Homer was one of the first to do it. Shakespeare was a master. Jane Austen captured millions of hearts with hers. And even E.J James (of 50 Shades of Grey fame) managed to make a generation burn with passion.
What exactly am I referring to?
The story. Something that can be as simple as ‘I went to the shops to buy some bread’ all the way to Tolstoy’s complicated and lengthy ‘War and Peace.’
What does this have to do with pharmaceutical marketing?
Well, for me to make my point, I draw on the psychologist Nigel Holt who argues that every one of us wants to be the protagonist of a story, such that we seek out that which enables this fantasy to be lived:
In this article I will examine the theory behind why stories are effective at selling and how they are pivotal to the success of a brand as well as show that it is grounded in some pretty fundamental psychology. Then I will argue why these reasons make it even more critical for pharma to start using the story to sell their brands.
1. We think narratively:
People typically tend to think narratively rather than argumentatively or paradigmatically. Even though early human cultures developed independently, they still simultaneously developed storytelling. And it’s been going on for thousands of years. The Epic of Gilgamesh was written in 3,000 BC and whilst it was the first to be recorded, it is most definitely not the first story ever told. Nowadays we don’t necessarily gather round the fire to share them, but we still visit cinemas frequently for the same purpose. Which makes storytelling an essential part of what it means to be human.
2. We store information episodically:
Our brains are expertly adapted to store a substantial amount of information through what psychologists refer to as ‘episodic memory.’ The prominent cognitive psychologist Endel Tulving differentiated this type of memory from ‘semantic memory,’ which is more factual and used to store names of places, people etc. Episodic memory is the brain’s in-built story library that includes ‘inciting incidents, experiences, outcomes/evaluations, and summaries/nuances of person to-person and person-and-brand relationships within specific contexts’ (Schank, 1990).
3. We seek clarity:
Stories are essential for humans to make sense of events and prior conversations and outcomes. Often the processing demands on the brain are too high and a story represents a shortcut for conveying large volumes of data into a concise, easy to digest message. Moreover, repetition allows the individual to make more and more sense of the main archetype (prototypes of behaviour that individuals can emulate) that is contained within a story. Much in the way that BMW contains the archetype of the suave, suit-wearing businessman - it is the story that those purchasing a BMW can tell every time they pull up in their shiny silver 3 series.
4. We are pleasure seekers:
There are as many benefits for the author of a story as there are for the person receiving the story. Yet we often think of this process being unidirectional, and the information only important for the listener. The act of retrieving, reliving and repeat watching a story provides the author with a stimulating emotional experience, such that it represents a form of pleasure seeking behaviour. In the words of Aristotle, storytelling can provide a state of ‘proper pleasure’ for the author.
5. We use Brands to seek pleasure:
Successful brands are those that offer a story to their customers in order for them to, by purchasing the brand, attach themselves to the main archetype and tell the story to others. Therefore, brands play a critical role in ‘enabling consumers to achieve proper pleasure…and reliving the experience by periodically retelling a given story each time they use the brand.’ In a nut-shell “people need help in finding what makes them happy, and this is where marketing comes in” (Bagozzi & Nataraajan, 2000).
So why should Pharma use storytelling in their selling?
Doctors, for all their years of intense training, vast medical knowledge and various degrees, are human too. Which makes them subject to the same psychological processes as you or I. Meaning that all the desires and behaviours I have described in this article are applicable to them also.
Therefore, in order to successfully convey the key benefits of their products, Pharma must create their ‘brand story.’ This story should contain archetypes – The relaxed doctor, The Confident Prescriber – that their customers can achieve every time they use Brand X. Which will ensure a wealth of positive experience and result in brand loyalty, such that the brand story can even protect against patency expiration.
At Branding Science, we regularly work collaboratively with our clients in order to equip their brand teams with not only their brand story, but the tools to build their marketing strategy around this story and the confidence to take that to their customers in the field.
More and more we are seeing Brand teams commission this line of storytelling / sales effectiveness training, with our CompComms™ methodology, that gives our clients the space to align the team on the most impactful story through which to convey the key benefits of their brand.
Sofia is a Senior Research Executive at Branding Science and has been involved in both traditional market research as well as healthcare consultancy projects mentioned in this article.
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Reference: Woodside, A. G., S. Sood, and K. R. Miller (2008). “When consumers and brands talk: Storytelling theory and research in psychology and marketing.” Psychology and Marketing, 25 (2): 97-145.