Whether they’re implicit or explicit, online or off, marketing stories are not just a momentary fad. They have always been the central pillar of customer engagement. In today’s uncertain and overloaded brand arena, it isn’t enough for marketers to be on top of the technology, the data, the demographics and the platforms. Instead, they’ve got to be brilliant storytellers as well. Why? Because if they aren’t, their customers will simply turn the page.
Traditionally, stories have worked through audience trust and suspension of disbelief. But consumer willingness to trust has plummeted. Last year, we conducted a report that found only six per cent of Brits trust brands. No marketing story, no matter how creative, competent and clear, can connect with an uncertain and distrustful consumer.
Motivated by a desire to understand how – or even if – ailing trust can be remedied, we embarked on a new research project, interviewing 1,000 UK consumers, studying key texts and speaking to experts in consumer behaviour. The study was based on the premise that, in uncertain times, people want to feel better, more secure and, ultimately, happier. They may no longer trust in the traditional certainties of a “happily ever after,” but the innate desire to be happy is still a vital part of what makes marketing stories work.
Happiness may sound like a nebulous concept, but marketers who can harness its power to engage customers have a very practical tool at their disposal. Using the insights of Martin Seligman, who formulated the theory of positive psychology, it is possible to design a marketing scheme which both recognises and makes use of the various ways people try to construct happiness. In the long term, Seligman states that this involves people’s signature strengths, and how they are applied to their family and social life, careers and personal goals. In the short term it’s about facilitating small personal pleasures. Getting the balance right in crucial.
By using Seligman’s short and long-term strategies, and homing in on the different sections of people’s lives that matter (like families or jobs), we also identified five key principles of “positive marketing” that provide actionable advice for brands:
1/ See things through a positive lens: In everything brands do, they need to do it with people’s happiness in mind. After all, happiness promotes positive feeling towards brands. Consistent messaging around, and active promotion of, emotional well-being, in turn creates customer loyalty.
2/ Understand the big picture: Whatever the interface looks like when a brand meets its customer, that individual is busily pursuing a long-term life agenda. Marketing communications, no matter the form they are in, need to show empathy. Although customer priorities will change over time, this will not be in a totally unpredictable way.
3/ Create opportunities to help people achieve: Brands should seek to understand what customers need to be happy and seek to facilitate this. For example, marketing can offer ways to strengthen social bonds online, help people celebrate big occasions and life moments like buying a first house, aligning with values that matter in the larger scale of things.
4/ Be alert to nuance: Customers are happiest when they are treated as individuals. In an age of micro-targeting, where marketers tell each other again and again to ditch umbrella terms and demographics, happiness should also be treated as a unique state.
5/ Positive marketing starts from within: People-to-people (P2P) marketing might be an industry buzzword, but there is much to be said for it as a means to create positive experiences and, ultimately, happiness. To ensure customers leave interactions with a smile on their face, business leaders should empower employees. Understanding what makes them tick will create meaning and happier employees who become positive brand advocates.
In an age of digital distractions, quick fire content and short-term thrill-seeking, marketers need to remember that the customers who are buying their products and services are humans with an innate drive to be happy and fulfilled. Why else would happy endings be such an important feature of stories in every culture? Whatever story a brand has to tell, showing customers that happiness matters is bound to make the best beginning, middle and end.
Ben Pask is founder and managing director of Rare Consulting.