Great marketing is hard work.
You may have found this to be true, too.
Because great marketing means telling a great story, one that your audience both understands and compels them to take action.
First, to do this means the stories we tell in our marketing aren’t about us; they’re about our audience. This is called making your audience the hero of your story. It requires you to deeply understand their problems and needs.
Dale Carnegie once said, “Personally, I am very fond of strawberries and cream, but I have found that for some strange reason, fish prefer worms.”
Tell stories that resonate with your audience.
Here’s one of the best ways we’ve found to do this: use story anchors.
We’ve all heard of anchors: the big, heavy metal things that keep boats in place on the water.
A story anchor is an analogy rooted in a familiar concept or cultural image.
They work by “anchoring” your audience and your message together on the noisy seas of marketing. A story anchor enables your audience to quickly get it and feel it by using the shortcut of their own experience.
It instantly communicates a host of emotional and conceptual information in just a few words or images that your audience can relate to.
Jessica Dubin of InVision explains how they work this way:
“ . . . when we hear something that reminds us of some other memory or sensory experience that we’ve had, it is more easily remembered. It sticks with us because it has an existing anchor in our brain. The more anchors a piece of information has, the more likely it is to be remembered.”
Here are three examples you can start using for your own marketing stories.
In their amazing book Made To Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath break down the essence of stories and messages with extreme cultural staying power.
One of the ways stories and messages catch on, sell, or spread like wildfire is through story anchors.
In the book, they describe how screenwriters pitch movies to studios and producers. It’s an uphill battle because these writers' primary audience is a bunch of busy execs with scripts piled high on their desks.
How do you explain an entire movie to them (much less sell one) in just a few seconds? What’s the hook?
Enter the story anchor. Here are three examples they call “high-concept pitches.”
In these examples, the already-famous movie acted as the anchor.
Jaws is a terrifying thriller about a killer shark chasing a few guys on a run-down boat. So, the essence of what Alien was supposed to be is instantly communicated, or connected, to the story structure, feeling, and success of that movie.
A “high-concept” story anchor ties your story to another that’s instantly recognizable and understood. It’s a vehicle for meaning that travels extremely fast.
To use this anchor, ask this two-part question: What core emotions do we want to evoke? What stories have done this well, and where can we apply them in a new way?
Along with tying messages to well-known narratives, you can also use what we call a “model” anchor to sell something that’s new— or at least a fresh combination of existing ideas.
Companies have been doing this for decades.
One of the most well-known examples is the office supply chain Staples.
In his autobiography, founder of Staples, Thomas Stemberg, explained that the company started with this question: “Can we be the Toys R Us of office supplies?”
Startups do this all the time as well.
You’ve probably seen plenty of ads, explainer videos, or pitches that use this formula:
This kind of story anchor uses an existing model, or concept, to quickly explain yours.
While you may get a little tired of hearing startups call themselves the “Uber” of anything, there is a great lesson for storytellers here.
Anchors like these are helpful in everything from selling a new kind of product to recruiting top-talent (which can be a real challenge).
To use this anchor, ask this question: What popular, well-working model have we either upgraded or taken to a new market?
Last, the “visual” anchor works in the same way, but instead of words, it’s communicated visually, something we bake directly into each video we produce.
The first two examples are pretty upfront, but this one is a little more subtle.
A great example is a visual anchor we used in this campaign video for the United Way called “Billy the Bear.”
The story follows a little girl and her mother through a common story of homelessness.
The bear acts as the anchor for the audience, helping them emotionally connect with childhood innocence and relate the little girl to their own childhood experiences.
At the start, Sarah (little girl) gets Billy as a present from her mom. The bear is fresh off the shelf, clean, and fluffy enough to snuggle
We next see Sarah playing with Billy as her parents argue in the background.
Here, her innocence is being challenged by the external forces of conflict (over drug abuse) in her home.
Through a series of all-too-common events, Sarah and her mom end up temporarily homeless. They sleep in the car and wash in public restrooms.
In this scene, Sarah’s mom is working her waitressing job. Notice the bear is matted and dirty after falling on the ground in a previous scene.
Here, the visual anchor shows us the girl’s innocence being further challenged and stained, through no fault of her own.
After the climax, where she and her mother are almost forced to sleep on the street, they find the United Way shelter.
In this scene, they are taken into the shelter, and Billy is at his worst. The bear has mirrored Sarah’s inner journey through this story.
This gives the United Way worker the chance to talk to Sarah and offer to help her friend, Billy, recover from his “owies.”
In the following scenes, Sarah and her mom are seen getting the care, comfort, and safety United Way offers hundreds of moms and kids each year.
Now, it’s time to resolve the conflict.
The United Way worker hands a clean, re-fluffed Billy to Sarah as she eats breakfast.
This, of course, symbolizes the healing work United Way does to help kids like Sarah, who get thrust into tragic situations through no fault of their own.
To use this anchor, ask this question: Is there a way to visually capture and communicate the emotions we want to connect our audience to?
Now, these are simply three examples of story anchors you can use to shortcut, or amplify, the effectiveness of the stories you tell.
The exact anchors you use will depend on your context. But, I highly recommend taking the time to work through the possibilities.
Whether it’s crafting your next marketing campaign, launching a new product, or simply presenting your company’s vision and values to your team, add story anchors to your process.
They’re one of the best shortcuts to connecting stories with audiences in powerful, action-producing ways.
Finally, if you want our complete storytelling framework we use for every Yarn project, you can get a copy of the ebook totally free!
You'll learn exactly how to make your marketing resonate with your target audience. Whether you're trying to explain a new product, sell more of your services, or recruit top-talent, this guide will help you get the results you're after. Download it from the form below!
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Stories are the connection between us and the subject. They show a path between a listener’s own experiences, morals, and opinions to that of the story’s.
Alerus makes the customer the hero by putting people and relationships first.
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