Stories Beat Data: And Other Marketing Insights from Cannes Lions 2015

For all the lessons technology teaches us, did you ever feel like it also ignores some of the most important lessons about what motivates us – and how we might motivate others?

I found myself asking that question more than ever after hearing over 20 impressive speakers at the 2015 Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity.  While it may seem like businesses of all kinds (including brand marketing) are relying on technology more than ever; it also feels like a time when thought leaders are recognizing its limitations as well.

Balancing Big Data – with Life

In a year dominated with industry stories about big data and programmatic marketing, there were very few presentation on those topics.  The industry seems to have woken up to the news that data can’t answer all of its needs.

Our customers (and whoever you are you’ve got them) don’t think they manage their lives by data.  They are complicated, emotional human beings who tell themselves complicated stories about their own lives.  Marketers have to do the same thing, and through my days at Cannes I heard marketers call for increased story-telling and awareness that we all learn not from the general but the particular.

Neuroscientist Dr. Itiel Dror even reminded us that our brains aren’t actually rational at all – yet brands have kept thinking they can deliver literal messages to consumers based on what they have reported in research; it’s just not that simple.

Technology and Order Aren’t What Consumers Want to Hear

As Sir John Hegarty (Founder of BBH) said, “Technology doesn’t talk to people.  Ideas talk to people.”  Even Microsoft acknowledged as much when it admitted that, for all of the applications that its amazing HoloLens product has found, its next step (and a bigger challenge) will be applying it to story-telling.

A presentation from agencies Razorfish and Contagious quoted the U.S. writer Henry Adams: “Chaos breeds life, whereas order breeds habit.”  As the world of advertising follows the star of programmatic marketing, it’s good to remember the pitfalls of thinking consumers’ lives are too orderly.  A perfectly programmed campaign may be the last thing to which they can actually relate.

Each Consumer Has Her Own “Wild and Precious Life”

Diana Nyad took the main stage at one point to tell the story of how she finally swam from Cuba to Florida on her 5th try at age 64.  Her performance was idiosyncratic and inspiring.  She took the stage by playing “Reveille” on her own trumpet, mimicked her Greek-accented father, and quoted poet Mary Oliver’s question: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

To me, Nyad’s talk was educational not because her achievements were so dramatic but because her story was so real.

New Pronouns and Verbs

I heard from multiple speakers that we should limit our reliance on demographic segmentation – in part because it make us think of the consumer as a faceless generalization rather than an individual person whom we need to serve.  In turns out that each of us is looking for brands to deliver something unique just for us.

At least two presenters recommended a new verb by engaging, rather than targeting, consumers.  Aussie Bec Brideson called it a necessary step for marketers who need to shed the militaristic terms that have dominated marketing for too long.  And Kirsty Fuller of Flamingo Group recommended that we engage rather than target because it better corresponds with the values of consumers young and old today.

New pronouns may be needed as well.  Keith Weed, Unilever’s CMO, told a large audience we should be “marketing for consumers” and not marketing “to” them.

How many of us can say that we are marketing “for” the people we need to “engage”?

And how many of us are listening to (and sharing) the real stories that illustrate (and motivate) the chaotic and very real lives or our customers, clients and friends?

Whether you are running a brand, a non-profit, or a law firm, you have to use data to grow your business; just don’t forget to use real stories, too.

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