When The Story Trumps All

When The Story Trumps All

In this opinion piece, Exponential’s head of strategy for the Asia-Pacific region, Tyler Greer, explains why Donald Trump’s campaign narrative helped him win the race to the White House.

We need to talk about narrative. As we come to terms with the US election result, it might be worth considering that one candidate projected a story which found purchase and buy-in from millions of voters, and which put that audience at the heart of it. The other really had no story outside of their own candidacy and their appropriateness for the job. Which one worked better is now one for the history books.

Tyler Greer

Pictured: Tyler Greer


Right now, the same post-vote accusations are coming from the losers as we heard following Brexit. It’s racism, it’s lack of education, it’s a failure to understand the wonderful opportunity afforded us by an integrated, open, free-market economy. Perhaps some of these accusations have merit. Certainly there were many negatives underpinning the arguments for both. But these are sub-plots to a narrative which reverberated with great effect to those who saw themselves as protagonists within it.

Say what you like about Trump – and it’s unlikely to be anything good – at least he had a story to tell. Its delivery was mostly crass, nasty and cranky, but at least it was a story. Contrast that with Clinton who, though eminently qualified for the role of president, brought almost no clear story to the race. More money, more experience, more surrogates, more famous people, more history, more qualification – Clinton was without peer as a presidential candidate. Unfortunately, she was unable to capture the belief of an electorate largely hostile to a status quo which they felt had no idea of their needs and struggles.

Eight years earlier, Clinton watched as Obama captured the imagination of the world with the narrative of hope, change, and ‘Yes we can’. It carried with it something people could believe in and be a part of. What a shame she didn’t learn from that.

Brand Trump should act to remind those of us in the media and advertising industry of the critical importance of narrative.

More often than not, the brand story around a product or service trumps, as it were, the quality of that product or service. Yet, so infatuated have we become with the channels which carry our messages, we have forgotten that it is the message itself that matters most. Having worked in ad tech for over five years, I have learned how critically important it is to use stories which people can connect with as a way of explaining what it is we do and why it matters. Simply discussing the technical aspects of data integration and machine learning is worse than dull – it acts to alienate the majority of people for whom it will be most beneficial.

Our current fixation with data and technology is dominating the way we got to market at the expense of storytelling, meaning that those who build the critical brand identities have been usurped by those who can provide the mechanisms through which to carry them. Reports from this year’s Cannes event read like a lament for a lost time, and not just for the lack of decent parties. It was an event dominated by the ad tech giants, each there to spruik their access to vast audiences rather than celebrating the stories that formed connections between audience and brand, regardless of the medium.

The data and tech game should not begin and end with ad efficiency. They are tools which can help us better understand audience behaviours and needs which can, in turn, help us build stories of relevance. Let’s not forget what we’re here to do.

Let’s face it, if you’re reading this it likely means you’re an educated, decent-salary-earning, latte-sipping, inner-city type for whom Trump (and Pauline Hanson, and Brexit, and so on) and the story that got him the presidency appears nothing more than a crude jumble of slurs and obscenities and simplistic platitudes.

But for millions of people, this story went to the heart of who they are and the world they live in. In a complex world, clear narratives which tap into audience needs matter more than ever before. It’s something that ad industry used to believe in, and it’s high time we remember that.

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