What persuades a customer to believe in your brand?
Many marketers spend a great deal of time citing facts and figures that argue the benefits of their amazing widget. I’d argue they’re missing the one thing your audience really needs to connect with your brand.
What are they missing? It’s empathy. Empathy is defined as the ability to share what another person is feeling; it’s what connects audiences to your brand’s story. It persuades them to identify with the story you’re telling, and change their behavior in desired ways. It’s what literally makes them “buy what you’re selling.”
Empathy and Narrative in Brand Storytelling
As marketers, we are storytellers. Telling our brands’ stories effectively and persuasively is at the core of what we do. But what makes a story persuasive? Persuasive storytelling creates an emotional response — empathy — in the mind of the customer, helping them to understand the benefits of a brand, make decisions and take action.
But not all stories are equally effective at creating empathy. There are two broad categories of storytelling, advocacy and narrative, that most stories fall into. Narrative differs from advocacy in its method of persuasion, relying less on facts and figures and more on “transportation,” or engaging the reader in the narrative.
According to a school of psychology thought called transportation theory, transportation occurs when the reader is fully engaged in the story, absorbed in the thoughts, images and feelings created by a narrative. The experience of being transported affects the reader’s real world beliefs.
Empathy is one of the feelings that can transport a reader. Persuasive narrative elicits empathy, engaging audiences on a social, human level. The ability to identify with a character, in this case, your brand, is what makes persuasive narrative so powerful.
Why is empathy, or connecting at a social level, so powerful? Because humans are social animals, social information matters to us than in facts, figures or logical arguments. Scientists have even discovered a specific type of neuron in the brain, called mirror neurons, that fire when mirroring an activity performed by another.
Humans are literally wired for these kinds of connections. That’s what makes empathy such a powerful tool for brand storytelling. For brands, narrative storytelling is as persuasive as argument, but more memorable. It relies more on feelings than on facts and figures that are easily forgotten, making it a more efficient way for brands to connect with their audiences. In essence, empathy is a social connection that is created between your brand and an individual fully engaged in your narrative.
Eliciting Empathy in Brand Storytelling
Empathy speaks to us at the most primal level. But how do you go about creating empathy in your brand’s narrative?
Tell stories in the first person – First-person narrative helps audiences suspend disbelief and transports them into the story. It’s about giving the audience a chance to peer “behind the curtain” and connect at a human level with the storyteller. First person narrative is one of the reasons that blogs have become so popular — usually written in the first person, they create a sense of identification in the audience.
Understand your audience – Engagement in story depends on how well the narrative serves the needs and goals of the audience. What does your audience want from your stories. Are they seeking to be entertained? Informed? Do they seek to make a human connection? Audiences seeking information engage best with well-researched content that speaks to their interest. Those that seek to be entertained respond to engaging storylines. Audiences that seek human connection will respond to stories that allow them to identify with your brand.
Establish an appropriate voice – One challenge that exists in brand storytelling is choosing the right storytelling voice for the audience you’re trying to reach. Empathetic response differs between various audiences, storytellers and appeals. Some individuals are more inclined to engage emotionally than others; this is called “need for affect.” How individuals engage with certain characters varies as well. Women, for instance, may identify with and be more persuaded by likable opposite-sex characters, whereas likeability is not as important to men. Carefully consider what voice or character will be most appealing to your brand’s audience.
Pay attention to quality – Quality issues such as overly complicated storylines, multiple narrators or lack of a consistent voice, can impede the development of empathy with a reader. Unreliable narrators or lack of research and fact checking can also make a brand story less empathetic. “Narrative dissonance” — when the stories a brand tells don’t align with how it conducts business — can also impede empathy. These are quality issues that good storytelling seeks to avoid.
Empathy and the urge to connect may, in essence, be the very thing that make us human. Leveraging empathy for your brand with effective storytelling allows you to tap into this most basic human desire.