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Build deeper bonds with purpose, storytelling and empathy

The great novelist Mark Twain said that the two most important days of our lives are the day that we are born and the day we find out why. The “why” is our purpose. These days you have to become both a storyteller and a purpose-maker.

During the spring I’ll share my experiences from the South by Southwest Interactive Congress (or SXSW2019) congress held recently in Austin, Texas. This time I’ll write about two of my favorite themes: purpose and empathy.

I interviewed Cheryl Miller Houser who is an award-winning documentary filmmaker from New York. She has produced and co-directed Generation Startup, a film that celebrates risk-taking, urban revitalization and diversity. She gave a speech at SXSW on Storytelling and Empathy in a Purpose-Driven Economy about how brands need to convey their purpose in a genuine and an emotionally engaging way.


A major study last year from Cone Porter Novelli revealed that 79% of Americans are more loyal to purpose-driven brands, 77% percent expect brands to have a positive impact on society and 73% are likely to share information or stories about purpose-driven brands. (2018 Cone/Porter Novelli Purpose Study)


And this isn’t just a trend in the US. The PR firm Edelman discovered the same phenomenon around the world in a study they did last year. They found that 65 percent of consumers globally are making purchasing decisions based on a brand’s values and social impact, and that’s across all age groups and income levels. (Edelman Earned Brand Study).


Companies can be the engine of positive social impact


I think we are in an entirely new brave new world of communication and advertising. Companies are communicating in ways that really move our hearts and minds. Their stories tell about their value in the world. It’s a new brave and touching way to communicate.


The cooler company Yeti made beautifully crafted short mini-docs called “Yeti Stories” about people who pursue their passions in the great outdoors.


“While the people they feature reflect their core customers, mostly hunters and fisherman, because the stories are so universal in nature, people of all demographics have fallen in love with the brand”, Cheryl Miller Houser says.


”In our purpose-driven world, brands must now figure out what their values are, then embed them in everything they do. They then must tell stories in an authentic way that conveys what their values are.”


Cheryl Miller Houser provides a storytelling methodology she developed through documentary filmmaking to foster empathy and form emotional bonds with an audience. I think brands will be able to employ her tactics to move people deeply, spur positive action and drive change.



Houser’s storytelling methodology


  1. Feature people who are relatable and express the full range of human emotion. They become your emotional vehicles. They allow your brand to be human and real. Adapting that storytelling tactic to marketing, this means: Find people who are relatable to your customers and embody your values. Take viewers on an emotional journey through their experiences.
  2. Show struggle. Casting people who are emotionally expressive and relatable is critical, but you also want to tell stories that organically elicit emotion from the people you feature. You can use the story structure of struggle and triumph to achieve this. Case: Microsoft Super Bowl Commercial 2019: We All Win 
  3. Provide uplift and a call to action. Once you have fostered empathy and moved people deeply, then provide a call to action to spur people to convert their emotions into action. Cheryl Miller Houser doesn’t just mean the call to action to purchase your products. If you’ve been successful in building an emotional connection with your audience, you will achieve that too. Create a call to action that inspires people to do something related to the values you’re conveying. This is one of the ways companies can go from just showing their values through storytelling to creating positive transformation for their customers and the wider world.

I think Nike Dream Crazier gives us a great example of uplift and call to action. Dream Crazier shows what crazy dreams can do. It spotlights on female athletes who have broken barriers, fought to be accepted as themselves and brought people together through their performance and inspired generations of athletes to chase after their dreams. The film is narrated by tennis player Serena Williams.


Show, don’t tell


One of the greatest things Cheryl Miller Houser provides in her talk in SXSW is the idea of “show, don’t tell” and her storytelling insight about thisShe recommends featuring people who your customers can relate to and then take your customers on an emotional journey through the experiences of those people. Don’t lecture at them or tell them what to think or feel.


Instead, bring them into an emotionally engaging story that makes them think and feel. If you want to include your product or services, integrate them or information about them organically in service to your story.


“If people take in information about your product or company as part of a narrative story, they will remember it better and won’t feel that they are “being sold” a product”, says Cheryl Miller Houser.


I was also inspired about how Houser talked about turning your brand into a cultural movement. She used Aerie as an example.


“Aerie has not only helped women feel good about their bodies, they have also changed how society views female beauty”, Cheryl Miller Houser says.


Creating meaning is crucial today. We should build stories that move people and spur them to take positive action like Houser has done in Generation Startup.


Houser’s closing call to action to the audience at SXSW was as uplifting as her insights and examples throughout her talk.

  • Have the courage to commit to your values and lead with them, in your actions and your marketing.
  • Tell stories that feature people who are relatable and express vulnerability.
  • Show them struggle as they reach for a goal as a way to elicit the full range of emotion from them.
  • Provide value to people beyond your products and services.
  • Provide uplift and an inspiring call to action to spur people to take action.
  • Have the courage to break with advertising convention in how you tell stories that reflect your values so they achieve the impact you want.

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