Narratives and Marketing
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The world is increasingly complex. You still have to navigate it.
Information is everywhere. The volume, velocity, and variety of conversations have grown exponentially. As a result, it’s harder than ever to control the stories that people are telling about you, you’re products, and the big issues connected to your organization. In other words, it’s harder than ever to manage your brand.
How do you filter the signal from the noise— and use it to your advantage?
Fortunately, the data explosion isn’t a net negative for marketers. In fact, the torrent of information gives you an unprecedented opportunity to get intimate with the underlying beliefs—what we call “narratives”—that govern your market, customers, and competitors. Now more than ever, you can get a bead on what people are thinking and saying, if you can find a way to make sense of it. Once you do, you can use that insight to develop positioning and messages that connect emotionally with your audience and compel them to buy.
While marketing has transformed over the last decade into a discipline that relies on rigorous analysis and real-time data to make many strategic decisions, branding, positioning and other “creative outcomes” still depend on gut instinct. And that’s a problem. The stakes are too high to ignore the data and deep consumer insights that are now available to marketers.
Your secret weapon: narratives.
The goal is to uncover, decode, and leverage narratives to your advantage. First, let’s define our terms. Narratives are collections of assumptions, beliefs, and attitudes that people use to make sense of the world. They reduce complex issues into simple, comprehensible stories that stick. They also guide behavior—powerfully. When a group of people holds the same set of narratives, they buy the same products, vote for the same candidates, and even band together to ignite revolutions.
Who makes sense of narratives—and how?
Unfortunately, making sense of narratives has tended to be the province of pundits and gurus, as opposed to analysts. For a long time, marketers have had to clumsily navigate through opinion surveys, sentiment analysis, and their personal interpretations of research to try to discern what matters. Now there’s a better way. At Monitor 360, we offer a data-driven framework to help you wield narratives for marketing advantage—so you can move beyond intuition and direct strategy for branding, positioning, new market entry, and product development. The result? Campaigns and rollouts with greater impact, increased efficiency, and better returns.
Welcome to Narrative Analytics™.
When you’re looking to leverage narratives, it’s important to follow a three-step process:
Insight: Identity the key narratives and measure their relevance.
Before you can leverage narratives, you have to uncover them. Where should you look—and how can you categorize what you find? What are the dominant narratives in your space— and which have the most relevance to your brand? The Insight process comprises four steps:
- Find the relevant media sources
- Group the chatter, conversations, and information into clusters
- Sift the narratives from the news
- Measure the narratives
Find the relevant content sources.
Your process begins with locating the relevant source material. Start with what’s easiest to get: traditional public media like television, radio, and print. Research tools like Cision or Meltwater can supply you with transcripts for a much of what’s out there. Traditional media will provide you with a conversation and discourse baseline, while op-eds are useful for gathering elite opinions on key debates. Electronic and social media is also critical, particularly because they provide scale. You can organize information from online publications, Twitter, blogs, and Facebook with social media monitoring tools. Social media is typically reaction-based and emotional while blogs are bottom-up opinions with value-laden perspectives on complex issues. Of course, you’ll want to target the content sources that are relevant to your demographics.
Group the conversations, chatter, and information into clusters.
Once you identify the content sources and have amassed your data pool, form clusters according to an organizing principle that makes sense for your goals—common words, themes, characters, and/or organizations. At this stage, we recommend creating a team with a number of synthesis-oriented thinkers who are skilled in ferreting out patterns, spotting the non-obvious, and empathizing with unfamiliar audiences.
Sift the narratives from the news.
Once you’ve identified clusters of similar stories, it’s time to determine what really matters. In any broad public discussion of a company, industry, product, or issue, there are three levels of discourse operating simultaneously. Your job is to filter out the news, which is fleeting and volatile, from the narratives, which have long-term staying power.
Since narratives are getting at underlying attitudes, write them in a way that captures all of the emotion that their subscribers hold. In other words, don’t shy away from bias; in fact, naming bias is exactly what you’re after. This way, when you’re analyzing the narratives, you can more quickly imagine how they will impact key business concerns.
If you can identify between five and ten narratives operating at a given time, you can capture what we call a narrative landscape, giving you a complete picture of the situation at hand.
Measure the narratives.
Once you identify and isolate the narratives, it’s time to measure them:
- What is the volume of the narrative? Is it a large or small conversation compared to other narratives?
- How much social engagement is the narrative inspiring? Is it being shared, and shared widely? This helps determine the emotional commitment that consumers have to (or against) the narrative.
- What is the trend of the narrative? Is it rising or declining?
Strategy: Attach to an existing narrative, reframe an existing narrative, or create a new narrative.
At this point, you’ve identified the key narratives as well as their volume, social engagement, and trending. How can you use these insights to inform marketing strategy? In one of three ways: attach, reframe, or create.
Sometimes you’ll want to attach to a narrative, either because it has a high volume or because it has untapped potential to make an emotional connection with your audience. We saw a wildly successful example of attaching during the 2013 Super Bowl, when Dodge ran the now-famous “God Made a Farmer” ad. That spot attached to the powerfully emotional American “Noble Heartland” narrative, which holds that all Americans owe a debt to farmers, because they keep our country nourished and independent and because they symbolize hard work, honesty, and sacrifice. When you connect strong creative to a quantifiable and expanding narrative with legs, your success rate shoots up. The “Farmer” spot generated more social media engagement and conversation than any other Super Bowl ad in 2013 and consistently ranked at the top of ad critics’ lists of the best advertisements.
The second strategy is to reframe or undermine a narrative. This is a high-stakes strategy, with significant risks—but in the right situation, it can pay off. At the moment, Tesla is in the midst of undermining a series of unfavorable narratives that doubt the safety, performance, and reliability of their electric cars. Tesla’s approach has been to fight with data and deploy a powerful underdog narrative with a supporting legal strategy. That narrative positions its founder and hero, Elon Musk, as valiantly defending consumers everywhere by fighting an entrenched and uncompetitive automotive industry that is in desperate need of disruption. Will this strategy work? That remains to be seen.
In some instances, the stories that are essential to your strategy have not yet been told. In this case, you want to innovate and create a new story based on white space in the narrative landscape. GoPro, for example, has created a new narrative—“Flexible Technology to Push Your Limits”—by combining two existing narratives, one about the glory of pushing personal boundaries to reach your potential and the other about how flexible and easy-to-use technology creates new opportunities for self-expression. The new narrative has propelled GoPro to be one the great success stories over the last 10 years, doubling revenue every year since its first camera was introduced in 2004. After an IPO in June 2014, the company’s valuation is over $3 billion.
Action: Implement your strategy through various streams.
Now that you’ve formed your strategy, it’s time to execute with confidence—across branding, messaging, product development, new market entry, and more.
Brand positioning and messaging.
Whether you’re a business or an NGO, you have one shot to establish a new positioning, so it’s essential to nail it right out of the gate. But it can be challenging to find a brand position that both resonates with customers and is uniquely differentiating. To do it right, you need more than just good instincts about your customer; you have to understand your potential customers’ deeply held beliefs about your brand, your product, and your competition. The ultimate win: attaching to an accelerating narrative that the competition has not identified yet. In that case, you earn yourself a special place in your market, as well as a high potential for long-term resonance.
Selecting the right product is challenging enough in a crowded marketplace, but choosing the features and benefits that consumers will want and pay for requires a deep understanding of what drives consumer behavior. When you understand your customers’ narratives, you can understand the functional benefits they value, the emotional needs they’re looking to satisfy, and the self-expressive desires they’re hoping to fulfill. Matching these insights to features and benefits can increase your likelihood of a successful rollout, with faster consumer adoption and more satisfied customers.
New market entry.
Entry into a new geography or market is plagued with pitfalls and potential narrative snafus; the wrong message in the wrong market can tarnish a brand for decades. Marketing leaders operating in uncharted territory have to be discovery-oriented, approaching audiences on their terms and with their existing narratives in mind. When you understand the narratives of a segment, market, or country, not only will you be able to better prioritize which markets to enter, but because you have deep understanding of consumers at scale, you can deliver the right campaign message for the new market and increase your chance of success in expansion.
Using Narratives for Advantage
Narratives are powerful because they are part of what makes us human; we are storytelling creatures. Once we begin viewing the world through narratives, we understand better why people make the choices they do. Monitor 360’s Narrative Analytics™ process is a unique and powerful method for turning strategic planning inside-out, providing a new structure for understanding and shaping the beliefs that have a profound impact on all organizations.Download PDF