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Start with Sharpie: A story about telling stories

Category : Commercial Codes in English

Stories, stories, stories… That is the advertising trend of 2012. We can read almost everywhere essays about the importance of storytelling and how to do it.

Stories are all around us: on ads, presentations, digital platforms… But what exactly is storytelling and how can we write it; where should we begin?

The ad of Sharpie that we’ll look at this week seems to shed a light to all these questions.

“We don’t sell a nail; we sell a hole where you can hang the pictures of your loved ones.”

I believe a teacher of mine said this sentence while I was studying Advertising, I don’t remember who said it originally. But its message is as clear today as it was that day. It underlines the very essence of advertising and marketing communication: we do not sell the product but the benefit. I think the essence of writing good stories also lays in defining what you sell very clearly.

Man is actually a simple creature; its desires are very evident. Though the products and services become increasingly diverse and sophisticated, the essence stays the same.

We all have fundamental motives: to love, be loved, belong, be strong, be liked, be safe, be protected, be sheltered, find our identity etc.

Actually these fundamental motives are the last stop where all our stories reach, thereby where all the product and services answer. When we buy bleach, we actually buy inner peace, instead of “hygiene”, our car represents our status and charisma, we buy our mobile phone in order to emphasize our identity and character, maybe to show our belonging to a certain group etc.

If you want to build good brand stories you have to find the most basic motive your product answers. In other words, catching insights that go beyond the benefit of the product should be the primary objective of marketing and communication professionals.

Our example, Sharpie starts working with this apprehension. Though there are many other ‘direct’ ways of making a pen commercial, Sharpie has caught the fundamental motivation that the product answer very good, by deep investigation. They defined this motivation as ‘achieving one’s dreams’. In other words, Sharpie pens positions itself on the famous Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs Pyramid on top, namely ‘self actualization’.

After making this evaluation and determining the fundamental motive, there comes the theme of your story. But the secret of writing a good story lies in details…

First issue is depth: The remoter the point you start from the end point, the better is the dramatic effect and depth of the described challenge. This way you can deliver your message to your audience’s not only cognitive mind, but also deep enough to influence their emotional intelligence and leave an imprint.

That’s exactly the case in Sharpie example. The ad isn’t based on the realization of dreams of a young American boy. The reason for that is, American or Western youth, whose motto is already achieving their dreams, wouldn’t provide an impressive enough challenge for our story.

It can also be said that in that case what Sharpie was saying would be like the writing on the water. But our young man is from Malaysia, which has far more big issues even like survival and where chasing your dreams is rather a luxurious act. So his story, his process of self-realization offers a more deep and influential (inspiring) story.

Second issue is sincerity and credibility: Yes, the efforts you make should worth the outcome but you shouldn’t expect to change the world with a single ad. Beside the right depth, right dramatic dosage it is also very important for sincere penetration of the story.

For example, Sharpie ad tells us the story of our hero’s drawings on paper cups. But they do not tell that our hero earns a living through this act. On the contrary, he does this in order to feel happy and even if it has a financial contribution, it isn’t important enough to mention in the ad.

The reason for that is, if he was portrayed as earning his life by selling these paper cups, the audience will give reactions like, “C’mon, are you kidding me?”

No one would believe the rubbish that the guy can earn a living by making drawings on paper cups with a pen, no one can see himself in such a story and no one takes life that lightly.

Furthermore, if the ad was shot that way, Sharpie pens would have embarked a way below its head mission and made an over-promise. And that would make their ad too much “commercial” an a lot less credible. So another important point in building up the story is to have the right aim and proportions.

Third issue is continuity and right amount of ambiguity: The ad does not finish the story; our hero starts his world tour with his pens and paper cups.

So it gives space to its audience for developing the story further and dream about what’s to come. It doesn’t matter if the consumer would actually dream about it or not, the important point is that the ad leaves space for it. That leads the story to stay alive. And that makes the ad, something beyond an ad; makes it a human story.

In short, the trick to build up a good story is not only to know your product or service, but also know human beings. And I guess it starts with knowing our own story. So we should read our fundamental motives in life and the experiences we get along the way right. And then, you have a story worth telling in your hands.