March 2017 | Harish Bhat

For the love of stories

Marketers and brands need to become evocative storytellers as consumers engage better if products tell a story, says Harish Bhat, brand custodian, Tata Sons

Everyone loves a good story. That is why we watch movies and television serials with great eagerness, and that is also why we hanker to read works of fiction, either as good old physical books or on our new-fangled digital Kindles. The great storytellers of all time — including Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and the Indian poet Kalidasa — have created timeless tales that have lived on for centuries. Modern storytellers, such as RK Narayan, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Steven Spielberg and the inimitable Karan Johar, are equally popular.

What is interesting is that our desire for stories is not limited to movies or books; it permeates every sphere of our lives. We love narrating stories about the products that we own. For instance, when I wear my Titan Edge watch, I am proud and happy to narrate the story of how this is the slimmest watch in the universe. I go on to tell people about how this watch was engineered and designed by Titan’s own technologists and is wafer thin, with a total slimness of just 3.5 millimeters. Not only does the story get immediate attention, but it also ensures that the people I am speaking to look at the Titan Edge watch with new interest and reverence. Very often, they also end up buying a Titan Edge watch for themselves.

There are equally fascinating stories waiting for us at hotels of the Taj Group, or at Westside stores, or within packets of Tata Salt. These could include the story of a royal palace in Rajasthan converted into a Taj hotel, or perhaps the story of the beautiful paisley motif used on Westside women’s apparel, or indeed the tale of how salt is made at the stunning salt pans located in Tata Chemicals’ salt works in Okhamandal. These could be real stories which are rooted in functional truths, or they could also be emotive stories that brands use to express themselves — such as the inspiring stories embedded in Tata Capital’s ‘Do Right’ initiative, or the powerful story conveyed by Tata Tea’s ‘Jaago Re’ marketing campaign.

And then you have stories that emanate from consumers themselves, which is from all of us. For virtually any company or brand, whether the business sector be communication services or information technology services or steel bars and wires, there will always be many powerful stories of customers who have been delighted or of the positive experiences they have loved — all narrated in their own voices and words.

This love for stories is a universal phenomenon today, and hence marketers and brands have to necessarily become experts at good, authentic and evocative storytelling. Consider some of the most popular brands in the world. Dove soap tells the story of ‘real beauty’ wonderfully well, using real women who value true beauty in their lives and persona. Nike tells stories of the athlete who lives deep within each of us, using true stories of champions to inspire all of us to ‘just do it’. Starbucks tells stories of human connections and friendships forged over a cup of steaming coffee, in the ‘third place’ — which is how Starbucks refers to itself.

Many Indian brands also narrate their stories quite well, and some brands have become masters of this craft. One such example is Fevicol, the famous brand of adhesives; it narrates brilliant, humorous stories to make its point stick. I can never ever forget the story of the hen’s egg which would just not crack open, because this particular hen had eaten out of an old Fevicol tin. Another great Indian storyteller brand has been Tanishq, which has told many moving tales, ranging from jewellery that inspires marriage to celebrating remarriage in a woman’s life.

In today’s digital age, the new reality is that consumers love to engage with stories on digital media — including Youtube videos, Facebook posts, podcasts and photographic stories on Instagram. Digital storytelling requires new skills — including creation of multiple stories in short bursts, addressing low attention spans, creating a two-way storytelling dialogue rather than a one-way communication, and leveraging consumers’ own stories very powerfully. Building large banks of rich, compelling story content is the key to success in the digital world. Several companies of the Tata group, and many world-class marketers such as Unilever and Nestle, have begun addressing this huge opportunity in right earnest.

This brings us to an important point. What makes a story work really well; what makes it truly memorable? Perhaps some lessons can be found in the works of William Shakespeare, whom I consider the greatest storyteller of them all. All the great plays he wrote were stories that dealt with human emotions that we can easily relate to — such as love, jealousy, hatred, ambition, greed, lust and honour. Virtually all his stories feature heroes and heroines who are never perfect; each of them suffer from some human frailty that serves as the pivot for the entire storyline. For instance, Hamlet is perennially indecisive, Macbeth is foolishly ambitious and Shylock is inhumanly greedy. Also, there is inevitably a twist in the tale, there are interludes of humour even in tragic stories, and finally, there are a number of visually dramatic sequences built into the telling of the story.

To conclude, let me request you to reflect for a moment on the stories that you have loved and cherished. Who is your favourite storyteller? What do you like and enjoy about the stories that he or she narrates? Which brands (of products or services) do you admire for the stories they tell? Is there any particular brand story that has fascinated you? Do write in (at bhatharish@hotmail.com) and let me know.

This article was first published in the January - March 2017 issue of Tata Review. Read the ebook here