Marketing scholars and managers have long researched mechanisms leading to customer persuasion. Attention has focused on analytical persuasion, which posits that persuasion is more likely to occur when customers are so involved to process brand information extensively.

Relying on recent research and managerial practice, this article suggests that narrative persuasion is also possible when customers receive brand information in a story-format.

Luca M. Visconti discusses: (1) how narrative and analytical persuasion differ; (2) the effects of narrative persuasion; (3) what is a brand story; and (4) in which industries brand storytelling may occur.

Knowledge@ESCP Europe

Marketing & Branding

How and Why Have Brands Become Storytellers?


Luca M. Visconti is Associate Professor of Marketing in particular for the Master in European Business

Marketing researchers and managers have been obsessed by the underlining mechanisms of human persuasion. To date, they have proved that customers are more likely persuaded when they are more involved due to higher financial, functional, and social risks associated to a given purchase. This pathway to persuasion is known as ‘analytical persuasion’, since the idea is that persuasion derives from customers’ analytical and cognitive processing of (brand) information.

Analytical persuasion grounds the ‘structural’ approach to brands, which consists in the idea that a brand is the result of stratified brand decisions, some of them central to brand identity (selection of the brand name, logo, packaging, brand characters, etc.), others more peripheral (reference to the corporate brand, use of a made-in or country-of-origin effect, use of testimonials and/or product placement, etc.). As a result, each brand progressively acquires a ‘structure’, that is, a configuration built on information conveyed to end-customers. Brand management guru Keller argues that the more a brand is able to involve its end-customers—once again, a matter of involvement!—the more it will shift customers’ understanding of that brand from mere brand awareness to higher forms of engagement with the brand. For example, in the motorcycle industry most customers know (i.e. are aware of) brands such as Suzuki or Kawasaki but these brands do not resonate the same way of brands like Harley-Davidson or Ducati, for whom certain consumers show a real form of devotion and personal identification. Harley-Davidson’s iconic commercial ‘Live by It’ effectively illustrates the point.

More recently both marketing scholars and managers have started to explore another mechanism of human persuasion, that of ‘narrative persuasion’. In this case, customer involvement does not depend on perceived purchasing risks. Narrative persuasion prompts that customer involvement is due to the pleasure customers have in consuming a (brand) story. Think of advertising: one possibility to persuade customers is to inform them about the product benefits, superiority or convenience; a different possibility is to persuade them by using the product as a storyteller. Both forms of advertising may be persuasive, yet the type of persuasion they obtain is not the same. Again, an example helps clarify the point. The perfume industry has largely used analytical persuasion to push one fragrance over others. Persuasive cues have included: freshness (e.g. Acqua di Gio by Armani), spiciness (e.g. Opium by Yves Saint Laurent), or sweetness (e.g. Angel by Thierry Mugler); protection and care (e.g. Eternity by Calvin Klein); and especially seduction, which makes a perfume a man/woman’s best ally to conquer the desired partner (e.g., have a look at Dolce & Gabbana’s Light Blue successful campaign). At increasing speed, perfumes have also tried to persuade by telling a story. Last Christmas, Guerlain diffused a three-minute long commercial titled ‘The Legend of Shalimar’. In this commercial, the historical heritage of Shalimar (created in 1921) is compared to the immortal legend of the Taj Mahal, the mausoleum Indian Emperor Shah Jahan wanted to commemorate the life and death of his beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, occurred in 1631.

Why is narrative persuasion so relevant for brand managers? First, narrative persuasion highlights an alternative pathway to customer persuasion. If customer involvement is the means to grant analytical persuasion, then ‘narrative transportation’ is the means to grant narrative persuasion. In a recent article appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research (February 2014), we (co-authors: Tom van Laer, Ko de Ruyter, and Martin Wetzels) define narrative transportation as the experience of ‘being lost in the story’. Second, narrative persuasion is a more effective pathway to persuasion since effects of analytical persuasion decline over time, whereas effects of narrative persuasion are longer lasting due to a ‘sleeper effect’, that is, a suspension of disbelief. As Aristotle commented, when people consume a good story they stop judging the realism of the story and trust the story, which becomes a true falsification of reality.

What is a story, then? In our JCR paper, we suggest that a story comprises four elements: (1) the plot; (2) rival characters; (3) the climax (the dramatic intensity); and (4) the outcome. Inspecting extant brand stories in light of this definition shows that a few of them are really stories. Compare one of the many Chanel’s commercials (e.g. the excellent Coco Mademoiselle ad) to Louis Vuitton’s recent campaign ‘Invitation au Voyage’ (the second episode here) and see how the latter does not simply present the four key story elements.

To conclude, brand storytelling is booming in various market domains spanning from FMCG (e.g. Orangina) to luxury, and from consumer to industrial goods (watch the beautiful Rum Tracks Super Bowl commercial). Yet, brand storytelling is not so often used consciously due to scant theoretical understanding of its underling mechanisms, which turns into lack of managerial guidance.

If you join the MEB, you will not find all due answers to how and why brand storytelling works. Yet, you will share extant knowledge on this exciting and epochal shift in persuasion theory and practice.