I’ve been thinking about the power of story—and, in particular, the role of story in building relationships—for a long time. Still, I don’t remember a more poignant case in point than a recent episode of This American Life called “The Heart Wants What It Wants.” Most of the episode is taken up with the story of Jesse, a sweet, gentle man in love with a woman named Pamala, whom he met through a correspondence club where, in exchange for a small monthly contribution, he received love letters from her.
The letters were actually written by a bald, middle-aged man with a small moustache, named Don Lowry. There was, in fact, a woman named Pamala, and Jesse occasionally received pictures of her enclosed with the letters. She was employed by Don at his print shop in Moline, Illinois, where, with the help of assistants, salespeople and ghostwriters, Don was writing love letters to more than 30,000 men.
What I found fascinating—and moving—was that after the scam was revealed, when Don and Pamala were on trial for mail fraud, conspiracy and money laundering, when it was transparently clear that all the men in the correspondence club had been cheated, Jesse and other members of the club traveled from all over the country to support Pamala and testify for the defense. According to Shankar Vedantam, who reported the story for This American Life, members of the club testified that it had been a critical, beautiful part of their lives. One man said that the letters saved him from alcoholism and thoughts of suicide. Jesse said it gave him inspiration to go on no matter how tough the circumstances. Even now, decades later, Jesse, fully understanding that the real Pamala never wrote a word to him, still remembers “her” words and finds in them the inspiration and courage to keep going when life is hard.
In a marketing context, the reason for studying story as a strategic tool is to help marketers build a relationship between their brand and its consumers. In fact, in my experience, when it comes to building relationships, story is the only tool that counts. For marketing, of course, “Jesse’s Girl” is an unfortunate allegory, if you think of Pamala as the brand, Jesse as the consumer and Don Lowry as the brilliant, cynical marketing genius. Personally, I am pleased to say that, in fifteen years of doing this work, I have yet to meet a marketer as manipulative and dishonest as Don, although I suppose they exist. But the point is that story—whether used for good or ill—is an extremely powerful tool.
The relationships we have with brands—while they might occasionally seem as irrational as Jesse’s relationship with Pamala—are generally not as indelible. The relationship with a brand, like any relationship, begins with the emotional, intuitive side of your brain looking for meaning and connection. But because your relationship with a brand usually involves a commercial transaction, the rational, calculating side of your brain is also engaged from the start. The rational part of your brain remains on guard for clues that this relationship, like most commercial ones, is ultimately nothing more than a series of transactions.
To develop the relationship between a brand and its audience into something deeper and more powerful, a successful brand provides a series of clues that validate the story consumers would like to believe. Everything the brand does and says constitutes a clue: the products it offers, the packaging that contains those products, the prices it charges, the customer service it provides, the communications it broadcasts and posts. And every clue either deepens the story or betrays it.
Volkswagen, after years of good products and engaging communications, surprised me by cheating on its emissions numbers in a way that has completely betrayed everything I wanted to believe about the brand. Its stock value may never recover. On the other hand, REI, the outdoor clothing and gear retailer, recently announced that its stores would be closed on Black Friday. It gave all its employees a paid day off and encouraged them to get outside. By doing that, the brand got my attention in a way that deepened the story I had always hoped and suspected was true.
I would love to know if you personally have had a relationship with a brand that seems, perhaps in retrospect, to defy reason. And if so, has anything happened to cause that relationship to unwind?