One word crops up again and again when talking about advertising and marketing: ‘Storytelling’. Brand stories can be an immensely powerful way of connecting with consumers, and we often find that the most compelling narratives can be found within a company itself.
We live in an age where traditional advertising is losing its power, where a younger generation is obsessed with sharing personal stories through social media, and all of us are addicted at some level to what the streaming giants have to offer. Obviously brands and companies want in on the action. Brand stories, brand narratives, purpose films, manifests, branded content, branded entertainment, viral marketing. All branches of the same tree, whose trunk stems from the fundamental art of storytelling.
Why do we tell stories?
Most scientists will agree that life is essentially just a sequence of random moments. You are born, random stuff happens and then you die. But ever since the dawn of human intelligence we have tried to make sense of the meaninglessness of our lives. We’ve trained our brains to form patterns that connect random moments and inject meaning into them. That’s what storytelling is. It’s a way for us to get a grip on the endless chaos that would otherwise consume us. If you understand this, then you might also realize why storytelling is so much more than just entertainment. It’s an essential part of our survival, and without the ability to tell stories we would all be lost.
So how does this translate to selling a yoghurt drink?
When Yakult asked us to help share their story to a larger audience they had no idea what that story really was. Neither did we. Because a story is not just a string of facts. We all learn at some point that “And then, and then” stories are boring and tedious. No matter how interesting the origin of your brand might be, that’s not a story in itself. The best way to find the real gold is by reverse-engineering the storytelling mechanism. Connecting dots gives meaning to life; find that “meaning” and you’ll know where to look for the those dots.
It’s not easy to formulate your company’s or brand’s purpose, because – let’s be honest – nine out of ten times companies started because someone saw an opportunity to make a buck. Nothing wrong with that of course, but it’s not the stuff of stories. Purpose is often obscured and you’ll need to scrape away the bullshit to get to it.
Almost a hundred years ago, Japanese microbiologist, Minoru Shirota, created a beverage that offered “daily health for an affordable price”. That’s good business, but also purposeful. Because not only did he create the product, he also thought about a way to get it to people who need it the most. Enter the Yakult Ladies. A group of hardworking, dedicated women who ride their bikes (nowadays scooters) to clients, offering their daily portion of health in a bottle.
Great story! All we needed to do was to show how the work of Yakult and their ladies helped Japanese people reach old age in health. Wrong. If only it was so simple. In Europe Yakult is not considered a medical product and therefor not allowed to make or even imply any health claims associated with their product. So now what?
We needed a different story
Going back to the Yakult Ladies, we found something even more powerful than the product they offer and that’s the dedication to their customers. Because as much as you want to debate the effectiveness of Yakult, you cannot deny that millions of people swear by it and cannot imagine starting their day without the tiny bottle. You could dismiss this as placebo, but perhaps there’s something more meaningful underneath? A daily ritual, a conscious moment of caring for your digestive system and if that bottle is a part of it, who’s to argue that it doesn’t work? The truth is that Japanese people live longer than any other nationality.
Sadly, old age comes with a down side. A lot of those elderly Japanese people live in solitude and are often lonely. So, you can imagine how this recurring visit of the Yakult Lady is of tremendous value to them, because next to suppling their weekly ration of the yoghurt drink, they offer something more valuable: attention. This is meaningful. Going back to connect the dots and this four minute film is the result of our collective search for purpose. It’s the story of Yukie, a Yakult lady who forms a special bond with one of her oldest clients and, in the process, she discovers herself.
What could initially be considered repetitive and insignificant work now reveals its deeper meaning and purpose. That’s why we love to tell stories: not to make stuff up, but to help people see what was always there.