The Greatest Story Ever Sold

How brands are using empowered storytelling to connect with customers

By Eleanor Hunt

Nike’s “Find Your Greatness” campaign encourages viewers to achieve their aspirations despite obstacles. Under Armour’s commercial featuring ballerina Misty Copeland conveys a story of rejection, perseverance and triumph. Copeland dances while a voice-over representing her younger self reads a rejection letter from a ballet academy. In Banana Republic’s “No Boundaries” advertorial, Tanzanian model Flaviana Matata tells how she pushes past borders in the fashion industry.

These campaigns are examples of “empowered storytelling,” a term coined by Tyrha Lindsey-Warren, clinical assistant professor of Marketing in Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business. Empowered storytelling incorporates narrative transportation theory which conveys a story of imagery, authenticity and empathy, but also “adds the emotion of empowerment as this construct’s secret sauce,” she said.

In contrast to traditional messages expounding product features, empowered storytelling has end users in mind. Thus, it engenders certain attitudes, creates competitive advantage and strengthens the emotional connection for brands.

“Empowered storytelling exudes the emotion of empowerment to positively impact consumer attitudes and behavior, improve message recall and increase purchase intentions,” Lindsey-Warren said. “Empowered storytelling creates a positive emotion of optimism, inner power and confidence with a call to action that encourages consumers to look beyond themselves.”

Selling vs. empowering

Lindsey-Warren received her Bachelor of Science in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and an MBA in Marketing from the Peter F. Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University. She was a marketing practitioner in the late 1990s when she was introduced to the idea of “edu-tainment” and experiential marketing, her precursors to empowered storytelling. At the time, she developed promotional campaigns for Procter & Gamble, CVS, Kroger, Blue Cross Blue Shield and others that were simultaneously educational and entertaining, i.e., edu-tainment.

“The purpose of edu-tainment was not to sell products but to empower consumers,” Lindsey-Warren explained. “Our health-related clients saw health outcomes change. People exercised more and got preventative health tests. As a result of edu-tainment events, companies sold products. It’s not about hard-core, face-to-face selling, but about presenting and strengthening the emotional connection between consumers and brands. ”

Her edu-tainment work led her to research consumer behavior and the impact of nontraditional storytelling on millennials for her dissertation thesis. Lindsey-Warren received her doctorate in Philosophy/Marketing Science in 2017 from Rutgers Business School. Her thesis research indicated millennials favorably recalled advertising that contained conceivable storylines, authenticity, relatable characters and the emotion of empowerment.

In continued consumer behavior research, she has noted that subsequent generations—Generation Zs born in the mid-1990s to mid-2000s and Generation Alphas born beginning in 2010—respond favorably to empowered storytelling, are avid technology users and share stories on digital media.

“Empowered storytelling is beautiful for digital. Millennials, Gen Zs and Alphas don’t want direct selling. They want to know what you’re about as a brand, what you stand for and how you show up in their lives,” Lindsey-Warren noted.

The practice of empowered storytelling also works for marketing to women and communities of color, especially when stories feature relatable characters. “If you’re showing up in a positive manner, helping consumers make life better or make better decisions, and your values align with their values, that’s all a win-win for brands,” she concluded.

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