Published: 20/11/2017
Storytelling – The power to change the world

The in-laws are coming to dinner and Cindy is in a frenzied panic. What can she do to ensure that she lives up to expectations? She has heard often enough that his mother was an amazing cook and hostess. Enter the brand as a hero that helps her get the evening right. The scene closes with the critical mother-in-law grudgingly expressing appreciation while the husband looks on with proud approval.

Louise watches wistfully as laughing, happy couples glide across the dance floor at the wedding reception. She wishes she was among them instead of having to watch from the side-lines. It’s not easy being alone as all her friends are getting married. Enter the saviour brand that magically transforms her into a glowing confident woman by banishing unwanted blemishes. We then watch Louise as the belle of the ball, surrounded by many admirers, and finally as a radiant bride.

Every day we consciously and subconsciously watch hundreds of these short stories. Most have happy endings. Stories told by brands have implicit promises that they can make us better, happier, and more successful.  Like all stories they become a part of how we make sense of the world, find meaning in our lives and make choices.

Through the stories brands tell, they sell values, images and ideas. They sell concepts of love and sexuality, of success and relationships, but perhaps most importantly they sell the concept of normalcy. To a great extent they tell us who we are and who we should be. They lure us with messages of heroism and power, of friendship and loyalty, of desire and seduction. They also tell us stories of horror and rejection, of fear and failure. We respond to them not just with our wallets but with our hearts and our minds.

brands make impact

Nike has always strived to disrupt and bring attention to societal flaws, addressing issues of race, gender, diversity, beckoning everyone to find their inner greatness. Coca-Cola communicates a glimpse of a beautiful, harmonious world and possibilities of a better reality. Dove challenged the bloody battlefield of beauty, urging every woman to feel rightfully beautiful.

Sadly, these brands are the exception. Most brands targeting women have not been as inspiring, reinforcing age old patriarchal codes and resulting gender stereotypes. For years, most advertising to women was about finding legitimacy. The expressions of patriarchy have been neither subtle nor apologetic. The domestic goddess was put on a pedestal, evaluated, condemned or appreciated for the role she plays in running her home, supporting her husband’s success and children’s well-being. It was not unusual to shame a woman for her child not growing tall enough, or her husband’s shirt not being white enough. It was not uncommon to show a husband expressing disappointment, frustration and even anger at a household chore not done optimally. Girls were instilled with the fear of rejection from a young age – the tyranny of conforming to social norms, of beauty and behavioural choices. They were never thin enough, fair enough, well-groomed enough- and unless they complied, they were threatened with dire consequences.

The last decade has seen change. Some brands are challenging the age old prescriptions and taboos. The new narratives are bold and wander often into forbidden territories. U by Kotex boldly challenges the way a woman is labelled as having PMS if she is angry or upset, often dismissing her effectiveness in the workplace. Always’ ‘Like a girl’ campaign unapologetically makes us confront our prejudices. Ariel’s ‘Share the load’ campaign questions why men don’t play a bigger role in household chores that are mundane but necessary.

These campaigns are acclaimed and award-winning, but they remain the exception. Although the storytelling has certainly shifted and there is relief from the shackles of household drudgery, the new stories now place debilitating constraints of another kind. The emphasis on looks and hankering after ideals of unattainable perfection is stronger than ever before. Perfection has moved a few notches higher as models staring at you are the miracles of computer retouching. Brands compete with each other to surround women with these images, inducing guilt, low self-esteem and shame.

brands create power

Brands must have the courage to challenge regressive, deeply held beliefs created by centuries of dominant patriarchal societies. They must be unafraid to confront practices and norms that implicitly or explicitly erode a woman’s confidence, her sense of equality or identity.

Brand stories must show women (and men) the possibility of different truths. Truths where differences do not mean inequality, less respect, damaging stereotypes, objectification and limitations. Instead, differences create better relationships, better work places and ultimately a better society.  Great brands create powerful stories that challenge social norms, aiming to inspire women and strive for a more equal world.

Finally, these brand stories cannot just skim the top layer of society. Equality is meaningless unless it is democratic. All savvy marketers understand that to succeed in Asia, one has to resonate with the emerging consumer class. These are women in their twenties, thirties, forties and fifties. They live in the cities, towns and villages. They work at home, in the offices, in the factories and in the bazaars. They are ready for a new story.  Ready for a different truth. Ready for you.

This article was originally published in The Singapore Marketer.