Storytellers for the future economy

Marcus Loh December 22, 2016 2:40 PM (UTC+8)
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Joseph Campbell, widely recognized as the originator of the hero’s journey, has done extensive research into the form and makings of mythologies. Campbell found that however disparate civilizations were from one another, one could find common themes that permeated different cultures and periods in history in the stories they told.

For example, one can draw parallelism from the Virgin Birth of legendary Greek hero, Perseus and of Roman pagan deity Mithras. Campbell refers to this particular mythology as a symbolism for the birth of the spiritual: “Heroes and demigods are born that way, as beings motivated by compassion and not mastery, sexuality or self-preservation.”

These and other common motifs could be attributed to a shared sense of consciousness among human beings, which validates the art of storytelling as a highly effective method of evoking emotions, connections and orientation from people’s innermost sanctums.

Tham Khai Meng, co-chairman of Ogilvy and Mather said: “The thing about a story is that it uses a different software system in the mind. When we listen to stories, we relax our guard, we are more trusting. Storytelling circumvents the guard dogs of logic. When our minds switch to storytelling mode, we suspend our disbelief, we believe in magic. It’s an ancient art but just as vital in the cutting-edge world of our shiny new digital toys.”

Today, brands have used storytelling to great effect, in garnering the attention of its audience, and differentiating themselves from the competition, by being perceived as more compelling figures among many other aspiring casts on the same stage.

Storytelling for brands

In the same way that beauty brand Dove has a narrative that revolves around the allure of genuine, inner beauty, technology giant IBM speaks about a “Smarter Planet” which seeks to highlight how forward-thinking leaders in business, government and civil society around the world are capturing the potential of technology to achieve economic growth, efficiency, sustainable development and societal progress.

In “What’s the big ideal”, a research paper by Ogilvy and Mather, brands that tell compelling narratives yield far greater effectiveness and business outcomes. Milward Brown’s annual ranking of brands by their valuation mirrors these findings from Ogilvy. It found that brands that appear in its BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands ranking were brands that also possess compelling narratives and consistently deliver a better financial performance than brands that are not included, thereby generating a superior return for shareholders. The study also showed that the categories that increased in value were all shaken up by challenger brands founded on a unique narrative and a meaningful proposition. These benefits present a convincing payback for brands to invest in crafting compelling narratives for themselves in mythologies that they could convincingly fulfill.

Most great stories take on common mythological elements. These include, a narrative fit for the times, a story arc (also called a hero’s journey), and well-defined roles of the protagonist, antagonist, the teacher or guide (think Obi-wan Kenobi of Star Wars or Gandalf of The Lord of the Rings), the prize, and the greater good, to name a few.

To illustrate how communication practitioners can use this framework for storytelling, I will cite an example from 2012 when I had the honor of leading a United Nations program for Singapore, in the celebration of the International Year of Co-operatives (IYC).

Re-framing Good vs. Evil

In Singapore, co-operatives (or co-ops for short), are social enterprises that are formed by like-minded individuals for the good of its members. NTUC FairPrice is one of the world’s largest supermarket retailer-co-ops. It was founded to moderate the cost of consumer essentials in 1973 to ensure that Singaporean workers did not fall prey to profiteering merchants who would jack-up the prices of these products at whim. FairPrice is a category leader, which, having found success among its members, it can today extend this same benefit to the broader community. Sceptical of FairPrice’s social mission, many people often think of the co-op as government agency. They are not; they are a privately-held co-op that is one of the better known ones among over 80 others in Singapore that also exist to fulfill various social missions for their members.

We needed a narrative that was relevant for the times, and saw that the 2008 financial crisis that wreaked havoc on so many economies, while putting so many lives in jeopardy, could serve as the burning bridge for our story. We drilled down to the root-cause of the crisis and lo and behold, we found our antagonist — which were businesses and individuals who pursued profit at all cost. On the other hand, we had a winning protagonist in the co-op model, the belief in enterprises that aspire to promote shared prosperity through the membership and ownership of these co-ops, and which by-laws in Singapore also ensure good corporate governance and service to specific communities in line with a social mission. Juxtapose these roles and you have a classic duality motif of good versus evil: The complete disregard for humanity in exchange for worldly rewards, shared happiness for all in exchange for centralized power and autocracy for the few, and warm human feelings like empathy in exchange for steel-cold rationalism.

This is a familiar motif which story has been retold throughout the ages. In the IYC, Singaporeans became engaged with virtues of the co-op model through various initiatives including, a series of children story books on co-op values, a region-wide photography contest that encouraged the public to capture images that symbolized these values, a series of commemorative postage stamps about milestones of the Singapore co-op movement, a community event that galvanized more than 15,000 co-op members at the Marina Barrage and a conference that discussed the profitable venture of socially-centred enterprises.

We were also lucky to have had the support of heroes from the co-op movement, each agreeing to play central roles in key parts of these initiatives – President Tony Tan, deputy speaker of parliament and chief executive of FairPrice, Seah Kian Peng, director of Singapore’s Institute of Policy Studies, Janadas Devan, our late President SR Nathan, and even famed Harvard Business School professor and chair of Harvard’s advanced Leadership Initiative, Rosabeth M. Kanter.

Communication in the Future Economy

The World Economic Forum (WEF) predicts that in half a decade, over 30% of skill sets that are considered important in today’s workforce will have changed.

In spite of impending transformations from the rise of automation, robotics, and pervasive connectivity, WEF believes that “creativity” will continue to be the top three skills that workers will need. It foresees that workers will need to become more creative to master and manage the plethora of advancements in new products, technologies and new way of working.

Coupled with “creativity”, WEF foresees “emotional intelligence” to be among the top 10 qualities that are needed for workers to thrive in the future economy.

The emphasis on these qualities should bring encouragement to future practitioners of the art and science of marketing and corporate communication. After all, it is in these realms of consciousness (and sub-consciousness) that the magic of mythologies and storytelling comes to life, and becomes real to the storyteller and its listeners. Campbell artfully explains: “Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth – penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words…. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.”

Marshall McLuhan, the originator of the famous phrase “the medium is the message,” described key points of change in how humans view the world and how these views were changed by the adoption of new media. McLuhan’s opinions were ahead of its time, and are widely regarded as pioneering viewpoints for communication in the digital age. Yet, howsoever rich our possessions of what Khai calls “shiny new digital toys,” or traditional analogue canvasses, the ability to craft and tell great stories is a skill set that communication professionals of the future will need to keep on honing.

Marcus Loh
Marcus Loh is one of 54 accredited practitioners of the Institute of Public Relations, Singapore (IPRS). He is currently Director of Corporate Communication for the Star Education Group, a holding company of Baring Private Equity Asia. He serves concurrently as Vice President of Marketing and Corporate Communication at one of Singapore's leading education institutions, PSB Academy. Marcus serves at various industry and academic bodies in an advisory capacity, including the IPRS membership sub-committee, the UOB-SMU Asian Enterprise Institute and MACH Advisory, a social enterprise. He has a Master of Science from Smurfit University College Dublin, and earned his second Masters degree under a government scholarship with the Singapore Management University. His views on public and international affairs have also been sought and published by media houses such as The Diplomat, The Business Times, The Straits Times, TODAY, Marketing Magazine, Digital Market Asia and Singapore Business Review.
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