Do You Bring the Ring to the First Date? (Engage)

Engage, Science of Story October 11, 2016

Do You Bring the Ring to the First Date? (Engage)

Andy Swindler
Conscious businesses prosper through purpose-driven people-first practices, but many still struggle to tell their courageous stories. I help connect the dots.

Have You Heard These Over-Used Marketing Terms?

Overused marketing buzzwords
It’s about people…not buzzwords


Yes, this term is used a lot in marketing. But it’s actually somewhat hard to misuse (at least we haven’t literally changed the definition yet). To engage means to interact with someone in a meaningful and memorable way. When two people interact directly, this is pretty straightforward, but what happens when a company wants to engage with people in the marketplace?

We’re not here to repeat what you’ve read in every other marketing book. We’re here to push the conversation forward. The funny thing is, this is actually where our journey began. We are digital marketers and brand people at heart. But the more we talk about the future of digital branding, the more we realize that you have to live a better story before you can tell a better story.

We addressed this in the first three stages: Believe, Discover and Ignite. Now we’re talking about Engage, and next we’ll see how all of this leads to Impact.

When you make a conscious choice to pursue your purpose, your story will follow.


Stories Motivate People

Persuasive storytelling creates an emotional response, empathy, in customers’ minds, helping them to understand the benefits of a brand, make decisions and take action. Empathy connects the person interacting with your brand to the people behind your brand. The non-striving pillar of mindfulness instructs us to accept our reality as it is without judgment by staying in the current moment no matter where else our mind wanders. Applying this principle in business means that it’s ideal to let an interaction unfold naturally rather than striving to be heard or to have someone buy your product who might not actually need it.

If a person makes a decision to engage your brand based on shared beliefs revealed through empathy, this represents intrinsic motivation. Just as with a company relating to its employee stakeholder group, the goal is to create intrinsic motivation for customers as well. It is longer lasting, more meaningful and less likely to lead to buyer’s remorse because the impact of the brand in the person’s life reminds them of the company’s people. In other words the company’s actions lived up to its promise so trust was formed.

But not all stories are equally effective at creating empathy. There are two broad categories of storytelling that most stories fall into: advocacy and narrative. Narrative differs from advocacy in its method of communication, relying less on facts and figures and more on “transportation,” or engaging the reader in the narrative.

According to a school of psychology called transportation theory, transportation occurs when the reader is fully engaged in the story, absorbed in the thoughts, images and feelings created by a narrative. The experience of being transported can affect the reader’s real world beliefs.

engageEmpathy is one of the feelings that can transport a reader. Others include satisfaction, pleasure and social status. Persuasive narrative elicits empathy, engaging audiences on a social, human level. The ability to identify with a character (in this case, your brand) is what makes persuasive narrative so powerful. Since empathy requires us to bring our own experiences and emotions to bear, this character is translated to the role a person wants to play in relation to the brand. For example buying an iPhone means that a person identifies with the role of being an iPhone user, which quickly expands to being an Apple fan and being aligned with those who disrupt the status quo.

Why is empathy, or connecting at a social level, so powerful? Since humans are social animals, social information matters to us more than facts, figures or logical arguments. Scientists have discovered a specific type of neuron in the brain called mirror neurons. They believe these neurons fire when a person observes an activity performed by another person as though the action was performed directly by the observer.

Humans are literally hardwired for these kinds of connections. That’s what makes empathy such a powerful tool for brand storytelling. For a brand, narrative storytelling is as persuasive as argument, but more memorable. It relies more on feelings than on facts and figures that are easily forgotten, making it a more efficient way for brands to connect with their audiences. In essence, empathy is a social connection that is created between your brand and an individual fully engaged in your narrative.

The most effective marketing simply seeks to match a business’s value proposition (traditionally related to the value a product or service provides, but increasingly related to the overarching purpose of the company) with the people who need it or want it. Marketing can also influence the product or service itself, if a company uses it to learn what the market needs and evolve its product accordingly.

Consider Apple’s attitude when launching the iPhone and iPad — one size fits all. At this time Apple was so far ahead of the pack that it truly created the market and believed it didn’t need to do market research. Today, however, you’ll see a diverse product line from Apple with devices of every size that were designed in direct response to market research and feedback that clearly indicated people would prefer different sizes than Apple originally offered.

This gets tricky when people convince themselves they want something that really isn’t good for them or the world. And who is the ultimate arbiter of goodness? Consumer product companies have a long history in riding the edge of ethics and labeling laws to convince people to buy their products, going all the way back to the infamous snake oil salesmen of yesteryear.

But what if all that energy to motivate people to buy more stuff could also be used to align them with your company’s higher purpose? Those with shared beliefs would deepen their support for your company and inform other people about it.

Our First Aha Moments

As we discussed in stage one: believe, our definition of a higher purpose, or Why, is that it is simple, genuine and aspirational.

With this in mind, we had two key aha moments in relating purpose to marketing and media.

Marketing is traditionally focused on how and where to sell products and services. It often doesn’t come from a place of purpose or inspiration. The first aha moment was realizing that branding lifts marketing to a place of purpose rather than a simple transaction. It addresses people rather than products.

Media, particularly earned media, are how a company gains recognition and credibility from third party sources, which people tend to think are less biased (at least they used to!). Our second aha moment was realizing that thought leadership is born out of media inviting our voices to be hosted on their credible platforms.

These connection points are illustrated in the diagram below:


Science of Story Six Circles Diagram - Marketing, Media, Branding, Thought Leadership

We will discuss the media hub in more depth when we talk about building communities in the fifth stage: Impact.

Stories of Business are Stories of People

We are drowning in an ocean of information.

Our minds organize all this information into stories. It’s how we each make sense of the dizzying array of information. These stories are all filtered through our individual perceptions and gaps are filled in with our creative minds.

For years companies have been telling stories, whether intentionally or not. Traditional marketing seeks to harness the power of these stories through advocacy by converting the highest number of people exposed to them into customers. But this approach creates a lot of waste and distraction in the process and increasingly runs the risk of turning away the customers companies want to attract.

Digital storytelling allows for more precision and self-selected access to narrative, but the non-strategic approach many businesses have taken to digital branding and marketing has created just as much noise and waste in many cases as traditional techniques.

digitalWhile the digital age has done a bang up job giving everyone a voice, the filters are still desperately far behind. This leaves us with a wildly imbalanced signal to noise ratio, where the most valuable voices are drowned out by the “me too” masses. This creates disruption for people without providing benefits to companies. We’re all for democratizing technology, but we believe we have a long way to go before the most relevant messages are consistently connected with the right people.

Stories are in the eye of the beholder. If the same ten people hear a story, they will actually have ten different interpretations of it as they’ve combined what they heard with their own biases and worldviews. Memory research corroborates this point.

Far more important than the stories a company tells people are the stories those people tell themselves about your company based on what you do. If your actions are based on clear and consistent beliefs and values, your conscious culture will tell a more accurate story as we discussed in stage three: ignite your culture.

If a company asks for someone’s attention, it must give them some value in return. This could be entertainment in the case of a well-crafted advertisement that tells a story.

But even better is for the company to share what it believes. This is how companies in the future will stand out in the noise — by using their words and actions to express what they believe rather than what they sell. People who also share the same beliefs will notice and make the choice to engage.

Before a company can engage with people about shared beliefs, it must be clear about what it believes, as we discussed in stage two: discover.

Word of mouth is one of the best filters we have. People put an incredible amount of weight on the opinions of people they know and agree with. It’s convenient and feeds our ego’s hunger for approval through socialization. The stories that people we know tell us about their experience with a company or product are the most powerful of all.

So how do we go about deciding which businesses to support, assuming their product quality and alignment with our needs is basically equal?

shop localOne option would be to support local businesses. We are actually witnessing an increase in local craft movements, which is slowly rebuilding some of the traditional local business markets, particularly in small towns, that were gutted by corporations in the latter half of the 20th century. We’re seeing a return to local crafts being bought by local people in favor of finding it online or through a major corporation’s store. When people can interact directly with people who own local businesses, they have an opportunity to build a relationship based on shared beliefs.

This same sense of familiarity and trust can develop using digital channels if the people behind those channels operate from a shared purpose and conscious culture.

But access to truth is still very limited and often confused by the low barrier to entry people have to put information out in the world. How much do any of us truly know about the supply chain of some of our most beloved products, even something as ubiquitous as the iPhone?

Credibility is further eroded by the digital fiefdoms ruled by a very small number of companies who manipulate their markets (whether directly or through lack of attention) to promote more activity and sales. This is the double edged sword of engagement. Companies like Yelp and Amazon can claim extraordinary amounts of digital engagement while doing very little to support a meaningful rating system that accurately reflects the aggregate opinion of the masses.

Those little stars represent extraordinary efforts to game these systems by those who know how with little resistance from the companies who sustain the community platforms. The host companies benefit from engagement of any kind that leads to transactions and seem to have little motivation to improve the accuracy of these ratings for the sake of democratizing the Internet versus their own gains.

What’s Your Story?

As we expanded our view of narrative storytelling to include the cultural behaviors of companies, we realized that people receive brand stories through three branches. These equally influence the story a person tells themselves about your company, regardless of what your marketing team intended.

First of all, marketing is the stories we tell the world about what we believe. Secondly, media content is the stories the world tells about us, as a reflection of what we do and say. Finally, culture creates stories from what we do, which is how we show what we believe. If all three branches are embraced from a clear purpose, the story will be more consistent and meaningful when it’s received. There is no better way to cut through the noise.

This concept is illustrated in the diagram below:


Science of Story Molecule - Marketing, Media, Culture

Marketing Manipulations

Since its inception, marketing has carried with it a sense of entitlement: that people’s eyes, ears, minds, stories and money are somehow and somewhat up for the highest bidder to win. This advocacy storytelling forms the cornerstone of our western culture of consumerism. It relies on extrinsically motivating people to buy products or services that ultimately may not serve them well.

An unconscious big business approach to marketing reinforces this notion by celebrating marketing programs that turn people into numbers and labels. While social media and advertising technology has increased the complexity of demographic targeting, it still creates a lot of noise by putting disruptive, irrelevant advertising in front of too many people too many times in too many places.

Marketing largely plays on people’s yearning for something better and more meaningful or even the perception of this by promising short-term pleasure or power. It’s often packaged as a pill or quick fix as a way to bypass the hard work of cultivating ourselves.

According to Jim Dethmer of Conscious Leadership Group, the ego seeks security, approval and control. And the mind cannot tell the difference between a threat to the body versus a threat to the ego. When these concepts are applied to marketing, it becomes easy to see how companies can prey upon the fear each person has to lose what the ego seeks by offering a product to supply these things.

televisionTelevision, after all, was distributed to consumers as a way to deliver advertisements. And advertising is actually a natural concept, demonstrated by plants that use electrical signals to communicate with bees. Advertising also exhibits people’s public presentation of self.

We get it. You’re super excited about your products and services. You’re the best. Everybody knows it.

Well, actually they don’t. And not everybody needs to know it. Because millions of companies are also proud of what they do and think that everyone should hear about it.

And now that every business has access to the voices that shout to the world, it’s becoming more apparent that there is a lot of overlap and repetition among businesses who used to believe that their market was much smaller and they were unique.

And why would you feel entitled to inject your story into the crowded minds of the people of the world?

Because for better or worse, it has worked. People click on the click bait. They click on the disruptive pop-up ads, whether they intend to or not. They reward deceptive advertising techniques by buying products that promise to make their lives better. But how many products actually live up to the promises of what they say they’ll do, backed up by a conscious culture that actually does it?

While this may all seem good for brand awareness, companies need to be increasingly cautious about throwing around their names through annoying marketing practices. People are even more likely to remember and share a negative interaction with a company than a positive one.

Making Relationships

There are two basic categories of marketing. The first is transactional. This is for companies that are selling a product and care primarily about the transaction versus starting a longer-term relationship with people and repeat business. This is more common in business to consumer (B2C) engagements, where the company doesn’t always care what happens to the customer after the transaction is made, nor does the customer always have an interest in forming a relationship beyond the basic utility of finalizing the transaction.

communityThe second is marketing that seeks to start a relationship with people. This is more common in traditional business to business (B2B) interactions than B2C due to a typically longer sales cycle and more investment in trusting relationships that need to last a long time, so that both businesses prosper together.

To this extent, B2B marketing has in some ways been ahead of B2C marketing from a consciousness standpoint. The longer sales cycles and ongoing need for interaction naturally lead B2B companies to create more meaningful relationships. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are conscious of this since most B2B companies still focus primarily on profit and shareholder value versus considering all stakeholders. But it’s more common to find relationships built on trust in these environments than consumer-oriented companies.

These distinctions, however, are becoming less meaningful. In his book, Peoplework, Chris Smith suggests moving to a new term, People to People (P2P). There is some merit to this notion in that the traditional lines drawn around B2C and B2B are blurring. Both models now require relationships that are based on trust earned from treating people with dignity and respect — by a company doing what it promises.

How can we know what someone needs without knowing them? We must establish a relationship based on mutual trust, curiosity and respect in order to find out. Relationships are relatively easy between individuals, but become more challenging once more people are added. How do you motivate a group or determine what they need collectively?

A company that focuses on building relationships with people who share similar beliefs and values can cut through the noise by telling stories of people living these values. The strength of these relationships will build over time if the company is true to what it believes and demonstrates this through what it says and does. In this light the relationship is the new lead.

A curious mindset armed with purpose and the infinite spectrum of possibilities available through digital tools can cut through the noise. While you can hack the introduction to someone, you can’t hack the rest of the relationship. Digital can help you get in the room talking with the people you want to meet about something meaningful to you both. From there, it’s up to you to provide value.

Stories of Engagement

Theresa Duerr is Director of Digital Marketing at Quill, which exists to inspire greatness. The goal of Quill is to inspire its customers to do great things at work. They sell office supplies primarily to office managers and small businesses.

“Before we can do great things, it starts with the digital team,” Theresa said. “I want them to be innovative, free to test and learn. If they have fun and show their creativity, we’ll see great results. I try to bring out the passion within my team, then they bring this to the customers to inspire them to do great things.”

While other companies hide their customer service number to avoid “costly” direct engagement, Quill puts it right on the home page. The customer service team gets to know customers on a first name basis to learn about what’s going on at their businesses. The more they get to know a company, the more proactive they can be to suggest solutions or process refinements that minimize the friction of ideas turning into greatness.

These relationships are based on trust earned through engagement over time. To be in customer service at Quill means that you genuinely care about helping people and getting to know them. Customers feel like they are calling a friend rather than a generic call center and reward this engagement through loyalty and increased purchases over time, often making Quill the first call when there is a new idea or problem.

Check out more Why’s Guy interviews on advisor.TV

Chicago-based Baird & Warner believes in making it easier. As the nation’s oldest residential real estate company, it has more than 160 years of wisdom to apply. Who doesn’t want things to be easier in life? Countless tools and services are devoted to this singular idea.

First, they must consider the customer stakeholder group. How can Baird & Warner make the cumbersome process of homebuying and selling easier and less stressful? They look for areas to improve throughout. Then Baird & Warner considers the broker stakeholders and how to improve their life balance, while making their work more prosperous through enhanced tools and education. Brokers are more independent than typical salaried employees and have specific needs.

Peter Papakyriacou, Vice President, Marketing Services said, “We have to earn our Why by actually making it easier for people. It’s not enough just to say it.” Each stakeholder group will let Baird & Warner know if they have succeeded in doing what they believe. It’s a beautiful example of the mutual trust that must be formed through engagement.

tvFamily-owned Jelmar expands its culture beyond the company walls. If you’ve used the product CLR or watched television in the last fifty years, you might know of this legacy, which began with Tarn-X and its pioneering reinvention of the relationship between television and retail. Jelmar decided that the best way to gain shelf space in competitive retail markets was to create compelling ads that drove business to their retail partners. To make this work, they created engaging product demonstration ads and their Why of show don’t tell was born. They just didn’t know the right words until we met.

This engagement has such a radiant effect that Jelmar has developed a cult following of people who are so enthusiastic about the cleaning power of the products that they create their own demonstration videos to share what they’ve learned. These is the kind of brand ambassadors that most companies only dream of having. The story runs deep as Jelmar was one of the first consumer chemical companies to go green several years ago and has patented their new formulas. But they were wise not to change the product labeling since people still don’t trust “green” products to work as well. Go figure.

Perma-Seal Basement Systems exists to make the world a better place. 37 years ago founder Roy Spencer was working for another basement waterproofing and foundation repair company that was contributing to the negative reputation much of the industry had earned through unethical business practices and poor customer service. He knew there must be a better way.

Roy is now joined by his wife, Laura Ann Spencer, who is deeply committed to expanding Roy’s original vision of improving the industry. This has led to increased lines of service to accommodate additional customer needs. They’ve nurtured a culture of “doing the right thing,” which includes lifetime warranties and not charging for service calls while striving to provide a superior customer experience.

Though the competition scoffs at the bar that has been set, Perma-Seal believes they are doing right by their customers and ultimately the industry at large. For instance, competitors have had to change unethical practices such as pumping “magic” chemicals into the ground because of the more difficult, but permanent, repair methods set by Perma-Seal.

Hiring Perma-Seal is a personal experience since contractors are invited into people’s home, where there is naturally more sensitivity to disruption and respect. With more than 250 employees, it’s impossible to monitor or dictate every client engagement, so Perma-Seal creates a culture that rewards people for being mindful and treating a client as they would a family member.

Laura Ann said, “One of our core values is to ‘do what you say you will do.’ With our tribe, we tie actions back to the values. Personal stories resonate with people, which then helps guide future actions.”

In 2009 she and her team did the hard work of defining their higher purpose. When one of the team members said, “we make the world a better place,” it felt right because that is the essence of what they do every day.

“People assume we’re a big corporation that doesn’t care. We’re not just a waterproofer or contractor,” Laura Ann explained. “We’re in the customer service business. We’re here to help people have a dry basement and therefore a healthy home.”

Based on their own engagement reviews, Perma-Seal has determined that they were not able to meet the expectation of only 0.6% of their over 350,000 clients. But due to the real challenges of people primarily posting reviews to services like Yelp only when they have a complaint, that impression is skewed. Since their purpose is to make the world a better place, the Perma-Seal tribe continues to work hard to tell their story so others learn about who they are and why they do what they do.


The Science of Story grows stronger with each voice we add. How will you show what you believe?