The Best Way to Tell a Story


How do you tell a market to buy your product instead of your competitors’ products?

One approach is to focus on your product’s unique features. Your product is faster, cheaper, and generally does the job better. It’s like the other products but gives customers more bang for their buck.

The other approach is to tell a story. Ignore the characteristics and build an emotional engagement that will form a relationship between the customer and the brand.

That was the approach taken in November last year by drinks brand RC Cola as it looked to increase sales in the Philippines. Cola drinks taste roughly the same and the pricing of rival products were all similar too, so the brand was looking for a way to deliver a stronger emotional impact with Gen Z drinkers.

It approached Gigil, an advertising agency in Manila, and asked them to create a commercial based on the Tagalog word “basta,” which means roughly “whatever.”

The ad starts like a daytime soap. A boy comes home from school and asks his mother if he’s adopted. He complains that the other kids at school make fun of him. His mother tells him not to listen to them. The boy starts to cry. Violins strike up a mournful tune as he removes his shirt, lies face-down on the kitchen table, and asks why, if he’s not adopted, does he have four glasses on his back.

The camera cuts to show four, empty but tall glasses growing out of the boy’s back.

The mother tearfully explains that they had been keeping a secret from him. She then takes off her scarf and pulls off her head to reveal a bottle of RC Cola. She drops ice over her son’s back, bends over and fills the glasses. In the last scene, we see the family drinking their cola from straws in the boy’s back.

AdAge called the ad the “weirdest” they’d seen all year. But it worked. Within six hours of launch, the ad had generated more than 1.6 million organic views. Within a day, it had picked up 130,000 shares and 203,000 reactions, and was the top-trending topic on Twitter for two days. 

Gigil’s associate creative director Dionie Tanada told AdAge that the agency wanted to use humor “to make the brand stand for something cool in the minds of the Gen Z audience, so much so that they’d want to be associated with it.” They chose indie director Marius Talampas to direct the ad because of his storytelling skill and comedic timing. 

It was too early to tell whether the ad was having an effect on sales but there were already signs that the RC Cola was spending less time on shelves across the country.

What the agency had done was sell through story. It had skipped past the features of the drink itself—the ad said nothing about the taste of RC Cola and little about its degree of refreshment—and focused on creating an experience that would have an impact on its audience.

Most importantly, it produced an ad that people would remember.

Good Stories Stand Out

Articles about marketing like to claim that we see around 5,000 ads per day, a number that comes from a 2007 study by market research firm Yankelovich. Ron Marshall, president of Red Crow Marketing, an advertising agency, once tried to put that figure to the test. He reached almost 500 brand exposures before he’d finished his breakfast. A 2014 study found that while we might be exposed to more than 5,000 brands in a day, we’re actually exposed to about 362 ads, notice less than half of them, are aware of about half of those, and engage with barely a dozen.

The challenge for advertisers then isn’t to sell the features of a product but to produce a story that attracts a viewer’s attention away from all of the other ads competing for it, forces engagement, and stays in the viewer’s memory. Ideally, audiences will remember the ad so well that they won’t just recall it, they’ll also tell their friends who will remember when they heard about it.

So what does a story need to contain in order to be engaging and memorable?

In 2004, a group of researchers at Stanford and Washington University conducted an experiment. They recruited 63 undergraduates and divided them into three groups. Each of the groups read a story told in the first person about a hectic night in the life of a bartender. The story contained a number of interesting events: a woman went into labor in the bar; a drunk woman spilt wine over another woman’s white suit. It also contained a number of less interesting events: a man asked the bartender for a napkin; the bartender mixed a martini. The story was written in a way that was intended to amuse, the kind of story that people would want to retell.

The participants read the story twice, then spent eight minutes playing games to distract themselves. One group then had to retell the story they had read in an amusing way. They were rated on how entertaining their retelling was. A second group had to retell the story precisely. They were rated on the accuracy of their retelling. The third group acted as a control and were free to leave. The first two groups then repeated their retelling two and four days later. In the final session, everyone, including the control group, also typed the story as they remembered it into a document and answered questions about events that might have taken place in the tale.

The researchers found the accurate stories and the entertaining stories differed dramatically. The stories told to entertain contained fewer original events, less detail, more emotion words, and greater fluency. They also found that what appeared to make a story entertaining was not what it contained but how it was told.

“Entertainment participants made their stories more interesting by taking the same basic group of events and exaggerating them and adding their own details (intrusions),” the researchers write. “The same events can be boring or funny, depending on the skills of the storyteller.”

The judges rated stories as interesting when whey were told fluently, were related in the present tense, and used words indicating certainty. “These are all linguistic devices to hold a reader’s attention,” said the researchers.

How to Tell a Good Story

The researchers were looking at how we change and edit facts depending on whether we’re telling a story to be accurate or to entertain. They also wanted to know how the way a story is told affects memory.

But in the process, they also showed what it takes to create a story that other people will find entertaining and memorable—and that has implications for marketers.

Stories that are entertaining take place in the present tense, which makes them immersive. Audiences don’t want an ad to tell them about the history of the product or where the idea came from. They can gather that information, if they’re interested, in a magazine article or a page on the company’s website. They want to know what the product is doing now and what it can for them in this moment.

For storytellers using video, that’s relatively straightforward. Video shows action as it happens, even when it’s displaying the past. When the boy in the RC Cola ad comes home from school, we’re in the room with him. For copywriters though, it means a focus on the present tense in copy to create a sense of immediacy.

The researchers also found that emotion words helped to make a story entertaining. In video, that means showing emotions—and the RC Cola ad plays up its bathos. We see the child crying. He tears off his shirt angrily. His mother is almost tearful when she pulls her head off. At the end of the ad, everyone laughs as they drink the product.

Again, copywriters should use words like “exciting” and “thrilling” to make sure that audiences understand the emotional effect of using the product.

Confidence in storytelling matters too. Stories that were told fluently, in which one event flowed naturally to the next, were also rated as more entertaining. One reason that the RC Cola ad worked so well was that it didn’t attempt to satirize itself. The moment when the boy lies on his back and shows off the glasses looks like a natural part of the scene, as though a character in a daytime soap were revealing a secret identity. The closest the story comes to stating that what we’re seeing isn’t quite right comes when the mother pours ice into the glasses and some of the cubes strike the boy’s back.

Once you’ve chosen how you’re going to tell the story of a brand or a product, stick with it. Doubts in how you’re telling the story will affect not just the entertainment value of the story but trust in its message.

But perhaps the most important message to take away from the researcher’s study is what to leave out. When the researchers found that entertaining stories contained fewer original events and less detail than stories told for accuracy, they showed that entertaining and engaging are first acts of editing.

That creates a particular challenge for marketers. Clients often arrive at agencies with a long list of features they want to include. They’re proud of all of the innovations they’ve managed to crowd into the product. They aren’t sure which parts of their potential market will be moved by which feature so they want to pack them all in.

It’s up to a marketing team that wants to turn that product into an engaging story to first whittle those features down. Leave out the boring bits, exaggerate what remains, and make the story immersive and emotional.

The result might not be as weird as an RC Cola ad, but it should be just as entertaining.

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