What is the science behind the incredible impact of storytelling in marketing, and can it be used in B2B marketing, too?
We are hard-wired to find meaning in and be moved by stories. But storytelling is an underused technique in B2B thought leadership. While widely used in B2C marketing, where desires and drives and a human connection are harnessed to ever-increasing sales growth, in B2B, the focus is mainly on facts.
There’s a good reason for that. When businesses purchase a service or product, they go through a procurement exercise, where they assess information about the product and the potential return on investment (ROI), risks, and so on.
Yet humans are still making these decisions, and so psychology is no less critical. Psychological drives, such as cognitive bias, and social behaviors like relationship-building all come into play.
And when it comes to thought leadership, where a company wants to showcase its expertise and innovation, being able to do so in a way that people will digest it is all-important. When we produce white papers and reports, we want people to read the insights they contain. When our CEO writes a thought leadership blog or LinkedIn post, it is not thought leadership if no one reads it.
For those reasons, storytelling has an important role to play in B2B marketing. Storytelling is the ideal way to tell your B2B story, showcase your products to other businesses and drive influence through thought leadership. Why? It’s all about brain science.
When used gum has value
In 2004, CBS reported that people were trying to sell used chewing gum. Not just any old used gum you see squashed into the pavement. It was a piece of gum that Britney Spears had spat out accidentally. The used gum had been touched with a celebrity story.
The same might be true of objects we own. We value them because they have a story and say something about our identity.
Words don’t just describe an object. They also evoke our senses. The word ‘chocolate’ can make our primary olfactory (smell) cortex light up, as if chocolate were present. “The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life,” says science writer Anne Murphy Paul.
B2C marketing uses this human psychology to sell us things. And through another aspect of human psychology – our social intelligence and social contagion – trends catch on. If everyone believes that owning a Porsche indicates we are successful and desirable, then when we own one, we are.
What does this have to do with B2B marketing? Well, a lot. Consider ChatGPT. It is a transformative technology, but it also comes with a powerful story about revolutionizing work, increasing productivity, solving the climate crisis, and combatting disease, to name a few applications. We didn’t know if these possibilities were true. But they were stories that swept through our narrative landscape, inspiring panic, fear, purpose, and hope; and in the process, drove the exponential growth of OpenAI’s Language Learning Model (LLM).
The importance of purpose
Scientists point to the prevalence of eudaimonic narratives – stories that center purpose, the human condition and virtue – in B2C marketing. Increasingly, purpose is reshaping how companies convey their value and sell their products.
One example of purpose-driven sales was a credit card designed to create an emotional connection with Millennials. The emotional motivators towards connection for this group were about protecting the environment and to ‘be the person I want to be’. Use of the card among this group increased by 70% and new account growth by 40%.
Purpose is unavoidable for business. Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, argued that companies must have a purpose: “Customers want to see and hear what you stand for as they increasingly look to do business with companies that share their values,” he said.
This is also true for B2B companies, which must align with clients’ purpose-driven agendas.
Drawing on our feels
People overestimate how rational their decision-making is (though, in the era of fake facts and belief-driven truths, this sense of ourselves may have lessened).
The reality is that behavioral scientists now understand that emotion drives decision-making. We use our emotions to evaluate brands rather than information, and we assess brands like they were people – in other words, whether we like them or not. Brands communicate this emotional connection through visuals and words, such as a company backstory.
Why are emotions so crucial to storytelling? Again, it’s brain science. Character-driven stories increase oxytocin, the hormone that increases trust and bonding. Researchers have found that telling oxytocin-enabling stories can increase empathy and cooperative behaviors.
B2B marketers can create emotional connections by storytelling – sharing customer success stories, thought leadership that addresses clients’ pain points and offers insights and solutions, alignment in values, founder and employee stories, gestures of appreciation towards clients, like cards or personalized gifts, and contributing to social causes.
Personalization and neuromarketing – the next frontier for B2B storytelling?
Through AI and big data, targeted, personalized ads are becoming increasingly prevalent. And it’s not just ads. Shopping and entertainment sites will perpetually aim to define your taste and offer recommendations.
It’s an imperfect science. But people like personalization. According to research by Social Media Today, 43% of consumers like companies that personalize their experience, 48% spend more with personalization, and 74% of people hate being shown irrelevant ads.
But it’s possible that GenAI-powered marketing will evolve to better answer clients’ needs by learning brand stories and company challenges; and in offering bespoke solutions and tailored products in response.
It’s also a safe bet to assume that Generative AI will also be highly implicated in thought leadership analytics to assess sector challenges and evolve real-time, visually driven, and increasingly personalized content.
Feet on the ground
B2B marketing should make use of the science of storytelling. However, avoiding the ethical trap of consumer marketing is critical. Connection is vital in the B2B sector, but so are facts, reliability, and trust. B2B marketing should evolve, but keep its feet firmly on the ground.
Learn more about how B2B thought leaders can understand their audience, embrace opportunities, and cultivate authentic connections through storytelling by reading our latest ThinkWise Guide.Back to Blogs