By Brianna Valleskey
Why do some ads go viral?
And why are others so easy to forget?
I started thinking about this after Nike’s “Dream Crazy” advertisement came out a few months ago. The video features former NFL player Colin Kaepernick, whom people love or love to hate.
You could argue that the video’s 27 million views are because Nike decided to feature Kaepernick in an ad, but the controversy was just a hook.
A much more real story lies at the heart.
If you haven't seen it, the video plays motivational music while showing people of every gender, race, religion, and economic status pursue their dreams in spite of societal standards: A child without legs in a wrestling match. A Muslim woman boxing. A homecoming queen who’s also a linebacker. An NFL player with only one hand. A professional tennis player from Compton.
“If people say your dreams are crazy—if they laugh at what you think you can do—good,” says an identified narrator. “Stay that way. Because what nonbelievers fail to understand is that calling a dream crazy isn’t an insult. It’s a compliment.”
Damn. That’s something I can really feel. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. Having a “crazy” dream is something I think everyone has experienced at least once in their lives.
And then there was the #LikeAGirl campaign from Always, where young women and little girls explaining what it means to run “like a girl.” While the teenagers acted like damsels in distress, the girls ran their adorable little hearts out. It’s a sweet but sad reminder of how society warps the way girls see themselves as they grow up. That video has 66 million views.
Two very different commercials. Same effect.
So what’s the secret ingredient?
They're our way of making sense of the world.
“When people read a book, watch a movie or hear a story, regardless of medium or format, it is imperative that they see themselves in the story,” write SapientNitro executives Gastron Legorburu and Darren McColl in “Storyscaping.”
These stories are so powerful because they tap into something that millions of people have personally experienced. The story in the ad becomes our story (and vice versa).
And this has been the case for thousands of years.
From Cave Paintings to Kaepernick
Of course, modern marketers were not the first storytellers. Cave paintings dating as far back as 40,000 thousand years ago inform us that our ancestors felt the urge to express their experience.
“Whether it’s Neanderthal elbow rubbing or social media socializing, story is central to what it means to be human,” write Legorburu and McColl.
Perhaps this can, in part, explain why the same stories appear across space, time, and culture.
“Every culture has a flood story about how the whole earth was flooded and things started over,” says mythologist John Bucher on an episode of Ologies. “Stories of floods predated Hebrew scripture, [from] Amazonian culture, Greek culture, Roman culture, Asian culture.”
Stories are the driving force behind the history we learn, the religion we practice, the government we follow, the beliefs we hold, the people we love, and even the way we think about ourselves. Studies show that reframing your narrative can yield a more positive identity.
And yes, gamification of social media platforms makes them incredibly addictive. But there’s more to it: What other medium gives people complete and utter control over how others see their story? Not to mention the ability to voraciously consume stories about others.
Legorburu and McColl again: “Humans have an innate ability to take disparate events and connect them together to create meaning.”
To tell stories is to be human.
But why is it that the marketers at Nike and Always and other world-dominating brands can use stories to awaken our hearts and, consequently, open our wallets?
This is Your Brain on Stories
Long before Joseph Campbell and “The Hero’s Tale” helped George Lucas produce the most well-known space opera of all time, Aristotle taught us that every story should have a beginning, middle, and end.
This three-act structure is important, mythologist John Bucher explains, because the way storytelling structure works actually mirrors the way the human brain solves a problem.
1. A goal or yearning is introduced, but conflicts and/or obstacles arise.
This goes even further.
“Storytelling evokes a strong neurological response,” writes Harrison Monrath in a Harvard Business Review article.
He goes on to say that research from Neuroeconomist Paul Zak shows how our brains produce cortisol (the stress hormone) during tense moments in a story, while sweet/cute/etc. elements of a story can cause our brains to elicit oxytocin (a chemical that makes us feel good). What’s more? A happy ending can trigger the release of dopamine in our limbic system, making us feel hopeful and optimistic.
Zak, himself, writes in another Harvard Business Review article that these findings are relevant to business settings.
“For example, my experiments show that character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of these points weeks later,” Zak writes.
The advertisements from Nike (Dream Crazy) and Always (#LikeAGirl) are character-driven. For Nike, the character is the underdog. With Always, it’s adolescent girls. But there’s another element still that makes them so powerful.
“The most successful storytellers often focus listeners’ minds on a single important idea and they take no longer than a 30-second Super Bowl spot to forge an emotional connection,” Monrath writes.
This, my dear readers, is key.
Stories are Shared Experiences
What’s the one word, phrase, idea, or vision you want your audience to walk away with? And how will you get that across before you lose their attention?
Nike doesn’t just want you to dream big. It wants you to dream crazy. And Always wants women and girls everywhere to know that “like a girl” is not an insult.
Neither of these things has anything to do with the products Nike and Always sell. Yet, Always saw a higher-than-average lift in brand preference after the #LikeAGirl ad, where purchase intent grew by more than 50%. And Nike experienced a 31% increase in online sales following the release of its Dream Crazy spot.
So what does this all mean?
The best marketing isn't marketing at all—it's storytelling. Authentic, emotional, and character-driven stories stimulate our brains and saturate our hearts.
Stories trigger the most important brand message of all: You belong.
Everything else is posturing.
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Fearless Thoughts are my insights on marketing, entrepreneurship, startups, business growth, creativity and whatever else comes to mind on any given day. Writing is how I make sense of the world.