The optimism challenge
Why you need to understand your audience’s reason to believe
June 17, 2014
As neuroscientist Tali Sharot outlined in a fascinating opening to Tuesday on the Cannes Palais stage, our brains deliberately suppress our ability to learn from bad experiences and discouraging information – and hugely encourage our ability to pick up on anything positive or optimistic. As a result, we have an over-enhanced faith in our own abilities, intelligence and attractiveness – and a perpetual sense that we will beat the odds. Divorce rates may stand at 40% but for newlyweds the chances of divorce are zero; two-thirds of small businesses may fail in the first five years, but very few of those starting a business consider the possibility that theirs will be one of them. It’s not just that we expect to be lucky; we believe with every inch of our being that we are exceptional.
The optimism bias works – but it also presents marketers with a dilemma. Our adamant refusal to acknowledge reality breeds success by encouraging us to put more time and effort into the things we believe in and freeing us from the stress and anxiety that can hamper and debilitate us. On the other hand, you can’t tell us anything we don’t want to believe. The trick for marketers is to understand each individual’s optimistic hopes, dreams, ambitions and motivations - and align our brand stories and messages with them.
Cannes has plenty of examples of brands, businesses and individuals who have this instinct hard-wired into their DNA.
- Google’s Nikesh Arora was greeted with applause when he showed the story of Saroo Brierly, a lost child from a Kolkota railway station who was able to track down his long-lost family years later using Google Earth – a hymn to optimism and the art of the possible.
- One of the key highlights in the Coca-Cola ‘World’s Cup’ activation introduced by Wendy Clark was the story of a blind footballer finally getting to touch the famous trophy, overcoming his own long odds.
- When asked to describe the fundamentals of storytelling, Sherlock and Downton Abbey Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton struck a similar note: “Something scary happens, you watch how the characters manage that situation and then it’s deeply satisfying when it is resolved happily – because for most of us, when bad things happen, they don’t resolve well.”
Our optimism bias is primed to respond to hopeful stories rather than to reject them on the basis of our own experience.
However Eaton also issued a warning – and one that should ring particular alarm bells given Sharot’s description of the optimism bias. “We have lost the art of conversation in storytelling,” she said.
“We are so busy thinking about the next thing we want to say that we no longer listen to how the audience is experiencing the story.”
A tin ear for audience reactions is a problem for the optimism bias. Because the type of optimism that each individual responds to isn’t so easy to predict as you might expect. We’re not optimistic about the world and the human race in general; we’re optimistic about ourselves – because we believe that we’re different.
Brand storytelling works when it aligns with our very individual vision of what matters – and what’s possible. When we’re telling brand stories, the listener needs to put themselves into the hero’s shoes.
The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, who shared the stage with Eaton, put this in moving and memorable terms:
“Stories compensate for the poverty of individual experience and the limitations of everyday existence. They include the excluded.”
To unleash the power of stories – and the power of the optimism bias – brands must attempt to understand each individual’s experience, and the aspects of life that they most yearn to be included in.
Technology has a huge role to play in this. On LinkedIn, it helps to put the conversation back into storytelling through dialogue in comments and shares, through reaching an audience in an environment where their personal motivations are close to the surface, and through providing data-rich insight on the context of each individual. And across Cannes there are plenty of other examples of brands, technology companies and agencies using data to put the focus on the individual. Clark revealed how the flag that adorned the Macarena pitch at the World Cup opening ceremony was made up of hundreds of thousands of footy fan ‘selfies’, each of whom was able to identify the exact position that their image occupied. “User context is the greatest tool for creativity,” argued Stink Digital before unveiling a wealth of personalized executions and user-generated, real-time content.
If technology can maintain brands’ focus on individuals’ own reasons to believe, then there is room for optimism indeed.