Seinfeld is a big deal in our office right now, partly because I’m working my way through the complete series on Hulu Plus, and partly because my boss found out about me watching it and now he won’t stop quoting it to me. My second favorite side character, behind Elaine’s boyfriend David Puddy, is her boss J. Peterman, owner of the J. Peterman Catalog.
The real-life J. Peterman Company is a seller of vintage-inspired clothes and accessories, famous for telling lush stories to sell their products instead of writing traditional copy. The characters repeatedly refer to the catalog’s overwrought narratives as “mindless drivel,” but as a marketer, I find myself intrigued.
What if ecommerce sellers told stories like J. Peterman?
Check out this example of your typical cologne product description as found on eBay.
There’s nothing wrong with the description per se. It offers everything a customer reasonably needs to make a decision on a cologne. But that’s the thing: the decision becomes very reasonable. It isn’t attached to any passion. I’ve learned what the cologne smells like, but for a guy like me, those words don’t mean very much. What does tonka bean smell like? I have no emotional connection to wormwood.
Look at a similarly priced bottle of cologne sold by the J. Peterman Company.
Now that is a product description that does the selling for you. Sage even makes a repeat appearance. But the bulk of the description is given away to the narrative. The story of a traveler discovering a century-old cologne bottle in Paris and being driven by its aroma to recreate the fragrance gives the shopper more than just note details. It gives them a persona to strive for in purchasing this product. If you want to be a globetrotting, mystery solving eccentric, pick up some 1903 Vintage Cologne.
Why don’t we have more sellers doing this? We know the basics of content marketing well enough, but why don’t we go deeper with our marketing storytelling? What Elaine and her friends call drivel is more cerebral than they realize. Ecommerce sellers today should strive to tell more stories, and better stories in their product marketing.
How to tell stories that connect and convert.
There are three big takeaways from the J. Peterman example we can begin to implement into our ecommerce product marketing.
The narrative is in first person.
The J. Peterman narrative catches us at the intersection between aesthetic and product. When you purchase the cologne in the screenshot, you aren’t just buying a fragrance, you’re investing in the lifestyle promised by the story. The image of a rugged yet sophisticated urban explorer is exotic and attractive. You feel as if you are getting a glimpse into someone’s true life, a life you’re eager to become a part of.
Take a look at this example from Journeys Instagram.
In this post, Journeys said absolutely nothing about their shoes. They didn’t offer a purchase link for anything that they sell. They instead focused on marketing the lifestyle associated with their brand, in this case punk rock music. Their Made to Destroy Tour is an opportunity for them to become an influencer in the subculture that they wish to market to, and by turning over their Instagram to bands telling first-person tour stories, they get to connect with their customers in that community.
Strive to communicate the honest, first-person narratives being created by your products. Customers tend to prefer stories about real people, so deliver them. What is a Sunday afternoon shopping trip like for a young mother with her child strapped to her in your baby carrier? What’s a first day of school like for a child using your backpack?
The narrative is rich in specific details and imagery.
I understand that not all marketers are writers, and not all ecommerce sellers are marketers, so here’s a general writing tip: you can find your most broadly appealing content in the most specific details. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s true. Specific details in writing make the stories more believable, more engrossing, and more interesting for your reader. Imagine if the J. Peterman Catalog took their brilliant story and boiled it down to something more generalized. Here’s the story with all the details removed.
I was in an antique shop and saw a case. It had a cologne bottle in it. It smelled good. I had it tested and now I recreated it. The recreation smells good too. $65.
Replacing dry content with dry stories doesn’t deliver any new results. Look at this interview hosted by Urban Outfitters.
Urban Outfitters used this interview on their blog to advertise their EP-33 Wireless Turntable pictured in the photograph. The article itself is full of specific details about DJ Reesie Cup’s upbringing, the artists who inspired her to start record collecting and DJing, and the story of how she found comfort in her sexuality as the resident DJ at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, sight of the horrible shooting earlier this year.
Are potential customers of Urban Outfitters also struggling with their sexual orientation? Are they aspiring musicians with an eclectic taste in genres? Or are they just people who love collecting records and have their own personal stories of how they came to discover the hobby? By telling a specific, detail-rich story on their blog, Urban Outfitters offers entryways for their customers that are more emotionally binding than traditional copy could possibly be.
Contains exposition, a conflict, and a resolution.
All great stories, be they Shakespeare, J. Peterman, or Urban Outfitters, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the beginning, we are given our setting. The middle presents complications to the life we’ve seen created in the beginning. In the end, we see those complications resolved. In English class, you learned these concepts as the exposition, conflict, and resolution.
- Exposition – Where are we? When are we?
- Conflict – What is the problem that needs to be solved?
- Resolution – How was your brand involved in solving the problem?
My favorite example of this, and one of my favorite examples of storytelling in marketing for brands ever, is from GoPro’s YouTube channel. Check out this fireman rescue a kitten.
The exposition is a burning house. The conflict is a kitten unconscious due to smoke inhalation. The tear-jerking resolution is watching the fireman revive the kitten with a bottle of water and a tiny oxygen mask. Again, the brand doesn’t have to beat us over the head with the product plug.
They simply use the story to demonstrate their brand’s value: capturing once-in-a-lifetime moments. This story has a beginning, middle, and end, causing viewers to stay through to the conclusion of the video where GoPro gives their plug. It’s a visceral and effective story that communicates the lifestyle of the GoPro brand.
For those of us not lucky enough to come up with an instant best-seller like Elaine did when she produced the Urban Sombrero, marketing the benefits of our products will always be a part of our daily grind. A resistant and cynical consumer base is making that more difficult, but through evocative storytelling in marketing, we can nudge your customers down the ecommerce sales funnel by showing shoppers what it means to own our products.
Why just make customers when you can build communities? And that’s the deal with brand storytelling.