Storytelling has become a guiding principle of marketing. As such, brands strive to tell compelling, inspiring tales about who they are, what they stand for and what they can do for us.
Yet it isn’t just brands that rely on this device. According to narrative psychology, storytelling is an integral part of being human. Our narratives of events and other people help us understand the world. The stories we tell about ourselves and our experiences impact our memories, behaviour and identity.
Some aspects of our biographies are more significant – and predictable – than others. So it’s not surprising that “a precisely timed advertisement, sent to a recent divorcee or new homebuyer, can change someone’s shopping patterns for years.”  But if we need to be the narrator and star character in our own life stories, what sort of role should brands be auditioning for?
Narrating our lives
“Storytelling isn’t just how we construct our identities, stories are our identities," claims John Holmes, professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo.  And according to Northwestern University’s Professor Dan McAdams, “Life stories are important parts of personality along with other parts like dispositional traits, goals and values.” 
We each engage with our capacity for storytelling to varying degrees and tell our stories in different ways. Our anecdotal accounts change with age, too. The older we get, the more thematically coherent our stories become and the more we talk about stability. Narratives of change tend to dominate younger people’s stories. 
Stories help us smooth out the decisions we have made and create something that is meaningful and sensible out of the chaos of our livesDan McAdams, professor of psychology at Northwestern University
Psychologists agree that seeing our lives as one big story is healthy and normal. “The default mode of human cognition is a narrative mode,” asserts Jonathan Adler, assistant professor of psychology at Olin College of Engineering. Furthermore, Monisha Pasupathi, professor at the University of Utah, believes that “it’s hard to be a human being and have relationships without having some version of a life story floating around.” 
Telling stories also helps us make sense of the fragmented reality of the world. “Stories help us smooth out some of the decisions we have made and create something that is meaningful and sensible out of the chaos of our lives,” explains McAdams. 
We all create a narrative thread for ourselves, from first cries to last breaths
a4gpa, Creative Commons (2010) ©
Our biographies are unique, and our life stories particular to our psychological make-up. Yet most people’s lives are punctuated with similar markers and events – leaving home, university, first house, having kids, marriage, establishing a career, retirement. As we transition into new phases, our shopping habits change. “People don’t think ‘I’m newly married, now I’m going to buy loads of stuff’. They’re just excited to be going into a new phase,” explains Carolyn Goodman, president at Goodman Marketing.  But they do buy loads of new stuff.
New homeowners in the US spend $9,700 on items for their home within 180 days of moving. Within these six months, they’ll spend more than established homeowners do in two years.  When it comes to birthdays, we’re more likely to spend money on ourselves around that time of the year than at any other period, highlighted by the fact that birthday email campaigns generate 342% more revenue than standard promotional emails. 
Yet nothing beats pregnancy and parenthood when it comes to shifts in spending. Statisticians at Target noticed that women start buying supplements such as calcium, magnesium and zinc within the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. Stocking up on scent-free soap, extra large bags of cotton wool balls and hand sanitisers indicates the due date is fast approaching.  And within the six months that follow a baby’s arrival, parents are 423% more likely to purchase a digital camera. 
People don’t think ‘I’m newly married, now I’m going to buy loads of stuff’. They’re just excited to be going into a new phaseCarolyn Goodman, president of Goodman Marketing
According to a 2012 poll conducted BabyCentre, 57% of new mothers stopped shopping at French Connection and 65% stopped shopping at Coast to reflect their new role as a parent. Meanwhile, Primark and M&S saw their popularity rise by 86% and 49% respectively. This group also said goodbye to luxury beauty brands such as Lancôme and Clarins, with 97% turning to supermarket own-brand products. Overall, 68% of women changed their shopping criteria for everything once they had a baby.  Considering this, it’s perhaps no surprise that 58% of Gen Y mums want brands to understand what matters to them as a parent. 
For life-stage marketers like Goodman, “there is nothing more two people can have in common than having kids – irrespective of age, education, wealth.” The age of those children matter, too. As part of her work for the AAA (American Automobile Association), Goodman assigned members to life stages based on whether or not they had children, the ages of those children, and if they had a significant anniversary date (suggesting marriage or cohabitation). Leveraging that data for an email campaign resulted in a 92% click-through rate. 
A new life phase is a fine time to splurge
Mark Sebastian, Creative Commons (2008) ©
Becoming the brand
Life-stage marketing involves brands making assumptions about our life stories, then trying to resonate accordingly. For instance, consider the Halifax advert for first-time-buyer mortgages that features a 30-something couple about to have a baby. But what about the way people use brands to tell their stories?
In 2010, Dr. Sharon Schembri, assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, published a study predicated on the idea that brands and organisations no longer get to dictate their story to an inert audience. Rather, we co-opt brands in order to tell our own life stories. More specifically, we use particular brands to construct particular identities. One of the study’s participants confessed that he couldn’t buy a Porsche despite being able to afford one. The reason being that his new wife wouldn’t accept him driving around in a ‘chick magnet’. He dismissed the brand in a way that was in-line with his life stage. 
Since that study, Schembri believes things have evolved further; “Consumers are now negating the organisation’s control of the story,” she says. “They have the power to suggest what the brand’s meaning is regardless of what the organisation says it is or how marketers portray it.”  In her article ‘Online brand communities: constructing and co-constructing brand culture‘, she observes: “While branding literature has recognised storytelling as a powerful strategy, the emergence of social media has shifted the consumer’s role in storytelling from passive listener to active participant in the construction and co-construction of brand meaning. Consumers as active participants share these symbolically rich stories about consumption experiences.” 
Consumers are now negating the organisation’s control of the story. They suggest what the brand’s meaning is regardless of what the organisation says it is or how marketers portray itDr. Sharon Schembri, assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
Brands that enable people to tell their own stories will be most effective at embedding themselves into people’s lives says Schembri. Behance, a networking and portfolio site for creative professionals, is one example. Schembri’s research into the platform found that members construct a self through “the sharing of biographies and personal narratives.”  Behance itself is facilitated by the online creative community, yet it simultaneously enables it.
The likes of Facebook, Twitter and eBay play a similar role. “What are these platforms without consumers consuming the brand? They’re shells without the daily ritual of consumer participation. These platforms are not only letting go of control, they’re dependent on consumer power,” says Schembri. 
Lady Gaga’s fan site Littlemonsters.com exemplifies a brand that empowers people to tell their own stories while allowing itself to be shaped by its users. It’s a storytelling space that invites fans to “gather, create, share...and most importantly, be yourself.” ‘Monster’ itself is the result of an iterative process between Lady Gaga and her fans. She developed the ‘monsters’ theme, which fans built upon by mimicking monsters at concerts and greeting each other with monster claws. Lady Gaga then adopted the claw symbol and began calling her devotees the Little Monsters. 
Fans and consumers have a greater effect on brands’ stories than ever before
Tokyo Fashion (2012) ©
Insights and opportunities
Given that most people’s lives deviate little from a standard trajectory, brands can accurately figure out how to appeal to our stage of life using the right data. Banks and financial services, for instance, are in a strong position, knowing that life’s most significant events usually engender a change in financial circumstances. NatWest Life Moments is case in point. The bank’s website offers financial advice and content based on key life moments – from buying a car to getting divorced to preparing for retirement. Its 'cost of raising a child calculator' lets mum-and-dads-to-be to get an idea of exactly how much each stage of raising a child will cost and when they should start saving.
But this standard trajectory is changing. “The major life markers – completing education, having children, living together, marrying – as the periods of time get elongated, these things are more interwoven, instead of sequenced rigidly,” saysPhilip N. Cohen, sociologist and author of The Family: Diversity, inequality and social change. “Where there used to be firm expectations for how you ordered your life in terms of these events, now the order of those things is more flexible. All that plays into the same theme of uncertainty and people feeling like there are no rules to tell them exactly how they should do things.”  Brands will have to be more flexible and adapt to their customers’ less predictable and linear life stories.
The major life markers – completing education, having children, living together, marrying – as the periods of time get elongated, these things are more interwoven, instead of sequenced rigidlyPhilip N. Cohen, sociologist and author of The Family: Diversity, inequality and social change
Goodman acknowledges that “the marketplace has allowed [marketers and advertisers] to no longer think of all consumers as traditional mom and pop figures.” Describing it as anomalous to Northern California and New York, she says: “We’re seeing this entrepreneurial thing become a new stage of life. There’s a real frenzy over coming up with the next big thing, getting into an incubator group and getting your idea funded. This group is interesting because they have no money but big aspirations. The ones that make it go from college graduate to multimillionaire in two years. And when they do, they consume like crazy. They’re perfect Tesla or Porsche targets.” 
For brands that want to secure a spot in everyone else’s life stories, Schembri argues they need to do two things – empower and enable us to tell our own stories, and stop being so controlling over their own stories. If, as narrative psychology claims, telling stories is such a big part of what it means to be human, her perspective is a cogent one. Yet it’s not just the consumer who’ll benefit from such a shift. 
“Letting go of control will bring on a new revolution in business,” she says. “When LEGO Mindstorm sold out instantly in the late 1990s, it sold to adults. LEGO was fuming because it sold to the wrong audience. However, the innovation evident in that consumer group was large step. LEGO research and development had only been able to achieve incremental innovation. The moral of the story? When brands stop dictating where they should fit into people’s life stage or identity, they’ll go to places they’ve never been before.” 
Emmajo Read is a copywriter and writer based in London. She currently contributes to Protein and DJ Magazine, has a sociology degree, and a Masters in cultural and critical studies.
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