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 |  Opinions & news

Marketing is now “survival of the clearest”

Donald Miller says a story is “life with the boring bits taken out”. 

In his book, Building A Storybrand, he makes the case for applying the framework of a story to marketing communications. Marketing therefore becomes “the brand with the boring bits taken out."

I couldn’t agree more. Here’s why.

We need to deliver communications people can connect to

When I’m working with my clients, a common challenge we experience is that there’s a lot to say about their brands. There are exciting updates about their growth, their success, their new wins, their new products, and much more. A typical brief might be to share this new and exciting information with their customers to increase sales and/or brand awareness. 

In his book, Millar outlines two key mistakes brands make when they communicate with their customers: 

  1. Failure to focus on aspects of the offer that will help people survive and thrive
  2. Requiring customers to invest too much energy into processing the offer

It’s not hard for our expert creative team to make content look and sound better – but the most beautiful website will still lose users if they can’t quickly figure out how to navigate it and why it’s relevant to them.

And that’s because, at the end of the day, human beings are still driven by our survival instinct.

What does the survival instinct have to do with anything?

In the world we live in today, survival is no longer about growing extra hair for warmth and using our wisdom teeth to tear raw meat – it’s about information. 

If we take it all the way back to basics with Maslow's hierarchy of needs, we see that acquiring information is vital to all of it – without it, we can't find a place to sleep or food to eat. / Image by Miguel Angel

Humans are constantly and subconsciously scanning our surroundings for ‘survival fuel’. For information. And for information to be effective, it needs to be easy for us to understand quickly. Our basic survival mechanism means we tune out confusion and irrelevance to save energy for what really matters.

When we are in a lecture room, for example, we will subconsciously clock all of the exits – but we never count how many chairs are in the room. It’s the way we might once have counted the individual jaguars in the jungle, but not bothered with the trees. We’re constantly categorising the world into need-to-know or irrelevant without realising it.

In the modern world, where there are far fewer jaguars, our survival energy goes into rapidly sorting through the overwhelming amount of information we’re presented with. We latch onto the things we can quickly understand and that feel important, and discard everything else. 

So how do we make sure we’re working with the survival instinct, not against it?

This is where formulae come in. We improve the speed at which we can understand information by using formulae we learn without even realising it. In busy urban environments we grow up knowing red means STOP or DANGER, and green means GO or SAFE. We don’t need to mentally check what a traffic light colour means when we arrive at it. We already know.

This is the reason so many brand communications don’t work. They’re too complicated for our brains to subconsciously apply a formula. They’d take too long to figure out and they’re not necessary for survival, so they get completely overlooked as useless noise. 

But if a brand tailors their communications to a formula and puts everything in order, it’s much more likely to be absorbed. The customer’s brain doesn’t have to do any hard work – you’ve done it all already, so it can just take in the information without effort.

How do we apply an order or a formula to our communications?

According to Millar (and now to me), it’s a simple solution: Turn your brand or message into a clear story that won’t take too many brain calories to understand. Stories are the best formulae we have. We’ve been telling each other stories as long as we’ve been human beings. 

I’m not talking about Homeric epics here, either. A story can be as simple as, “this person needed cheap, tasty food, and they needed it fast. We gave it to them. They were happy.” (Thanks, McDonalds!) 

The key is clarity. How many times have you mentally dipped out of a film or a book or a friend’s anecdote when confusion arises? Our subconscious brain doesn’t have the time or the desire to listen when things get complicated. (I instantly remember maths GCSE!) 

“If you confuse, you lose.” – Donald Millar

The brain disregards clutter but remembers the relevant, punchy information. So to make a message stick, we repeat simple, pithy and relevant messages over and over and build them into a recognisable story. By doing this, we can “brand ourselves into public consciousness.

How do we find that simple message at the heart of a piece of communication?

At risk of sounding too blunt, I’ve realised how important it is to understand what your customers actually want before spending time and budget on something the customer won’t be interested in. If you do that, you’re a lot closer to figuring out what the central, driving message needs to be.

More and more, before we even get started, I’ve been going back to clients with questions like these: 

  • What’s the single-minded proposition? i.e., What’s the main thing you want to say?
  • Does your customer care? If so, great. If not, what do they care about?
  • Should we do more research into the customer’s mindset first, then target a gap in their needs that your brand/product can fill?

In short, I’ve been asking: Why? So what? What’s the point? 

Okay, so we’ve got our message. How do we turn that into a story?

Every good story has a hero. They’re on a path of loss and gain, and we care deeply about what happens to them. This is the key trick to remember when applying the story framework to your brand. 

Oh, and to clear up any confusion – the brand isn’t the hero. The customer is the hero. The brand is the guide who helps the hero gain success with their tools and expertise – like Yoda and Luke Skywalker, or Gandalf and Frodo.

A great example of a brand that applied the storybrand framework is, of course, Apple. They were at risk of being unapproachable and intimidating to customers who didn’t really understand what they did – or even what the products they were trying to sell did. So they decided to research and understand their customers’ needs.

They made the customer the hero. They learned the hero wanted to be seen and heard, to be thought of as a bit of a maverick who didn’t always want to do things the conventional (or boring) way – but the hero didn’t necessarily understand how to use the tech that could help them do that. 

So Apple became their guide. They told a story like this: “You want a tool you can use to express yourself and your unique view of the world. We will give you that tool and make it easy for you to learn to use. And you will be happy.” Only they expressed their story much more simply than that. They just said, “Think different.” Those two words started appearing on billboards all over America, and the rest is history. 

Put your customer at the centre of your communications and you’re away

The power of clear, confident, empathetic communications based on genuine insight is immeasurable – especially now, as we continue to wrestle with the effects of the pandemic. 

When we talk to customers through brand communications, we have to invite them to come on a journey with us. We have to tell them their own story, and how we can help them navigate it. And, most importantly, we have to do it simply and in the most relevant way possible. 

Ultimately, people don’t pay attention because a product is the best. They pay attention because, without even trying, they can understand what a product is and why it matters.

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