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Why do we listen? Part one: The power of a cause

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Written by: Ben Moore
Why do people listen to stories?

When we tell a story, we’re usually doing it for our own benefit. Maybe we’re trying to prove something, to help someone, to express ourselves, or maybe we just like the attention. Whatever the reason is, there’s always a clear benefit to us that we get from the telling.

Perhaps we forget sometimes, but the same is true of any audience. They’re there because they believe they’re going to get something out of it. Whether they’re there to be entertained, to laugh, to express a deep sorrow, or to learn something, there’s a concrete reason for their listening. Make no mistake, every communication you send to your audience tells a story. If you want people to listen, you’re going to need to give them a compelling reason to do so.

Often, we marketers focus too much on what story we’re going to tell and forget completely why anybody might care to listen. We also make the mistake of thinking that someone will listen to us just because they want our product. In reality, the story has to stand on its own two feet.

If you can figure out why your audience might choose to listen and you have everything you need to make a compelling, shareable story.

Parables and causes

When I was a schoolboy, our teacher would tell us a parable from the bible every week. Despite having no particular interest in religious studies the whole class was riveted by these stories. It was our favourite time of the school week and made for some of the most memorable moments of my childhood.

Parables are compelling because we believe they hold principles that will help us to operate more effectively in the real world. The ‘why’ is extremely clear – we listen because we know the story will help us be better people. Parables set up a clear dynamic of good and evil, and subtly encourage us to stay on the right side of that line.

Fast-forward to today’s marketing landscape and we can see that strategies aligning themselves with firm political or ethical principles often see massive traction. In light of what we know about parables, the reason for this success becomes clear. Cause-based marketing gives your audience an identity to align themselves with, a team to fight for, and a reason to feel valued.

Some great examples

Let’s take a quick look at some recent cause-based marketing campaigns and see what we can learn. On the surface, Nike’s ‘Breaking 2’ campaign might not seem to be ethically driven. Look a little deeper, however, and you’ll find that the values of the Nike brand are undeniably present. The quest to break the two-hour marathon time is reflective of their dedication to innovation and pushing the limits of what humans can achieve.

Another great example of cause-focused storytelling is Lumber 84’s infamously political Superbowl ad. This two part ad took a stab at Trump’s immigration policy and talked about breaking down walls and building doorways. This is a truly creative approach to storytelling and demonstrates well how an outwardly boring company – a lumber manufacturer – can rally an audience around an inspiring tale.

By attaching your brand to a cause bigger than yourself, you immediately give yourself a team to side with, an endless supply of stories, and a license to tell them. Go forth and tell yours!