Connecting with Consumers by Understanding the Narrative Economy

Apr 22, 2024

Companies can foster meaningful connections that lead to lasting loyalty and better business outcomes by understanding the narrative economy – which are the stories and identities consumers live and that brands construct about themselves.

“Consumers live narratives," said Isabelle Landreville, President and Chief Insight Seeker at Sylvestre & Co. on this episode of "Insightful Inspiration."

So, how can brands break through the noise? More and more, success lies in understanding the underlying stories, experiences, and personal narratives that drive consumer behaviour. To dive into that topic, Isabelle chatted with Kristian Aloma, founder and CEO at Threadline and author of "Start with the Story: Brand-Building in a Narrative Economy."

They discussed:

  • What narrative psychology reveals about consumer motivations
  • Why understanding context is key
  • Tips for incorporating storytelling techniques into research
  • Steps brands can take to tap into the narrative economy

Any brand can set itself apart by getting inside the consumer’s mindset and integrating their stories into their messaging.

The Narrative Economy and Consumer Identities

To understand the narrative economy, it helps to grasp some fundamentals behind what shapes consumer thinking and decision-making. A field known as narrative psychology provides key insights here.

“People create stories to make sense of themselves," Kristian said. "It’s how they manage their identity."

Narrative psychology recognizes that people make sense of themselves and the world through stories. These stories help consumers construct their identities - who they believe themselves to be as individuals. Identity encompasses everything from core values to aspirations people have about the future.

The key takeaway is that consumers leverage brands within these stories about themselves. Brands that allow consumers to tell better stories end up shaping their sense of identity.

For example, an environmentally conscious consumer may purchase a Tesla because it supports their identity as a steward of the planet. The car becomes a physical embodiment of their values. It gives credibility and substance to this aspect of their personal narrative.

Kristian describes it this way – consumers buy brands because they help them tell stories about themselves that they want to tell.

Tapping into these underlying narratives is critical for making meaningful connections. Consumers need to be the “hero” of their brand relationship storylines. When consumers feel like an integral part of the experience rather than passive recipients of messaging, that’s when the magic happens.

Understanding Context

Context plays a crucial role in analyzing consumer narratives correctly. Small details regarding someone’s background, priorities, and past experiences all shape how they construct stories:

  • A road trip means something entirely different to a 20-something looking for adventure compared to a 40-something parent focused on safety.
  • Fitness goals look completely different after the birth of a child versus when training for a marathon as an active college athlete.

Seemingly identical behaviours can take on entirely different meanings depending on context. Failing to realize this leads brands to make inaccurate assumptions about target consumers.

A good way to gather contextual insights is to start research discussions with an open, conversational tone. Ask about past meaningful experiences related to your product or service rather than immediately peppering them with direct questions. This allows respondents to share on their own terms, setting the context themselves versus trying to deliver “correct” answers.

Read next: Building rapport in qualitative research

Storytelling Techniques for Research

When incorporated properly, storytelling-based research techniques allow brands to immerse themselves within the consumer’s worldview correctly. Kristian notes that stories access deeper parts of memory and motivation.

"When you get them to tell those stories, and you get them to immerse themselves in those stories, what happens is a thing called Narrative Transportation," he said. "They are transported back into that memory, back into that moment."

Here are some best practices to try:

Make participants heroes of their own stories: Ask open questions that position the consumer as the protagonist with valuable experiences to share rather than an informant there to educate you. Validate their central role.

Help respondents relax through transparency: Explain upfront that you’re there to listen and enter their world better, not to interrogate. There are no right or wrong answers. Respond authentically to build trust.

Anchor stories around pivotal memory touchpoints: Ask customers to articulate experiences related to defining moments - say when they first discovered your product category or why loyalty took root after a specific brand interaction. Memories add color.

Use listener responses to nurture more detail: Don’t settle for superficial descriptions. Use affirmative body language, clarifying questions, and verbal cues like “tell me more” to gently coax out the full narrative. In essence, use these 7 skills to active listening.

As Isabelle notes about her research approach, "I start by asking them a very open-ended question. But they don't know where you want to go or they don't know how to please you. So, they'll revert back to whatever their truth is, which I love."

Storytelling builds rapport quickly. By making discussions feel more like a friendly conversation versus a stuffy focus group, consumers can open up organically.

Putting Narratives to Work

“There is something about a brand coming in with a narrative, a story that is either inspirational or aspirational - that really resonates," Isabelle said.  

Here's how brands can create those narratives and become part of consumer stories.

Identify central themes driving brand relationships: Look for connections between the types of stories consumers associate with your brand across demographics. What keeps bubbling up?  

Map messaging to reinforcing narratives: Ensure your communications align with the prominent consumer narratives tied to your brand. Empower consumers to become active participants in those stories.

Incorporate symbolic touchpoints: Brand storytelling also means understanding that consumers think less about functional attributes than the symbolic meaning attached to actions. Adding small rituals – say, cutting both sides of a holiday ham to connote family tradition - transforms mundane behaviors into meaningful bonding opportunities.

Monitor social listening data closely: Consumer narratives permeate all forms of communications, not just direct conversations. Reviews, social sharing imagery, and forum commentary help surface prominent brand stories organically told through daily interactions.

Tapping into narratives unlocks a direct line into your customers’ hearts and minds. Brand relevancy stems from continuously nurturing the supportive personal stories that loyal relationships depend upon over time across demographics.

Final thoughts on the Narrative Economy

Personal narratives define market winners and losers. Consumers naturally gravitate toward brands that understand the deeper stories they wish to tell about themselves.

"People don't just buy products or services or brands because they serve some functional need," Kristian said. "They buy them because they help them tell stories about themselves that they want to tell."

Tapping into consumer psychology through research provides a way to gather these motivational insights systematically. Rather than rely on assumptions, let your customers tell you directly what drives them and what they need from your brand.

Narrative fuels loyalty. Help consumers view your brand as supporting characters in their lifelong personal growth stories. When executed authentically, you may end up capturing their hearts along the way.

Connecting with Consumers by Understanding the Narrative Economy

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