For decades, the Super Bowl has been about more than football. It’s also a major marketing event, with companies unveiling highly anticipated commercials to advertise their products. Some commercials bomb, while others become wildly popular. All of them are picked apart in post-game reviews, including USA Today’s annual ad meter, where the public rates every commercial on a scale of 1 to 10.
Academics also have dissected these ads, and their takeaways may offer one of the best lessons about marketing for the 21st century. In 2014, researchers conducted a content analysis of more than 100 Superbowl commercials, and their study upended conventional wisdom about what works in marketing.
It turns out that content isn’t king. It didn’t matter that much what the ad was about and whether it included adorable puppies, lots of humor or even sexual innuendo. The old adage that sex sells is not true. What was more important than the commercial’s content was its structure. Ads that used the classic five-act story format were significantly more popular than any other kind of commercial.
Corporate marketers began to discover the importance of narrative structure nearly two decades ago. Storytelling has been skyrocketing in popularity in executive suites ever since. Now, corporations are even hiring Hollywood gurus to learn how to use stories in sales and other corporate work.
Stories are more persuasive than traditional advertisements. People distrust ads that focus solely on facts and logic, and they can’t stand ads designed to manipulate their emotions. Robert McKee, a University of California screenwriting professor-turned-storytelling consultant, says that stories capture readers’ attention and give them meaningful emotional experiences. They are meaningful because the tales offer insights into human nature, and they are emotional because readers empathize with the story’s characters. People can be so engrossed in the plot that they are distracted from thinking critically, he says.
McKee has proven again and again that stories sell – not just products but also ideas. He’s worked with major corporations, including Microsoft, Mercedes-Benz and Time Warner. One of my favorite examples of his success involves one of McKee’s clients, Boldt, a construction firm based in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Before Boldt ventured into the world of storytelling, it was winning about one of every 10 bids, which is lower than the national average for private construction projects. Then, it learned how to “turn data into drama,” as McKee puts it, and create a story-driven bid.
Suddenly, the mundane work of construction came alive. Boldt played the supporting role in its potential clients’ dramas, helping them become the heroes and create beautiful buildings under budget in a safe work environment. The basic information was the same, but the story’s form and emotional resonance made a huge difference. Before long, Boldt’s bidding success rate soared, jumping to five wins out of every 10 bids.
With the evidence growing that storytelling can boost the bottom line, it’s no surprise that many companies now consider narrative techniques a business imperative. Employees are learning about the elements of stories: the characters, the conflicts and the quests for change. They also study classic story structures, including the famous Freytag’s pyramid, named after 19th-century German novelist Gustav Freytag, and its five parts: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.
Becoming really good at storytelling takes a lot of practice. In fact, some storytelling consultants won’t work with companies for just one workshop but rather make them commit to multiple training sessions. Some businesses have created “Story Circles,” where participants work together for an hour for at least 10 weeks, spending half of each meeting analyzing a text and the other half discussing one person’s work in progress. The idea, says Randy Olson, the consultant who developed the concept, is to build what he calls “narrative intuition.” He believes that the narrative part of the brain is like a muscle that needs to be exercised repeatedly in order to be developed.
There are simpler tools to help employees focus on narratives, too. Storytelling expert Ron Ploof even invented a card game that helps players develop narratives by mixing and matching four different kinds of cards: plot points, character types, motivations that drive action, and techniques like foreshadowing.
When my clients play this game, they quickly discover that storytelling is not as easy as it seems. Lots of people think they know how to craft stories, simply because they’ve read so many of them. But nearly every card in the game can pose a challenge – and teach a valuable lesson.
Mastering these skills may take time, but the effort is clearly worthwhile, given the persuasive powers of stories. Sex doesn’t sell much anymore, especially in the #MeToo movement. Instead, consider the new dictum coined by McKee: “If you can’t tell, you can’t sell.”