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“Markets have become conversations”
Point of View

“Markets have become conversations”

Thursday, 06 June 2019
By Laurent Francois
Laurent Francois
Editor, RE-UP

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4 min read

Do younger generations truly not care about a brand’s history and heritage? Is storytelling a cultural construct? Tom Van Laer, Associate Professor of Narratology at the University of Sydney Business School, shares his insights.

What is narratology and how is it different from storytelling?

Narratology is the study of the functions, structures, causes, and especially real-world effects of stories. Storytelling describes the cultural and social activity of sharing stories.

Do you agree with reports that claim Gen Z luxury consumers care less about brand heritage?

I do not agree. Luxury is an experience and experiences are consumed because they provide storytelling value. It’s that storytelling value that makes luxury consumers happy, no matter their generation. Consumers’ need for narrative is universal and ubiquitous.

Can brands deliver a consistent message in the light of social media?

Recent marketing research on stories and cultural branding suggests a positive impact of customers acting as storytellers on the narrative transportation effect: having amateur brand storytellers can improve a campaign’s persuasiveness through the brand’s complex system, or “gestalt”.

Brand gestalt implies that the narratives a brand conveys become more powerful when more storytellers are involved, because these provide a richer system of narrative content and meaning that boosts an audience’s active engagement. This tenet contests that the success of a brand relies only on perfectly consistent and brand-controlled narrative content over time. More powerful stories contain more master plots and amateur storytellers provide a narrative system whose component parts are in constant interaction and together make up a whole greater than their sum. Prada, for example, brings in storytellers from non-professional worlds which accounts for one of the main drivers of the brand’s success.

In addition, powerful brands are the products of a range of amateur storytellers conveying their own stories, which help a brand continuously transform and evolve. These complex brands have multiple meanings and stories. Brand advocates should participate in this “multilogue,” a conversation between customers-as-storytellers. When stories are sourced from users, their effect is enhanced.

Some luxury brands –mostly in fashion– have created shadow committees or "squads" to share their stories and make them both embodied and relevant for new consumers. Is this something new and does it work?

Depending on your age and memory, developments in the modern luxury industry seem radically new or reassuringly old. To me, the past years seem like the former. I perceive a new deal: whereas in the past 200 years, brands have been pushed to people, today consumers get to be part of the conversation. Using a social media-inspired approach, companies can piggyback on social actions by online users, because people ultimately influence people.

These claims of course echo early arguments that marketers do not simply broadcast messages to a passive audience but rather that they target certain “opinion leaders” who then spread, confirm, or negate the marketers’ messages through their own “social relationships”, whether by word of mouth or personal example. Yet most of these conversations, and their implicit marketing messages, were assumed to remain inaudible to firms. The notion that firms might eavesdrop on this chatter became widely conceivable with the rise of social media. Thus, markets have become conversations, and social media can make the conversations transparent.

Should brands be telling their stories in a different way to Chinese luxury buyers?

This question highlights the importance of specific word-of-mouth content and demonstrates its impact on consumers from different cultures. More than two millennia ago, upheavals across the East and West sparked ambitious visions of what humans could achieve, spearheaded by two trailblazers: Confucius and Socrates, great thinkers from the ancient world whose ideas still shape consumer behaviour today, laying the foundations of the modern Eastern and Western world.

While Socrates’ philosophy challenged superstitious belief, Confucius’ vision led to the promotion of 观物取象 (“inferring from metaphors”) and 中庸 (“the Doctrine of the Mean”). In other words, Socrates encouraged his fellow citizens to rationally examine every aspect of their lives, and Confucius believed that moral education could transform both individuals and society. Socratic thought influenced Western consumers’ language and evaluations and Confucianism impacted Chinese consumers’ language and evaluations. Influenced by Confucianism, Chinese consumers’ evaluations are generally lowered by explaining language but less negative than Western consumers’ evaluations.

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