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Want to send a stronger message? Tell a story

There are a handful of overused and cliché marketing tactics that people in business regularly utilize when pushing their message or product: cute babies, sexy models, flashing lights, CGI trickery, catchy melodies, etc. Although often effective, these advertising mechanisms can backfire if audiences find them tasteless, distracting or boring. Marketers looking to step outside the box and try something original might look into one of humanity’s oldest traditions: storytelling.

New research from Johns Hopkins University, which will be published later this year in The Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, found that the structure of an advert’s content was more indicative of its success than the content itself. Researcher Keith Quesenberry spent two years studying more than 100 commercials that aired during the annual Super Bowl competition in the U.S., and their marketing strategies. He discovered that the most popular ads told a complete story, using a centuries-old narrative structure called Freytag’s Pyramid. The simple, five-act structure—which includes exposition, complication, climax, reversal and denouement—has been used in Shakespearian masterpieces and dates back to Aristotle. It can also be found in one of this year’s most popular Super Bowl commercials, from Budweiser. The ad is set on a farm and tells the story of two “best buds”—a puppy and a horse – that are torn apart when the puppy is given up for adoption.

Using Freytag’s Pyramid, the ad packs an emotional punch into a minute-long story. As a marketing technique it looks easy, but professional storytellers will tell you that conveying a clear message while eliciting a powerful emotional response from the audience is not easy. The structural breakdown looks something like this:

Exposition: In the first 15 seconds, the story establishes a friendship between the puppy and the horse.
Complication: The puppy is quickly carried away with a gut-wrenching look of sorrow on his face before making other failed attempts to visit the horse.
Climax: The pup is given up for adoption and, at roughly 40 seconds into the ad, is placed in his new owner’s car. It seems he’ll never see his friend again, until a group of horses chase down and stop the car.
Reversal: Together with the horses, the pup marches back onto the ranch.
Denouement: The horse and pup reunite and frolic together on the farm.

The understated ad, devoid of any nudity, celebrity appearances or gimmicky dance-pop tunes, was hugely successful among viewers and the media. It has nearly 50 million hits on YouTube, with thousands of comments like, “That is so adorable,” “I tear up every time,” and “This is definitely one of the cutest commercials ever created.” What’s more, the ad makes no mention of Budweiser until the very end when the company’s logo accompanied with “#bestbuds” closes out the commercial. The ad’s success reinforces the notion that humans are social and that sharing stories is a powerful way to connect.

The Johns Hopkins study is not the only one to call out a connection between storytelling and audience engagement. A new study of Asian Pacific markets by Waggener Edstrom found that online brand content and storytelling leads to increased consumer engagement and spending. This powerful trend doesn’t seem to be fading anytime soon. Amazon.com is flooded with books about creating stories for brand marketing. Even MBA programs like Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business are teaching their students about the storytelling. So what does this all mean for marketers? It means that generating compelling content is key to driving business. And nothing makes for better content than a great story.

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