Beyond "Content Marketing": The Experience of Narrative Marketing

Posted by Owen Matson, Ph.D. on June 11
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Beyond "Content Marketing": The Experience of Narrative Marketing


  1. Customer Experience as Narrative Experience

Back in the day—a time wholly naive to the commercial value of what marketers now call “customer experience”—people simply went, or rather walked, to the corner store, where the local shopkeeper was a familiar face who knew each customer—and each customer’s favorite products—by name.

While more authentic versions of the latter scenario may still take place in certain rarefied pockets of this great nation, they are more likely to take the form of some strategically marketed, retro-Disney-esque simulacrum of pre-industrial, small-town hospitality. Cracker Barrel, anyone?

Real or Disney-fied, it’s the feeling of the experience that counts. Whether you’re at Cracker Barrel or Disneyland’s Main Street, both exemplify market strategies that bank on the value and appeal of a particularly nostalgic brand of customer experience: A consumer longing to recover the “lost” comforts of small-town familiarity.

We’ll return to the issue of familiarity soon enough. First, let’s take a second to linger on the notion of “customer experience.” The term may seem redundant: Doesn’t being a customer already inherently entail a certain experience—that is, some experience of purchasing (or, at least, tautologically, the experience of customer experience)? The concept of customer experience, however, lies in the quality and character of the shopping experience itself. Marketers have long been savvy to the fact that customers don’t simply purchase things. Rather, customers also pay for feelings associated with consumer experiences just as much—or even more—than they pay for actual products. Everyone knows that a “fancy restaurant” means more than gourmet food; the term entails a certain level of ambience, a certain experience that goes along with the food. The rides at Disneyland are loads of fun. But you can have plenty of fun on a rollercoaster at your local Six Flags. The Disney difference lies in the feeling of the experience, the way in which Disneyland immerses visitors into an alternative state of being. Six Flags is an amusement park. Disneyland is a world unto itself.  


  1. Affective Labor

There’s much to be said on the issue of customer experience—much has already been said on the topic. As for the aura and ambience of an upscale restaurant, or the wonder of Disneyland—these are easy examples of the appeal and draw of richly manufactured “customer experiences.” In fact, they may be too easy: Too easy in that, for most consumers, they speak to exceptionally special experiences.   As exceptions, the obvious experiential enticements of a fancy restaurant or a trip to Disneyland can obscure the degree to which the desire for certain customer experiences informs and in fact pervades even our most everyday routines.

The value of a customer experience lies more precisely in the feelings of that experience (or better yet, the experience of a feeling of an experience!). Businesses do not only manufacture and sell products; they produce and sell affects: Visceral emotional experiences that often take place beyond our immediate understanding or awareness. And in an economy where customers purchase affects, work now involves what Michael Hardt has called “affective labor.” When customers go to McDonalds, they don’t just buy burgers, they buy a certain level of service. By the same token, employees at McDonald’s don’t simply make burgers; rather, they produce kindness, service with a smile—i.e. affective labor. Don’t just have a Coke—Have a Coke and a Smile!


  1. The Experience of Familiarity

In a service economy charged with the production of affects, the emotional appeal of familiarity emerges as a particularly hot commodity. The experience of “familiarity” can take many forms.   At Cracker Barrel, the experience of the familiar arguably emerges in the production of a retail space that immerses customers in an environment adorned in the iconography of pre-industrial, small-town, nostalgia—a period commonly associated with cultural narratives of social inclusion and community. And just in case customers miss the point, the walls are filled with old family photos—a literal visual rhetoric of the familiar. Sure, in rational terms, we may not actually know the families that people these photos. But customer experiences are not rational; they’re about feelings: “Mmmh! Apple butter—just like grandma used to make!”

OK, so places like Cracker Barrel sell a certain nostalgic experience of “familiarity” and belonging. Likely, most readers can think of quite a few brands that sell this experience. However, the customer desire for an experience of familiarity extends to subtler, yet more clandestine, dimensions of consumption. In fact, the very power and appeal of a “brand” is intrinsically and fundamentally tied to consumer desires for the experience of the familiar: We purchase brands because they offer a sense of familiarity—we know and recognize them.

Consider Ford—a company well known for the production of both cars and brands. One does not simply invest in the use-value of a Ford Mustang as a means of transportation. As a brand, a Ford Mustang serves as the device for the production of affective experiences.

Certainly, “familiarity” is not the only emotional appeal of the Ford Mustang. According to Jeremy Rifkin, the power and value of a consumer-product relationship based in familiarity has emerged as an organizing principal in Ford’s business model:

Ford would rather never sell you a car again…. It would rather put you in its network, so that you continually buy the experience of driving rather than buying the vehicle. And the proof is in the pudding. The renewal rate on leasing is 54%. The renewal rate in market-based transactions is 25%.

Simply put, Rifkin’s point here is that Ford’s profits lie less in the making and selling of individual cars than in the company’s capacity to arrange ongoing relationships between consumers and products. Typically, the purchase of a car results in a finite series of payments designed to eventually culminate in final ownership. In this purchasing model, the goal of a sale is to facilitate customer ownership a specific Ford car. Yet full car ownership also implies a finite relationship between customers and the Ford brand: Once a customer owns the car, that customer’s overall relationship with Ford is more likely to come to an end. The shift to leasing inaugurates more than an affordable purchasing alternative; instead, the lease facilitates the ongoing payment for a perpetual, sustained relationship over time—not just car possession, but tri-yearly trade-ins that often coincide with newly updated Ford models, coupled with ongoing financial services, as well as other products and services. In short, leasing provides the financial means to organize an ongoing relationship—not merely between consumers and Ford cars, but between consumers and the Ford brand. Instead of selling individual cars, leasing enables Ford to sell customers an ongoing relationship with the Ford brand—immersion in an ongoing experience of familiarity.


  1. Leasing and Buying as Different Narrative Form
The point here is not that traditional purchase-to-own sales models do not also involve relationships of brand loyalty—certainly, customers loyal to the Ford brand are very likely to continuing purchasing Ford vehicles over time, whether or not that purchase involves a lease or leads to full ownership. Rather, the point is that leasing supports an ongoing relationship based more exclusively on an investment in the Ford brand than in specific material products—in a lease, the vehicles change, but the connection to a familiar brand experience remains the same.

Ford’s investments in leasing represent one version of a larger shift: We no longer buy things; instead, we invest in the familiar experience of a brand. Actual cars change over time, but investing in the abstract permanence of a brand enables a comforting relation of consistent familiarity—consistency despite change. In an age of e-commerce, brands offer customers a means of recovering the comforting permanence of relationships once found in the familiar faces at the corner store.

Simply put, brands offer customers ongoing relationships—relationships produced and maintained through narratives over time. As two means of organizing the financial arrangement involved in purchasing a car, a lease and a traditional loan also represent two very different forms of narratives: Each implies a different relationship between buyers, products and brands over time. At MarketScale, we believe narrative marketing involves much more than the promotion of products. Rather, MarketScale’s mission lies in the cultivation and maintenance of meaningful relationships between customers and companies across time. To be continued…


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