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Brand Storytelling as “Narrative Transportation”

By Jake Sorofman | September 10, 2013 | 1 Comment

Having done my part to raise two daughters, I know the value of storytelling. I know the transportive power of a richly rendered narrative, delivered with commitment to its intent. I know that the faraway look in my daughters’ eyes is the exact opposite of the glazed-over boredom it may suggest; it’s engagement, rapt attention to the storyline.

Nobody can resist the power of a story. Marketers know this better than most. The best marketers use storytelling techniques to communicate their brand promise in a way that engages what may be the oldest and most reliable human attention trigger.

Robert Cialdini, the business professor and author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, describes so-called “fixed-action patterns” that illustrate the natural human tendency to respond—almost reflexively—to recognizable patterns, like the arc of a storyline. He describes these fixed-action patterns as the trigger for a sort of “click-whirr” effect.

Here, the structure of the story engages attention (“click”) and the narrative holds it, try as you may to resist (“whirr”). Stories have a way of engaging the brain subconsciously, not unlike the flow we experience at the peak of creative output. Writers and software developers both know the magic of those fleeting periods of high productivity when discernable time stops, endorphins take over and work becomes anything but.

Similarly, a good story grabs hold and transports us to another place and time.

I had a recent conversation about this phenomenon with Tom van Laer, a consumer researcher at ESCP Europe Business School who has spent the better part of a decade investigating the causes and effects of what is known as “Narrative Transportation.”

His premise is that stories have the power to change consumer’s behavior, which isn’t particularly original or provocative on its own. But, what is certainly original—and provocative—is the work he has done to understand specifically what makes stories—and storytelling—effective as an instrument of persuasion.

Forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research at the University of Chicago, the resulting scholarly paper wasn’t written for the casually interested: “The Extended Transportation-Imagery Model: A Meta-Analysis of the Antecedents and Consequences of Consumers’ Narrative Transportation.”

But marketers should take note: Behind the scholarly heft are some simple principles that we should all consider in our brand storytelling efforts. Van Laer concludes that narrative transportation is caused by three story characteristics:

  1. Identifiable characters
  2. An imaginable plot
  3. Use of realism

Five audience characteristics:

  1. Familiarity
  2. Attention
  3. Ability to fantasize
  4. Higher education
  5. Female gender

And, perhaps most interestingly, the research reveals that narrative transportation has positive effects on thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and intentions; and negative effects on critical thoughts.

Said another way, storytelling amplifies receptors, while attenuating resistors.

That should be music to marketers’ ears. But it also reveals the basic responsibility of brand storytelling: these powers should be used for good, not evil. Of course, exactly how these boundaries are drawn remains the larger—and perhaps thornier—question.

1 Comment
  1. 11 September 2013 at 8:50 am
    Tom van Laer says:

    Since you raise the question of boundaries… My colleagues and I find that narrative transportation is primarily caused by people’s more or less static ability to fantasize (difficult for marketers to influence (un)fortunately) and its effects on behaviour are primarily the result of emotions.
    That is what the brain is doing while consuming a story: It is busy ‘feeling’. Because of that, it has less capacity left to criticize the content, which then leads to acceptance of the story’s claim and a change in attitudes and intentions.

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