place. This is a huge subject in and of itself and something that I’ve no doubt we will be exploring in a future blog post.