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The Unconscious Stories Consumers Tell About You

What does the future hold for your brand? The economic outlook is uncertain; marketing strategists are asking questions about Gen Z's relationship with brands; maintaining relevance and margins in a world of digital commerce is challenging.

The Workings of an Unconscious Mind
There's one unusual place you can look for clues: stories. Specifically, the stories your customers tell themselves about your brand. Everywhere your customers go, every time they look around, their mind starts telling stories about the things they see. The human brain has evolved to be a prediction machine. It predicts the consequences of each stimulus we see and every action we take – by telling stories to itself.
The stories are simple, but they have the same structure as a movie or a great novel. Something – a brand, a product, or another object – appears in the customer's life. The customer buys it, or interacts in some other way, inside their imagination. Consequences follow. Ultimately, there's a happy or a sad ending.
The kicker is: we don't know it's happening. Your customers are telling stories about you without being aware of it. Neuroscience and psychology research tells us that the conscious mind is too busy to notice these stories: there are hundreds of them going on all the time, and our mental attention is usually focused on the primary task at hand. But the stories are happening nevertheless; and when each story ends, it evokes emotions, feelings, and beliefs about the brand or product that started it. This goes beyond the 'thinking fast and slow' division of behavioral science – it's a third way of thinking, or System 3.
Examples of System 3
In one recent example we worked on, we measured the stories customers tell themselves about a major clothing retailer. These stories are about good value, but also an intense, crowded environment; about fashion and trends, but also about everyday basic staples. And the fun each customer gets from telling that story – whether the ending is happy or sad – predicts how frequently they will shop in that store.
Another project was for a leading US food brand. Their stories were about family, friends, and fun – but we found that specific branches of the story resonated more with different customer segments. Stories about neighborhood and community worked for some, while healthy eating played better in the imagination of others.
These stories matter because they go beyond the image that your brand holds today, and tell you the possible futures that are available to you. Customers don't know it, but their stories reveal the brand directions they are open to – the narratives they are giving you permission to be part of.
For FMCG brands in particular, that matters a lot. For instance, if you use the How Brands Grow framework, these stories help build the 'memory structures' that connect to your brand assets. Or if you aim to create emotional advertising, customer stories are a primary mechanism for emotions to be evoked and recalled.
If you'd like to know more about the details, you can download "Measuring the Imagination", the paper Leigh Caldwell, Founding Partner at Irrational Agency presented at ESOMAR, the global market research conference. This tells you how you can measure the stories in your customers' imagination – along with four case studies about the business impact it can bring.

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