Decoding ‘story’

Marketers like to talk about the story we tell.

And non-marketers imagine that we’re referring to Goldilocks and other ‘once upon a time’ moments.

Because stories are the basic building block of culture, it’s difficult to see the nuance in this simple word. But one or two examples can help.

A new saw might have a story. A home woodworker isn’t cutting wood for a living–it’s a hobby. When a new saw from Festool comes out, the thoughtful design plants a seed for the home woodworker. From that moment on, every cut with the old saw feels like a compromise or even an insult. And the SawStop table saw is a story as well… every time a home woodworker is about to cut with their old saw, they visualize life without a finger or two… the story is far more emotional than the specs of the item itself.

Bottled water is a story. In countries where the water isn’t regularly safe to drink, there’s the simple, practical story of not getting sick.

But in wealthy countries, bottled water is a symbol. It’s a symbol for a lot of things, including status. It’s a statement about a certain kind of healthiness or self-care. And all of that rolls up into a story that is rarely put into words. When you buy bottled water in a restaurant, what are you buying?

When environmental organizations started to tell the story of millions of discarded bottles floating in the ocean, it was pretty easy for many bottled water purchasers to ignore. After all, that’s over there, and this bottle is over here. And after all, those bottles in that ocean aren’t about me or affecting me, so I’m not really aware of them. And of course, don’t blame me, because I put my bottle in a blue bin…

A far more powerful story just appeared in a scientific journal. It explains that there are 100 times as many microparticles of plastic in bottled water than had been previously estimated. 100 times as many particles that are small enough get into the bloodstream. Billions of tiny health risks.

This is a story that will probably stick with many of the people who didn’t want to hear the other story. Because now, looking at that clear bottle of status and health, it is easy for it to look like a bottle of poison.

Stories that resonate are the ones that sit with the stories we already believe and value.

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