| Oct 28, 2022

Storytelling and the Art of Non-Coercive Marketing

To the skeptic, authenticity in marketing is an oxymoron. To the new believer, that's because the old dogmas no longer need to apply.

Success brings its own reckoning. 

For Irish writer and entrepreneur Megan Macedo, the moment came after making early headway experimenting with some more natural and less manipulative online marketing methods. It left her disoriented. She had schooled herself so thoroughly in traditional marketing hacks and silver bullets that what she was doing no longer fit.

“I had to face the question I had been avoiding for years,” she says. “Am I going to continue to be what I think I have to be according to everybody else’s rules, or was I going to step up and give the world what I have to offer?”

Macedo, now the head of her own marketing and storytelling consultancy in London, had an outpouring of support for what she had to offer. She got better clients and more sales. The effect was so disarming that she took refuge in her childhood holiday home of Dunfanaghy on the craggy northwest coast of Ireland to gain some perspective. What followed was less an epiphany than it was recognition of what she had already begun to achieve. 

“You can really be yourself in your business and your marketing and still make the money you want to make, build the community you want to build, and genuinely have an impact on people’s lives,” she says.

Macedo has since fine-tuned an artistic approach to helping clients achieve just that. She calls it “authenticity in marketing.” It requires not just self-disclosure but surrendering the false dichotomy that pits the starving artist against the money-addicted businessperson. For her, they are flip sides of the old business paradigm.

Little wonder then that Macedo has been called “the Brenè Brown of marketing.”

Excavating the Real Story

If Macedo’s language leans towards the abstract, it is by necessity. The cartographers of this new territory cannot rely on the old marketing dogmas. She concedes that the notion of authenticity in marketing and being yourself risks coming across as nebulous and flaky (“woo-woo”), but that it is because they cannot be systemized. 

Macedo says a business’s unique selling proposition (USP) is not manufactured or made up, but uncovered. She calls this excavation “the real work.” 

“Anybody who you think has a really awesome USP … it stems from everything about them, who they are as a person, what their experiences have been, their values and beliefs,” she says. “The reason it’s so strong is because it’s virtually impossible to knock off someone’s entire life experience.”

In this view, many marketers are obsessed with traffic because it’s easy to track and involves no vulnerability. “A big problem that a lot of business owners and marketers have [is] somewhere at the back of their mind there’s this belief that marketing is a little bit dirty,” she says. “It’s like, I don’t want to bombard them. I don’t want to hassle them. I don’t want to send too many emails.”

While getting people to like and trust you can help allay the stigma of direct marketing, she says, revealing your deeper motivations should not be confused with oversharing.


The Empathy Zone

Macedo uses a Venn diagram to illustrate a common misconception about maximizing market reach. In her talks, she draws two separate but overlapping circles: One made up of a business leader’s life experiences, beliefs, hopes, dreams, and fears; and one that represents their ideal customer’s worldview. Where they overlap are the values they share. She calls the almond-shaped intersection between the two circles “the empathy zone.” 

“So this zone is where you draw your marketing messages from. It’s where your USP comes from. This is where all of the being yourself stuff comes from,” she says. 

However, people often make the mistake of writing stories about themselves that stray from the empathy zone. “What they don’t get is that you tell your stories and you show yourself, but really what you’re [ideally] doing is telling your customer their own stories.”

Communicating Between the Lines

Storytelling as a marketing vehicle doesn’t shy from uncomfortable truths. A salient example is the fear that some business leaders harbor of being discovered as an imposter — waiting for that moment when a client will finally ask them to do something they are incapable of doing. 

In this instance, Macedo would craft a real story from her own life about when she felt like a fraud, but it would be like lifting a page from the client’s own diary. Without indulging in a contrived happy ending, pulling from the empathy zone fosters a deeper level of trust and relatability.

“Most bad copywriters will stop at a really kind of superficial level; they’ll stop at the problem that the product solves. But the really good ones dive deep down into the psyche of the customer,” she says. “The story’s not the important part. It’s the emotion that’s happening.” 

The Artist’s Way of Business

Macedo’s approach is in stark contrast to the direct-response copywriting technique called “twisting the knife,” or “agitating the pain”, which is designed to push the buttons of scarcity or envy, and create a sense of urgency. Non-coercive marketing does not lend itself to certainty, control, or comfort because it refuses to aggravate people’s insecurities. 

It is a kind of anti-marketing marketing. 

“It is not my job to convince anyone to do anything. It is good practice to treat people with respect and reinforce their own sense of intuition and agency,” Macedo says. “It’s not a case of be yourself in your market or apply strategies and tactics. It’s a case of be yourself in your marketing and then choose the strategies and tactics that work for you.”

Part of Macedo’s marketing includes highly personalized emails that are more like letters from a wise old friend. “At the heart of everyone’s body of work there is a defining question — an unanswerable deep-seated question that we hold subconsciously from the time it is seeded in our youth,” she writes in one recent correspondence.

“[A]longside that question is an ache. Our exploration of our defining question is our attempt to soothe the ache. And when we excavate around the ache in our work, we also begin to soothe it in others.”

This unabashedly artistic approach to business means being authentic, rather than selling authenticity, trusts the market to recognize that quality rather than having it imposed upon them. Or as Macedo puts it: “There’s a lot of surrender required in the artist paradigm. Very hard to sell, surrender. But I’m trying.”

Justin Ballis

Opinion Contributor, Strixus

Justin has 20 years' experience working in the Australian media as a production editor, and is currently interested in the intersection of mental health, psychology, trauma, and mysticism. view profile


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