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Storytelling and the data-to-insight creative pathway

Published 08 Oct 2019 4 minute read

Strategic Thinking

Media and creative agencies adopted storytelling aeons ago as a means of showing brand consumers that they 'got them' in a nod and a wink kind of way. Since then, culture and the consumer landscape has shifted - vastly. Vague notions of 'who' customers are and 'how' they might engage with your brand don’t translate through to effective messaging and creative. In order to survive, brands need to truly connect with the everyday lives of their customer, reach out to new markets, be adaptable, understand different cultures and make sure their positioning resonates with people they might have previously ignored. Enter a more enlightened process of content evolution that has data, insight and creativity at its core.

Using customer data to identify opportunities

If your organisation has lots of lovely customer data, you may already be experiencing a nagging doubt that you could be doing more with it. If that's the case, there's an approach that can transform your content, allowing you to sharpen up messaging and develop effective customer narratives. It embraces data, insight and creativity and it delivers impact, without costing a fortune.

For your storytelling narrative to be loved and shared, it has to resonate with your audience, their lives and the way they interact with your products and services. They want to know deep down that you really get them. Your marketing and customer data sets will help you surface the important interactions, trends and behaviours - where people are engaged and what they might be interested in. This will help signpost the areas for further investigation. However, data alone will not get you where you need to be. You can’t tell effective stories without first understanding and empathising with your customers and the context of their everyday lives. This isn't something that can be 'got at' by analysing data points and dashboards.

Brands that get their stories wrong had better beware too. To successfully connect with your consumers, you have to not only understand why they laugh or cry, but you and your team need to feel it yourself. You don’t need to walk a mile in their shoes, but you need to empathise alongside them whilst they have blisters, tie their laces for the tenth time and finally reach the finish line.

When brands act on their data and develop human insight, they can begin to empathise, then tell authentic stories that leave people saying 'that brand really gets me, and my life'.

Why people get excited about the John Lewis Christmas ad every year...

It's simple. They know their heartstrings are about to get pulled with art and care - the expectation for a good festive yarn (real, warm, and with a pitch-perfect reflection on a topical sentimental theme) has been set year in, year out. 

A very powerful narrative featuring a reversed timeline technique which had a lot of things going for it: emotional payoff, a brand-aligned hashtag (#EltonJohnLewis), popular cultural themes (every creative’s journey started somewhere, encouraging parenting leads to successful children, the deep nostalgia of the perfect gift, remembering your roots etc). Interestingly, Twitter was polarised by the 2018 ad - but there is no denying that John Lewis’s Christmas tradition has set the bar high for over a decade. The department store honed the key insight which was that customers resonate with the brand as the ‘home of thoughtful gifts’.

How to achieve the same effect without the £M budget

We've written previously about 2D vs 3D personas and why context is so important when it comes to understanding people's motivations and purchasing decisions. It's the same principle for storytelling.

In the past, your brand team and creative agency might have hoped for a chance encounter with a compelling idea that set creative wheels in motion for your next campaign. An effective contemporary alternative (in a digital age where organisations have multiple consumer touchpoints), is to scrutinise your customer data, identify key areas of engagement, then use qualitative research to drill down into what real people in your target audience actually think, feel and believe. You can proactively immerse yourself in their lives, exploring and understanding their day-to-day pain points and first-hand experiences; the issues they're passionate about, what they think, and how they feel about and value your brand, services and products. It's a great opportunity to test everything from brand messaging and ad copy, to new propositions.

Qualitative research delivers a trackable, defined process of building understanding and empathy with target audiences. It starts with effective research design that goes deep, and gets to the heart of what you want to investigate. How you pose the questions, to minimise bias, is equally important. The crafted insight, helps drive creative development, and there's a bonus in that whatever is developed can be tested on the same group under study, or other representative groups, at scale. That means less guesswork, and less potentially offensive, outmoded assumptions of what your consumers 'do' or 'don't' care about. Workshopping insight, to develop creative angles and innovative ideas takes a lot of skill, and it needs to be 100% grounded in the research. For more on this, read about disruptive brands putting customers at the heart of their strategy.

It's not only B2C brands that can benefit from this synthesis. B2B businesses can work with their stakeholders and customers to sharpen up sales content, freshen up their target personas, or hone new propositions, for example.

Brands that stand out get talked about

Some of the most provocative and meaningful advertising coming through for female markets demonstrates a deepening understanding of a long patronised demographic. The storytelling for ads aimed at women has had to undergo something of a revolution as backlashes against stereotyping gained power - and many marketing teams have reacted with insight. A couple of ads for female products spring to mind, where genuine insight and sensitive research revealed something real, and enabled the creative team to tap in to important stories. The hugely successful 'Always' campaign ‘Like A Girl’ was inspired by deep research into the fears and obstacles many women face around their gender, and which was transformed into stories of empathy and understanding. The key insight? The overwhelming number of girls who face paralysing fear of failure as they enter puberty. Not only did this campaign turn a sad statistic into empowering storylines, the sincerity and power of it (as well as many celebrity endorsements) has changed the meaning of the phrase ‘like a girl’ in popular usage. 

In summary

Telling stories has always been a feature of human culture. However with the increased volume of information we are subjected to every day, and a growing distrust of anything that might be trying to manipulate us, reaching an audience successfully has never been so challenging. It makes sense that the high volume hyper-marketing approach is fading away in favour of grounded storytelling, effective messaging and memorable narrative that resonates with real people and reflects their everyday experiences. With true insight comes empathy for your audience and what they need, which translates through to sharper creative development. As brands are pushed to embrace the vivid, fast-changing worlds of their consumers into the future, data and insight are playing a key role in helping them keep up and speak out. Find out what’s going on in their lives – how they’re feeling, what they crave, what they long to experience, what they think and what they value.

One of the most cost-effective methods of running your qualitative studies is online whether that's online focus groups or using an online qualitative research platform, such as our platform, Together™, if you want to learn more about the different online qual approaches you can use to generate the insight you need, then check out our article here. 

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