How To Ethically Use Marketing Stories For Maximum Growth And Impact

Rob Burke
Posted on
February 26, 2022

On April 1, 1929, The New York Times ran this headline:

Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of ‘Freedom’

Today, we’d skim a headline like this without thinking anything of it. But in 1929, this was a beacon of cultural revolution.

In the early 1900s, smoking was considered an inappropriate activity for ladies. And for tobacco companies, that meant a market only half the size they could sell to.

Enter a man named Edward Bernays (today known as the father of Public Relations). Bernays was the nephew of the famous psychologist Sigmund Freud, and brought his uncle’s school of psychology into his business. His mission was to draw on the “social sciences in order to motivate and shape the response of a general or particular audience.”

His first target was Lucky Strike cigarettes and the “Torches of Freedom” campaign.

“Women! Light Another Torch of Freedom!”

The tobacco company’s sales were lagging, and they wanted to expand the nearly-nonexistent market of women smokers. But rather than run ads about how great these cigarettes were, Bernays’s goal was to change the societal view of women and smoking. He wanted to create a social climate that would attach a greater desire to the product, letting it sell itself.

To do this, he stoked the fires of the women’s rights and equality movement and staged a PR stunt.

So, on a chilly Easter morning in 1929, Bernays hired a group of women to walk in a parade, pull out a Lucky Strike, and smoke in front of the masses.

One woman even yelled:

All the while, the photographers Bernays hired captured the scene perfectly.

One of these ladies was Edith Lee, walking her dog and smoking her Lucky Strike.

Lucky Strike would continue in this vein of advertising and PR for years, even positioning their cigarettes as weight loss aids.

With these PR campaigns, Bernays completely changed marketing. And the opening paragraph of his landmark book, Propaganda, reads:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

He saw that the real win was to invisibly channel already existing desires onto a product, rather than only trying to sell the product itself. Those who wield these sociological forces become the “true ruling power of our country.”

The Ethics of Marketing Stories

Here’s the thing though.

The stories we tell in our marketing go beyond mere product sales. Bernays showed they have true moral and societal implications as well. He helped a harmful product penetrate American culture, like the chain-smoking Camel Man after him.

The stories we tell shape our society.

It is not dramatic to say then that marketing today is the most powerful force of change in our lives and societal norms. So the question needs to be asked, will we tell the stories that bring harm through lies, fear, and hostility? Or will we shape our stories to bring hope and instill confidence, to bring change and dispel ignorance?

Two Examples of How Marketing Stories Can be Used for Good

Good Marketing Stories Enable Positive Self-Discovery: Product Sales

The best marketing invites us to change our own stories for the better. So long as our offer is true, this is the power of story to drive profitable audience action (which is the whole point of marketing to begin with).

You might recall the campaign from Dove called “Real Beauty Sketches.” These videos explored “the gap between how others perceive us and how we perceive ourselves.”

In the ads, women became the subject of two portraits drawn by an FBI-trained forensic artist Gil Zamora. One was drawn based on her own self-description, the other using a stranger’s viewpoint.

The results, of course, were incredible. The message was clear.

“You are more beautiful than you think.”

Good Marketing Stories Offer a Way to Change Your Story: Recruitment Marketing

One of the most interesting challenges of marketing is recruiting talented workers.

For proof, 72.8% of employers cite that they struggle to find talented workers. But what if it doesn’t have to be like that?

In the early 1900s, the famous Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton needed a crew to power his expedition to Antarctica. He was racing to be the first explorer to reach the South Pole.

However, he had a pretty big problem. He had next to no money. Without money, it’s tough to pay people. This makes even the most attractive jobs hard to staff, much less a perilous voyage into the frozen South seas and great icy unknown at the end of the world.

As Shackleton quickly found out, though, marketing stories can change the game here, too.

He ran this recruitment ad:

“MEN WANTED for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in event of success.

Ernest Chackleton, 4 Burlington St."

The response was overwhelming.

His little office was flooded with over 5,000 applications—including 3 women.

The story wasn’t one of fat paychecks; it was one of adventure.

Shackleton’s marketing story sold people the ideal version of themselves. It was true. It was raw. It lacked any of the curb appeal we’d normally want in an offer. And its authenticity worked marvelously.

How to Tell a Great Marketing Story

Bernays, Dove, and Shackleton all told powerful marketing stories. So, how can you use them in your own marketing?

To help you, I’ll share the story framework we use at Yarn, inspired by Donald Miller’s Building a Storybrand and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Here’s a definition.

A marketing story is an offer from a brand that focuses on three things:

  1. The audience is the hero of the story.
  2. The hero can experience the positive change they want.
  3. The brand is the guide to help them.
There are five elements in our brand story framework that we always want present for maximum effectiveness.
  1. Hero: The hero is the focus of your story and is always your audience. Who is your target audience? Where do they spend their time? What do they want?
  2. Challenge: The struggles, challenges, and conflicts your hero wants to overcome are the centerpiece of your marketing story. What is the obstacle to the new life they want?
  3. Guide: This is where your brand enters. The guide is the figure who helps the hero on their quest to overcoming their challenges and getting what they want. Think Gandalf and Obi Wan Kenobi. How does your brand help your audience get what they’re after in a different way than your competitors?
  4. Path: The guide always shows the way to the end goal. Is it through your product or service? Is it through a meaningful career?
  5. Choice: Finally, the hero of your story must make a choice—this means your marketing stories should always call them to action. Do they want to reach the summit of their goals? Your marketing story should compel them to take the path you’re offering because it is to their greatest benefit.

How Will Your Stories Shape Society?

Marketing stories are exceptionally powerful. And they shape society— no matter how small— no matter what.

As brands, we can shape our society for the better, like Shackleton and Dove. Or, we can manipulate people for our own gain at their expense, like Bernays.

The choice is ours, but the path is the same.

When you use your marketing stories to offer real value to your audience, your results will be stunning.

I encourage you to bring positive change through yours.

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