On December 18, 2015, Yazidi teenager Nadia Murad sat in front of world leaders and shared her story at the United Nations. The year before, Murad had been kidnapped by ISIS as part of their genocidal campaign against the Yazidi population. Thousands had been killed, but the world wasn’t paying attention. Sharing her incredible story about all she had experienced spurred international action and activism to help stop the tragedy. In 2018, Murad won the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Murad’s courageous testimony shows how stories have the power to change the world. Stories are incredibly powerful—studies have shown that stories can transport us to faraway worlds, change our attitudes and opinions, and even drive us to action. Many harness this power to grow their business through marketing. Narrative transportation is a marketing strategy that focuses on using stories to connect with consumers and motivate them to make a purchase. Brands everywhere are quickly witnessing its success. Here’s why it works. 

Good stories can transport us

When our attention is enrapt in a narrative, we are put inside the world that the author has constructed, and can even lose our sense of time and space. Think about it—when you read a good book, you can become completely unaware of your surroundings. Maybe you even experienced this feeling during the introduction of this post.

When we experience narrative transportation, our cognitive responses are altered. Our receptors are amplified while our resistors are shut off. Basically, our brain is busy “feeling”, so we have less capacity to criticize the story and buy into the realm the author has constructed for us more easily. Transportation makes us more accepting of a story and less likely to question it’s assertions. We are so distracted that we are unable to recall some real-world facts which may contradict the narrative. This is why you might’ve cried after watching movies like The Notebook, Toy Story 4, or even the finale episode of The Office—transportation makes it possible to experience strong emotional reactions to a story even when you know it isn’t real.

Narrative transportation can cause us to mirror characters

Narrative transportation can also cause readers to mimic characters in a story. Readers can grow an attachment to a character so strong that they unknowingly alter their values and behavior to mirror that individual, especially if the character is written to be relatable to the audience. Even more, narrative transportation can cause the reader to imagine themselves in the place of a character they relate to. This can help transport readers into a story and make them more receptive to its message. 

Narrative transportation can transform our beliefs

Studies have shown that when readers experience narrative transportation, they often report beliefs more consistent with the message of the story after reading it. When we are transported, our opinions and attitudes can be transformed, and we can even be compelled to take action. This is why many countries have banned books. North Korea famously outlaws Western media and news because the authoritarian dictatorship knows that stories have the power to make people question ideas and change beliefs, making stories incredibly dangerous to their power. This goes to show that narrative transportation has the incredible ability to mold our thoughts, feelings, and actions. 

What this means for marketers

Two main pieces of marketing advice can be drawn from studying narrative transportation:

  1. Tell a story about your brand
  2. Let the customer play the “hero”

Tell a story about your brand

By creating a story about your brand that will resonate with your consumers, you can use narrative transportation to generate favorable viewpoints of your product that will induce customers to buy more. More importantly, creating a story about your brand builds a personal connection with consumers. People buy based on emotion. If you are able to establish an emotional connection with the consumer through your use of narrative transportation, your brand will stand out from the rest, and consumers will connect with you and buy your product.

Let the customer play the “hero”

The most effective use of narrative in marketing allows the consumer to play the “hero” in the story. When constructing your brand’s narrative, make sure the customer plays the role of the protagonist—not your company. Write your story so that your product is something that they, the “hero”, will need to use in order to fulfill a larger goal. This is extremely effective because we find ourselves most transported when stories have a character that we can relate to. Additionally, because narrative transportation causes individuals to mimic the behavior of characters in a story, if the consumer is able to see themselves as the “hero” who uses your product in the story, they will be more compelled to buy from your brand. 

Examples of narrative transportation

Many brands have successfully used narrative transportation in marketing and realized success in sales because of it. In 2014, Airbnb released its “Wall and Chain” ad. This short film tells the true story of a girl whose father was once a guard who patrolled the Berlin Wall. His experiences there haunted him, and his daughter always felt he was guarded off. To try to help, she decided to take her father back to Berlin to visit. When they arrived, the host of their Airbnb turned out to be a former guard from the opposite side of the wall. Her father built a connection with this man and was finally able to let his own walls come down. This tear-jerking ad uses narrative transportation to give consumers a favorable view of Airbnb and allows them to see themselves as the “hero”, showing customers how they could use Airbnb in their own lives. 

Nike’s famous “Dream Crazier” ad utilizes this same strategy. This video tells the story of female athletes everywhere and the challenges they have faced in overcoming stereotypes about women. The “Dream Crazier” campaign inspired women everywhere to chase their dreams even when the world called them “crazy”. Nike’s ad successfully used narrative transportation to motivate their customers to buy their athletic products. The strategy was incredibly rewarding: Nike generated $43 million worth of media exposure and witnessed a 31% increase in online sales.

Some brands design their entire marketing strategy around storytelling. For example, Nena & Co., a limited edition handbag brand, has designed their website so that consumers must read the story behind the bags before browsing the merchandise. Consumers are driven to purchase the bags as they are transported by the story of how Nena & Co.’s handbag sales celebrate Guatemalan culture and sustainably support indigenous artisans who have handcrafted the textiles on the bag. Customers connect with the idea that their purchase causes a broader social impact and feel motivated to buy the bags. 

Stories were the earliest form of communication. People have used stories since cavemen drew on walls. And they haven’t lost their appeal. Brands such as Airbnb, Nike, and Nena & Co. have all demonstrated this. Today, stories are still one of the most powerful tools we have for connecting with others. Take advantage of them—your brand has a lot to say.

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