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The Narrative Pulse: can consumers feel it?

He emerged from the metro at the L'Enfant Plaza Station and positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. By most measures, he was nondescript. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swivelled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

The Narrative Pulse: can consumers feel it?

t was the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1097 people passed by. Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good?

'Context, perception, priorities'

No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, Joshua Bell, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made – worth $3.5million. A onetime child prodigy, at 39 Joshua Bell has arrived as an internationally acclaimed virtuoso. The final haul for his 43 minutes of playing was $32.17. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities.

A virtuoso violinist, who normally commands $100 a seat in a performance barely “fills a seat” in 43 minutes of busking in a subway. The experts never foresaw how dismal the results would be. Clearly, the traditional norms of how people use context and perception in apportioning their attention have been usurped. This story illustrates how we live in a world where our attention is a prized commodity – that there is so much that competes for our attention we now hardly even notice the beauty right before us.

The Joshua Bell story also asks some pertinent questions about how people apportion their attention. The evaluation process people employ in making the decision of what gets their attention is a critical entry point. We have developed a way of scanning our perceptive world, reading the pulse of that which vies for our attention, assessing the strength and relevance of that pulse and then making a choice to remain or to shift our attention elsewhere.

Research shows that we make sense of our world through the use of narrative processing. Psychologically we process what happens in our world in sequential narrative segments – these structured sequences of imagery are the most natural way we know to describe and ascribe meaning to almost everything which happens in our lives.

If we make sense and attach meaning to our world through narrative processing perhaps the key to capturing attention lies in the extent to which our message or brand connects with a person's understanding of themselves – their own narrative. In this age of abundance the key to capturing people's attention and in engaging them with your brand, one needs to understand the role of narrative and how the role of narrative marketing creates self-brand connections.

Narrative pulse

If companies really want to maximise the power inherent in the new media, they really have to get to grips with their narrative, what it is and how their brand is informed by their narrative – the narrative pulse of their brand. This is why it is vital that marketers wanting to leverage the social web as a marketplace have to understand that they will only get people's attention by capturing the market with a compelling story – a significant narrative pulse.

The essence of the aptitude of story is: context enriched by emotion. Stories are high in concept, touch and context – it is this mixture that separates stories from all other forms of communication and it is this very characteristic that helps someone identify and find meaning in a brand.

A significant driver in creating brand loyalty are self-brand connections (SBCs). They are the key to capturing the audience's attention in a saturated social web. The strength of this connection is facilitated through the degree to which a person can integrate a brand into their self concept. Recent studies show that SBCs are created if a person is able to identify the story behind a brand and identify a similar narrative within their self-concept. This explores how humans process information in narrative chunks and how these narratives are assimilated in SBCs.

Anyone engaging in the social web as a means of connecting and engaging with consumers need to be absolutely sure what their narrative is and how best to leverage their narrative pulse.

  • Joshua Bell Experiment and story excerpts care of The Washington Post
  • About Aiden Choles

    With his background in organisational development, narrative, human resources, psychology and education, Aiden Choles works closely with companies and institutions in facilitating the connection with their employees, email him on . He writes and consults on various narrative methods, and is a contributor on the Nomadic Marketing programme at UCT Graduate School of Business.

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