Picture: 123RF/Le Moal Olivier
Picture: 123RF/Le Moal Olivier

 Almost immediately after the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic hit, you probably heard people say something along the lines of: “One day we’re going to tell our kids about this” or maybe even: “I’m sure Netflix is already working on the screenplay”.

Both of these are likely to be true. The question is: why?

As Lisa Cron argues in her must-read book, Wired for Story, (and this Ted Talk) our urge to digest information wrapped up in an entertaining story (as opposed to craving a list of bullet-pointed data) doesn’t stem from the fact that we’re lazy sloths. It’s neurological. It’s our way of making sense of the world. And it’s the very thing that sets us apart from other animals. In other words, it’s evolutionary.

Story is what allows us to communicate in a higher order of sophistication. It’s not only the reason we can plan for the future, it forms the very basis of our understanding of it.

Cron makes a pretty strong case as to why. Broadly speaking, there are two neurochemical responses that come into play when we enjoy a story. The release of oxytocin triggers feelings of connection, care and empathy, and allows us to imagine the implications of our actions over the long term; and when cortisol is released, we have feelings of immediate distress, absolute focus and attention. Cortisol is essential in navigating short-term stresses.

As an oversimplified example, let’s use some noteworthy movies. Watch The Notebook or Manchester by the Sea and your brain will release oxytocin. Watch Jaws or It and your brain will release cortisol. These chemicals are the fuel that drive the emotional rollercoaster of a story.

These involuntary responses seem to mean that story has an evolutionary/biological/neurological function. It’s an ingenious system to convey information that elicits chemical responses in the brain – responses that tap directly into its pain, pleasure and memory centres.

So, in short, story is the most effective way to teach someone, because it makes them feel something. Which just so happens to be the biggest objective of almost any communication, be it music, art or even marketing. And this is exactly what a Standford University study found – people are 22 times more likely to remember facts that are part of a story than pure facts alone. And that’s how some people can remember thousands of digits of Pi.

That’s the trick. That’s how you hook your audience and influence behaviour. And that’s the thing that makes a masterpiece exactly that. Because the grand masters of craft understood it’s not the oil on the canvas, the exposed cellulose of the film or the vibrations of the string that move you. Sure, they play their part by physically interacting with your body through light and airwaves. But their power to captivate us, even centuries after completion, lies in the stories they tell, their subtextual meaning and the characters we identify with. What’s even more interesting is that it remains true, even when you know nothing about art or feel like you don’t quite “get it”. The emotion is still there.

The importance of emotional connection is nothing new. Marketers have burnt the old Maya Angelou quote into many a projector the world over, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” It’s true, of course. But that quote fails to explain why, or where the emotion stems from. Again, it’s story.

The next logical question is: what is a story? This, too, has been something we’ve pondered and tried explaining for thousands of years. (And no, it’s not a feature on Instagram. That’s just someone bragging about the gluten-free falafel smoothie they made.)

Ask Aristotle and he’d have said a story is built of three acts. Each with its own beginning, middle and end (or catalyst, reversal, and payoff.) That’s similar to what many call the Hollywood structure. Ask author Joseph Campbell (or Dan Harmon, the creator of Rick & Morty), who’ll tell you about the monomyth or hero’s journey. A circular structure defined by a need for change that drives the protagonist to leave their world of order, to enter a world of chaos, to get what they want only to realise its true cost when it’s too late. And then, they need to have changed, gained new knowledge and experience, through the price they’ve had to pay to return to a place of higher order (a better world) – a “new normal”.

I’m greatly simplifying, of course, but that’s what got me thinking. All this talk about a “new normal”. What does that mean for all of us? And what does it mean for brands? Because, just like in any good story, our world is now in chaos. And before things will get any better, there’ll be a price to pay, sacrifices to be made and knowledge to be gained so we can redefine who we are.

We’re still trying to understand who the characters are and who we identify with. But for most of us, we and our families are our own protagonists. Or, maybe you see health workers and others on the front line as this story’s heroes?

The need for a villain is, of course, one of the most interesting aspects of storytelling. And in all this Covid chaos, who do we vilify? The virus itself? Someone in some secret lab? Some authoritarian government? The greedy capitalist? All of them?

What’s interesting is that the main roles are taken. And my instinct is that the most brands can hope for at the moment, are to be great supporting characters.

Until all of this is over.

The big take-out:

The big take-out: Brands need to help us make sense of the world, whatever it ends up looking like, and move us to establish our new normal.

At that point, marketers and brands will rely, just like they did after our world’s great wars and depressions, on their ability to tell stories and entertain. They’ll help us make sense of the world, whatever it ends up looking like, and move us to establish our new normal.

I say “our” because that’s what it is. Not theirs. Which means it’s our responsibility to make sure they don’t do it just for their own benefit or that of their shareholders, but that they’ll do it by asking themselves: what kind of story does the world need? What kind of hero can they be?

Don’t underestimate how important this is. Because, as Cron points out, story doesn’t only help us make sense of the world. It has the power to change it, by tapping into our neurological structures, rewiring them, and changing our entire outlook on life.

The greatest brands will soon realise this. That our “new normal” isn’t something that’ll be presented to all and simply accepted, but one that they’ll have to shape alongside us. One they have a hand in co-authoring. This is the burden truly heroic brands will bear in shaping our new world. This will be their responsibility. Their quest. Their hero’s journey.

  • Gerhard Pretorius is head of Concept at Fuelcontent.


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