Marketers inherently know it’s easier to tell a story than sell someone on the key features and benefits of a product or service. As Seth Godin points out in All Marketers Are Liars, good stories “engage the consumer” and “appeal to our senses.” Yet the best story in the world may fall on deaf ears if it doesn’t fit cultural dispositions or lacks authenticity.
Seth Godin reminds us that marketers tell stories to best sell products and services. “No one buys facts,” he says. “They buy a story—they’re here for the story and the way believing it makes us feel.” Anyone who has seen a marketing brochure or advertisement for Volvo can see how the use of storytelling brings forth the “safety” value proposition much better than detailed specifications of its whiplash protection system or roll stability control.
However, a carefully crafted story that works well for one market may fall flat in another. Godin says that’s because “different people have different worldviews. People can see the same data and come to different conclusions.”
Author Peter Hessler highlights this idea in a New Yorker article titled “Go West.” Born and raised in the United States, Hessler has spent the past 10 years traveling from farm to factory in greater China, so he knows a thing or two about Chinese and American culture. It was no surprise to Hessler how the two cultures uniquely use narrative in daily communication.
For example, Hessler writes that one night he decided to visit a local bar somewhere in Colorado. Hessler relates that within a few moments, a stranger had sat down next to him, ordered a drink, and proceeded to tell Hessler his life story, including the fact that he had just been released from prison.
Hessler contrasts this openness with his experiences in China. “People in China never talked like that,” he writes. “They didn’t like to be the center of attention, and they took little pleasure in narrative. They rarely lingered on interesting details.” It wasn’t necessarily that Chinese citizens didn’t tell stories, just that they told stories about much different topics. “Most Chinese could talk your ear off about things like food, money and weather,” Hessler says. “But they avoided personal topics, and I learned that it could take months before an interview subject opened up.”
Hessler observed that Chinese seemed less willing to talk about themselves. Contrast this with the average U.S. citizen who is likely more than willing to tell you his or her life story and probably has it well-rehearsed.
One narrative technique that seems to work well in Western cultures is the personal testimonial. However, from Hessler’s observations on the uneasiness of Chinese to talk about personal issues, it’s easy to see why a marketing campaign of customer testimonials for a product or service might fall on deaf ears in China.
In addition to cultural nuance, a university professor friend of mine—who is Chinese—says there’s something deeper here on why personal testimonials might not work in China. The larger issue is trust and believability.
In Communist China, billboards with propaganda are the norm, the Internet is tightly controlled, and the government does its very best to control both media and message. The professor says, “Many believe that stories and testimonials are made up, especially because there isn’t an unbiased monitoring mechanism to convince consumers that testimonials are from real people.”
Storytelling works in marketing. But the most real and believable narrative may fall victim to cultural nuances that predispose your customers to not listen in the first place.
• One person interviewed by Hessler says, “An individual with a story is on a higher ground than an individual with an argument.” Do you agree or disagree?
• Hessler also observed, “Many Americans were great talkers, but they didn’t like to listen.” Is this consistent with your observations?