Gone are the days when marketing meant touting the great features and benefits of a product and just waiting for the public to buy in. The ground rules of consumer marketing have changed: today, it’s all about building meaningful relationships. And the best way to do that is by employing effective storytelling to win over the hearts and minds of consumers.

We interviewed Tony Chow, Regional Director Creative+Content Marketing of Marriott International, for the most recent episode of our podcast The Marketing Executive. Tony shared his insights on how the onset of the internet has brought more choices, and more information about those choices, to consumers—all of which makes them tone deaf to the old ways of marketing and advertising. So how do you build a connection with your audience in an inundated field? How do you, as Tony says, “break out of that noise”? The answer lies in compelling storytelling.

Three questions guided our conversation:

  1. What purpose does storytelling serve?
  2. What are the steps to get the story right?
  3. How do you tie it all together?

Read on for a summary of the conversation and learn all about what makes storytelling effective, what key mistakes keep brands from getting the message right, and why compelling stories are more relevant and influential in today’s changing world than ever before.

1. What purpose does storytelling serve?

At the most fundamental level, storytelling is a way to build a relationship with the consumer.

Consumers today are a new breed: not only do they have more options, but they can do their own research online and they have the power to decide what they want. It’s nearly impossible to connect with them through the traditional means of advertising amidst all the noise. But nothing matches the power of a story to build the emotional resonance that will help your brand stand out from the crowd.

When it comes to making a memorable impression, emotional resonance trumps pure information delivery by a longshot: “even from the perspective of business,” Tony says, “it’s actually a better way to present than having a powerpoint presentation where it’s all going to be forgotten—

or at least 90% of it. But stories, people remember.”

“Even from the perspective of business, it’s actually a better way to present than having a powerpoint presentation where it’s all going to be forgotten… Stories, people remember.” Tony Chow

And making sure you’re remembered is worth a lot. Tony observes that the timeline between the initial contact with a consumer and the moment of sale has extended. “Today, I think it takes longer.” These days you need to first “build their trust, give them something valuable, then eventually they trust in you and they will actually spend money with you.” That’s why it’s so important to make your brand relevant to them from the get-go, so that you stand a chance at keeping that emotional connection throughout the long timeline of building a relationship with each customer.

2. What are the steps to get the story right?

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but in order to get your story right “the first step is to define and determine your goal. You need to understand your own brand and business, and that is first and foremost.” Stories are subjective, so there are always many ways that you could talk about your brand and your connection to the consumer. The one you should pick is the one that ties directly to your marketing goal.

Next, of course, you should make sure it’s entertaining: “People are more hooked by something that is entertaining,” says Tony, and are more likely to connect with you if you give them enjoyable content than a hard-selling approach. By giving them content where there is “conflict and reality of human nature,” you can leverage the enticement of drama to create an opportunity for emotional investment.

But, while entertainment may be the hook, it isn’t the end-all-be-all. “When we go to a movie we go not just for entertainment; there’s also a moral of the story, a message that you get,” Tony observes. “From a brand perspective, at the very center of it it really is about putting the consumer as the hero of the story, and how the brand can actually help them to achieve their dreams, or overcome their challenges, and finally solve their pain points.” Ultimately, it’s the deeper messages that build emotional resonance with consumers and lead to strong relationships.

3. How do you tie it all together?

“We are not here to tell about our brand story.We should be telling the story of our brand from the consumer point of view.” Tony Chow

Throughout the interview, Tony came back to a central point: the consumer must be the hero of the story. “We are not here to tell about our brand story,” he says. “We should be telling the story of our brand from the consumer point of view.”

Remember: consumers don’t care about your company or the products you sell. “Brands put themselves at the front of everything,” he observes. “They keep telling you about their benefits, the attributes of their brand, how great they are. But that’s what the problem is: the consumer isn’t listening to that—the consumer only thinks about themself.” Instead, he recommends, “if you turn the conversation to the other side so that you put the consumer at the start of it, and the brand is actually helping to support them, to help them, or bring their journey or aspiration to fruition, then you’ll hook them in. …This is the core of the storytelling perspective.”

But that doesn’t mean neglecting the importance of your brand identity: it’s about tying your identity to the consumer’s aspirations. That’s how storytelling can help you convey an authentic message about your unique selling points in a way that connects, instead of falling on deaf ears. Sometimes that means a more indirect path to sale, but it also means stronger and more lasting customer relations in the long-run.

Marriott sets the example: “We’re not telling a story about how great our hotels are.” Instead, they put their guests at the forefront by using narratives that relate more to destinations, which is what the traveler is really interested in. Those unique story angles are more likely to hook the consumer, eventually driving them down the funnel by compelling them to learn more about the hotels.

And when you are able to achieve that—when you can leverage what the brand stands for and connect it to a critical need, goal, or dream of the consumer—as Tony says, “That’s when you’re telling a great story.”  

This post is based on an interview with Tony Chow from Marriott International. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Marketing Executive.

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