Are Marketers Telling Lies or Telling Stories?

By: Beatrice O'Campo  |  February 11, 2021

By Beatrice O’Campo

That’s the question Seth Godin asks in his book “All Marketers are Liars”. (All marketing and advertising majors, keep calm: We’re storytellers). Is there a lie within that story that both us and the customers believe? Yes. Is that story absolutely essential to successful marketing? Also yes.

Let me explain.

Recently, I discovered a brand of candles called Homesick. An ad showed up on my Instagram feed declaring that Homesick made a candle for every state in America. There I was, sitting in my New York apartment and missing my home state of Alaska. I clicked on the ad and bought a $35 Alaska scented candle.

Homesick says they make candles to remind you of the memories and places you love and miss. There’s a USA candle that smells like apple pie and a New York City candle that smells like “spring days in Central Park, cement and expensive department stores.” There are scents like “Grandma’s Kitchen,” “American Summer,” “Book Club,” “Love Letters” and “Holiday Stroll.” 

Does my Alaska candle smell like “glacial water and spruce”? If you made me smell it blind, I’d say no. (Glacial water doesn’t even have a smell, and I know this from firsthand experience.) But slap a picture of Alaska on the front of the candle and give me the experience of unwrapping the custom packaging, and I’m sold. 

So sold, in fact, that I now have seven Homesick candles in different scents. My boyfriend thinks I have a problem. In reality, Homesick tells a good story, and I, the consumer, tell myself the lie: That these candles really do smell like places and times I miss, and therefore I should pay triple for them what I would pay for a similarly scented Glade candle.

Not only does Homesick tell a story, it lives and breathes that story. The packaging is luxe, unique and high quality. The website is full of soothing, nostalgic words like “love,” “family,” “childhood,” “home” and “happiness.” The candles themselves come in sleek glass containers with minimalistic labels. 

Compare this to Glade candles. You can find them in any Duane Reade. The packaging is flimsy. The labels on the front look cheap and gaudy. The scents, when you get right down to it, are probably close to identical. Does it matter to me, the erstwhile consumer? Nope.

Godin notes that as much as the consumer likes to think she is making purchases based on facts, the opposite is actually true. The consumer makes decisions based on knee jerk reactions to how a product makes her feel. Homesick candles make me feel fancy, safe, and excited. Glade candles make me feel cheap and bored. To heck with the data: I’m shelling out an extra thirty bucks.

We can see the same thing taking place everywhere. Data shows that recycling is actually more expensive and uses more greenhouse gases than just throwing all our trash away. But we fight tooth and nail to keep recycling in our cities because it makes us feel good and clean and assuages our guilt. Data shows that granola is actually full of sugar and fat, but fancy juice bars in LA sell pounds of the stuff because it’s associated with hiking, health, and a down-to-earth lifestyle. Data shows that minivans are safer and get better gas mileage than Mercedes G Wagons, but minivans have been labeled as the official car of soccer moms and the G Wagon is the car of the Kardashians. So, you guessed it: We scoff at minivans and covet G Wagons. 

All this is to say that, if you’re a marketer and you want to be great, you need to learn to tell stories. Don’t just give people the data and facts about what your product does. That isn’t enough. You need to tell them a story that will make them associate a good feeling with your product. Ben Shapiro famously said, “facts don’t care about your feelings.” In marketing, the opposite is true. The feeling is the main thing that matters.

This does not mean that we can make up stories to trick the consumer into buying our products. We need to remain ethical and authentic. Our stories should merely be a frame that the consumer views our product through. Back to the Homesick example: By itself, the Alaska candle just smells like pine. But then Homesick tells me it smells like my home. Suddenly, I smell Alaska in that candle. 

The story makes the product. More than that, it makes the product desirable. If you can figure out how to tell an authentic story about what you’re selling, you’ll do well.

(And you’ll probably get me to spend a ton of money on it.)