End of Story

A friend of mine is head of marketing at a large retailer. He understands my fascination with story, and he knows how much leverage he gets when one of his storytelling efforts goes viral. But honestly, in his heart of hearts, I know he would be happier if his organization could master the data so perfectly that he would never have to worry about storytelling again. In his fantasy marketplace, he would know what you want before you want it. He would present you with what you want, at the price you are willing to pay, at the moment you are ready and willing to buy it. He would never waste your time—or his marketing dollars—presenting you information when you weren’t in the market for it. In my friend’s marketing paradise, the relationship you have with his brand is purely transactional, but every transaction is so pure (so seamless, so effortless) that you love his brand and always shop there first. Well, maybe love is a bit of a stretch, but at least you think well of his brand, on the occasions when you happen to think of it at all.

I understand the attraction of this fantasy. Story is messy. Storytelling is hard. Using story effectively requires both good creative judgment and the ability to manage creative people (which I know, having spent two decades of my life running an animation studio, can be a real pain in the ass). To do storytelling well requires that you embrace and sustain conflict. And, story is difficult to measure. Story seems like a lot of trouble. I see why my friend imagines that running his business would be less stressful if he could dispense with story and turn marketing into a real science.

The fantasy underpinning my friend’s marketing paradise is perfect information, perfectly delivered. Data would be so comprehensive and so thoroughly analyzed that it would be possible to know exactly what information to serve, who to serve it to, and when to serve it. Information communicated in this way would not need to suggest any meaning deeper than this: Here is what we are offering. These are the functional attributes. This is what it costs. The purpose of such a business is to make money for its shareholders by providing stuff its customers want. End of story.

Which is ironic, because all the current science of how the brain works suggests that a business model based on this fantasy would collapse of its own weight. The brain takes in information in a completely different way than it absorbs story. In fact, the brain is a story sponge and an information filter. Most of the energy our brains expend while we are awake is spent sifting through the almost infinite stream of incoming data looking for the few bits of information that, if strung together in a particular sequence, might be meaningful. In fact, that’s what story is: A sequence of events that communicates meaning.

Our brains have evolved in a way that makes particular use of story. We observe patterns of events, search for connections, and try to find the meaning in them. Our ability to make connections and derive meaning from them has provided a fundamental evolutionary advantage. As a result, our brains reward us for finding these patterns in the data. By the same token, if the stream of information doesn’t seem to mean anything, then there is no reason to pay attention, and we remember almost none of that information, unless it concerns something we happen to need at the precise moment when we encounter it.

It’s this inconvenient truth about how the brain works that undermines my friend’s fantasy of a perfect, scientifically managed marketplace. You can see the problem clearly if you look at his business from the point of view of the relationship between his customers and his brand. If he succeeds in mastering the data so as to provide a perfect flow of information, leading to a series of purely rational transactions, then his brand becomes invisible. At best, you might relate to it the way you relate to a well-functioning utility.

In fact, the comparison with a well-functioning utility is apt. The more my friend succeeds in building his business through scientific marketing alone, the more the relationship between his brand and his customers will be shallow and fragile. A relationship based on a series of transactions has very little resilience. If a company promises to deliver electricity every time I flip a switch or plug in a lamp, then that company becomes largely invisible until the power fails—or until I have to pay the bill. If a big retailer promises the lowest prices, always, then my relationship with that retailer will come to be defined by that promise. The first time I become aware that I could have bought the same thing for a lower price someplace else, I will feel foolish and betrayed.

Ultimately, because of the way the brain processes information, your customers will make story out of their interaction with your business whether you explicitly present a story or not. If they experience your business as a well-oiled machine with no higher purpose than facilitating seamless transactions, your customers will assume you are just in business to make money. They will instinctively adopt a defensive posture toward you because they know how that story goes: the character who is motivated by an interest in money for its own sake is always the villain. That is the narrative that threatened to overwhelm Walmart in the early to mid 2000s, when it lost control of its story to its critics.

In the end, the fantasy is that any business can dispense with story. If you are running a business that has a relationship with its customers that goes beyond the transaction, then there is, by definition, a story playing in their heads. That story is an expression of what you do and why you do it. What you do is your purpose, and why you do it is the meaning of your story. If your customers believe that there is meaning in what you do, then they will have a framework with which to organize all the information you want to present to them. That is the only reason they might remember that information, and think well of your brand, the next time they have a need for what you offer.