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The Elephant In The Marketing Room

“Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think”
—Jill Bolte Taylor

I was raised in Dublin, the storytelling capital of the world. There is no place on earth that is more hardwired for story than Ireland, home of Guinness and oversize teapots.

Wikipedia will tell you that the Irish are some of the biggest consumers of tea. What Wikipedia won’t tell you is that in Ireland, tea (like Guinness), isn’t just a drink—it’s a lubricator of story.

When I was five or six and there was nothing to do on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, my dad would drive my little brother and me down to Hector Grey’s Sunday market on his Honda 50. One of us would ride on the front, the other on the back—which I’m guessing wasn’t strictly legal.

Hector Grey was a sliver haired, silver tongued shop owner. Watching him was the closest I’d come to witnessing theatre. He erected a small platform outside The Woolen Mills, (his stage) and beckoned people to come closer so they could hear, but actually I suspect so they could feel the heightened emotion and sense of expectation in each other. Hector sold imported hardware and trinkets. He never once described what a product would do, he painted a picture of what it would feel like to have.

Nobody knew what might be in the boxes on any given Sunday, or how many were in stock. Hector told stories about gold plated tea sets shipped from exotic Hong Kong, and of Mandarin scented soaps from Taiwan, places most people there would never see, even on a map. He framed the scarcity of everything he sold. There was always limited stock and there wasn’t much of an opportunity to see the products up close. When Hector finally finished by tapping on the box like a magician about to produce a rabbit from a hat, he explained the bargain he was prepared to give to the first hands that inevitably shot up.

Many of the things we bought on those Sundays were used once, or became a memory at the back of some glass cabinet, or at the bottom of the kitchen drawer.

Some might say that Hector was what they would call in Dublin, ‘a gangster’ and that we were idiots for falling for his spiel, when in fact we were all characters, playing a part in the same story. We wanted to be taken on a journey. Hector took us there. He didn’t try to convince us, he changed how we felt. And like people waiting in lines outside Apple stores at iPhone launches, we weren’t there for the box we would take home at the end of the day, we were there for the story.

So if people buy the story, the fortune not the cookie, the comparison not the raw ingredients. Why do many marketers feel that working on the story is not a very noble pursuit?

Whether we are marketers, consumers, or both it can be uncomfortable to realise that we are less rational than we think. This disturbs us on several levels. As consumers should we feel like fools because we pay for story and context if that’s what really matters to us? Should Howard Schultz feel bad because he recognised the opportunity in selling coffee by the cup, rather than beans by the pound, as Starbucks did in the old days? Is it wrong to give people what they want wrapped in a story, if the value of what they want is subjective and intangible?

The genius of Hector Grey, Steve Jobs and Howard Schultz was in two things. They knew that we were there for the story, AND they were not afraid to sell it to us. Perhaps it’s time to get comfortable with the fact that if we want to change the world, then we need to stop being afraid to tell better true stories and simply let people buy into them.

Image by Cody Simms.