Narrative Transport: Worry less about the shoelaces and more about the story!

Good news!  Your R&D and Engineering Groups have achieved a technical breakthrough.  And the Sales & Marketing Departments are eager to publish this groundbreaking data about the improved performance of the reinforced rivets for your running shoes.  Wait a second, though – have you developed a compelling new branding story with the customer as the hero?  As enthusiastic as you may be about the new product features, it may not mean much to a skeptic. As Seth Godin says,

The problem is this: no spreadsheet, no bibliography and no list of resources is sufficient proof to someone who chooses not to believe. The skeptic will always find a reason, even if it’s one the rest of us don’t think is a good one. Relying too much on proof distracts you from the real mission–which is emotional connection.

Have you ever been “lost in a story?”  You might suspend disbelief, dive into the story experience, and begin to empathize with the hero.  Time slows down and your imagination engages. This kind of immersion is called “narrative transport” by psychologists. Marketing research from Vanderbilt University’s Jennifer Edson Escalas compared this story-like state of mind with a more analytical mindset.  She created multiple versions of running shoe advertisements and tested the reactions of 252 undergrads.  Escalas found that the narrative style ad was more effective than the analytical format, which viewers tended to evaluate more critically.

  • Narrative self-referencing: “Imagine yourself running through this park . . .”
  • Analytical self-referencing: “We’d like to introduce you to Westerly running shoes, designed with you in mind…”
  • Weak arguments included: reinforced shoe laces and water resistance.
  • Strong arguments included: light weight [10 ounces] and an advanced stability system.

Escalas found that the narrative approach resulted in favorable responses to the brand, whether the accompanying product features argument was weak or strong. In contrast, the analytical mindset had strong results only when the argument was strong, and it produced poor responses when the argument was weak.

Escalas: “Transportation is not a lack of thought.  It is a distinct process from analytical thought.”

It’s tempting to want to trumpet the technical features of your product, whether it’s running shoes, software, pharmaceuticals, legal services, or anything else. And superior data certainly is a competitive advantage. However, this research shows the importance of developing an accompanying story that encourages narrative transport.

Think about an important client whom you serve, or would like to serve. Is your sales and marketing team relying on facts and figures in your communication with this client?  What stories can be shared in a way that would be compelling and motivating?

*Shoelace photo courtesy of aussiegall

Escalas, Jennifer Edson. “Self-Referencing and Persuasion: Narrative Transportation versus Analytical Elaboration,” Journal of Consumer Research: March 2007.

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Posted in Sales, Story
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  • Bob Kanegis

    Narrative transport may lead to increased sales of shoelaces… that seems fine. However there are political and economic narratives out there that affect the body politic, and social contract that when not balanced with analytical rigor lead to disastrous consequences. Corporations are people… people who care… there’s a story… watch any of the soft ads for oil companies for instance.

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