Reframe Pain as a Marketing Message

In the Noise of News, we talked about how watching news can become a distraction that takes us away from doing useful things while leaving us feeling worse off. Several US studies offer additional support for the idea that the more news we watch the worse off we feel. In surveys asking people about the stress they experience in their lives, some 40% suggest consuming news as a major source of life stress. What’s even worse is research that shows those watching coverage of a traumatic event suffer stronger signs of post-traumatic stress than those directly involved in the disaster. For example, a study after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing found many watching hours and hours of coverage around the event suffered worst post-traumatic stress symptoms than those witnessing and being directly involved. In a separate 2014 study, researchers found the amount of time people spent consuming news as the highest predictor of anxiety and stress. That is, more time spent watching news, the more levels of anxiety and stress reported. The news makes noise by ringing the alarm bells of our attention heightening anxiety and making us feel bad while breeding hopelessness and helplessness.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that we can craft and present stories that don’t diminish the seriousness of struggle, yet show how others have constructively faced challenge. We can choose to present positive faces of trying circumstances. These stories, too, influence the watchers. However, the impact is positive. Researchers refer to stories constructed to intentionally communicate courage in the face of challenge as restorative narratives. Restorative narratives flip the script by focusing not on the damage and destruction but the stories of courage, competence, resilience, and healing in the face of difficulty. Viewers of these stories both feel better as well as leave invigorated to face their own challenges more constructively. The courage of the positive stories carries over to viewers and motivates meaningful action instead of paralyzing passivity.

Kelly McGonigal in The Upside of Stress suggests that restorative narratives have the capacity to influence viewers positively. It’s not about ignoring the facts of a tragedy. It’s about focusing on recovery. McGonigal suggests restorative narratives seek to answer questions like, “How do communities rebuild after a disaster? How do people re-engage with their lives after tragedy? How is meaning created out of suffering?” McGonigal notes that people that read, watch, or listen to these types of stories “feel more hopeful, courageous, and inspired to create change in their own lives.” We can benefit positively by being exposed to restorative narratives. McGonigal writes, “research shows that people can find meaning in, and experience personal growth from, the traumatic experiences of others. Psychologists call this ‘vicarious resilience’ and ‘vicarious growth.’” It has been seen in the caring professions of nursing, social work, and mental health counselling. However, it likely transfers to other areas as well. Listening to how others have dealt with difficulty and tragedy helps others both feel better and cope with challenges in their own lives. The resilience of others spreads through their stories into the souls and actions of listeners of these stories.

In an Australian study, participants were asked to reflect on a difficult event they had heard about over the past two years. They were asked to recall the most traumatic thing they had heard about or been indirectly exposed to during that time. The types of experiences recounted included accidents, deaths of loved ones, some kind of crime, or miscarriage. The events didn’t happen directly to the participants but to strangers or people they knew in their community. In other words, these participants were asked to talk about a tough experience someone else had suffered. The researchers dug into these conversations to see what, if anything, participants had learned from exposure to the struggles of others. Those that reported more learning and growth themselves were those that had been best able to put themselves in the shoes of those experiencing troubles. Empathy helped those exposed to other’s suffering personalize it. The personalizing fueled learning and growth.

Exposure to the stories of others helps, but we can also help ourselves by crafting our own stories. When we’re writing restorative narratives for ourselves it’s called expressive writing. Susan Cain offers an explanation for why, writing in Bittersweet, “’Expressive writing’ encourages us to see our misfortunes not as flaws that make us unfit for worldly success (or otherworldly heaven), but as the seeds of our growth. Pennebaker found that the writers who thrived after pouring their hearts onto the page tended to use phrases such as ‘I’ve learned,’ ‘It struck me that,’ ‘I now realize,’ and ‘I understand.’ They didn’t come to enjoy their misfortunes. But they’d learned to live with insight. If you’re intrigued by the idea of expressive writing, I’d like to suggest a new daily ritual for you: Find a blank notebook. Open it up. And write something down. Draw on your bitter, or on your sweet.”

Mcgonigal observes, “We all tell stories, and the stories we choose to tell can create a culture of resilience. How do you tell the stories of your family? Your community? Your company? Your own life?” Does your business use stories? Stories can be a great tool for building culture, fostering employee engagement, reflecting and recognizing core values, as well as connecting with customers. McGonigal introduces the power of presenting stories of resilience noting what the renown children’s hospital in Tennessee, St. Jude’s, presents in its hallways. The entrance to the hospital is covered in framed pictures. The pictures are of an adult holding a picture of themselves as a child. The childhood photo was taken when they were a patient at St. Jude’s. The childhood pictures present them as patients who were suffering from the kinds of illnesses for which others are walking through the hallways to be treated. Some of the pictures are of the child with caregivers like doctors, nurses, or their parents. The fact that the patients were able to become adults and have subsequent pictures taken offer tremendous hope to those walking by. McGonigal writes, “The adults holding those photos are proof that healing is possible.” As impactful is the fact which is communicated to prospective patients that half of the survivors depicted in the hallways were so transformed by their experiences at St. Jude’s that they now work there in some way. From patient to purpose they have survived and now thrive helping others. Everyone walking by these types of images is infused with hope and comfort.

How can you consider communicating stories which showcase the core values of your business internally and externally? What is insurance other than a buffer to protect against the unexpected? Claims are about restoring insureds. At the heart of insurance is the opportunity to start again. Insurance is an essential tool to protecting people from being derailed by disruptive circumstances. The story of the Phoenix rising from the ashes to start anew is a symbol characterizing what insurance represents. It’s resilience in the face of challenge. It’s the willingness to start again. Though these difficulties may not be desired, struggle will transpire. The stories of insurance as a tool that helps overcome these obstacles have the ability to inspire. Could it be that restorative narratives could contribute to building both the culture of your business as well as its connection to customers?

What do those that enter your brokerage see? With what kind of images or stories are they presented? I’ve spent a lot of time in the reception area and hallways of insurance brokerages across the country over a number of years. The kinds of images presented are remarkably similar. Most common are plaques from the respective insurance companies the brokerage represents. Outside of these, there may be plaques from these same insurance companies representing the years for which the brokerage has offered the products of an insurer. Some brokerages will display other industry or business awards achieved. Perhaps, a framed copy of a news story that featured their business? A one page Chamber of Commerce feature. An insert from an insurance industry publication. A recognition for being nominated for a best employer of xyz region award. What stories do these types of images tell? What values to they represent? Do they reflect the resilience of staff or the commitment the business has to its customers?

Could we look to champion the stories of resilience that our customers have experienced? Do you have examples of insureds that suffered disastrous events from which insurance was a key piece that helped them recover? Can you present pictures of these insureds outside of their business holding pictures of the past pain or loss they experienced? Better yet, can you present both these kinds of pictures with a one page story connecting their crisis to the value of insurance received? Could these kinds of stories become not just what visitors see in your reception area but become the theme of marketing messages and newsletters? Could you feature one of these a quarter to your client base? Can you proactively present concrete examples of how your services were exactly what a customer needed in their deepest moment of need? Have there been natural disasters in your region? Can you present pictures of staff in your offices who volunteered to be part of clean-up efforts? Can you share their experiences with customers through newsletters? These are great methods to reflect how much it is your organization cares for those it supports. We want to be there for you when you’re in need is the message you would be communicating.

It doesn’t have to be insurance related stories. A message you may want to consider communicating is that life’s full of uncertainty. Problems befall all of us. Part of what we do is help those that are facing struggle. To this end, you could consider displaying and sharing stories of support that staff have lived in their individual lives within their family and community. You could also present these attributes as lived in the lives of your customer base. For example, you could celebrate a staff member who donated their own sick days to support the bereavement of a colleague. Struggle may be inevitable, but competition and self-interest doesn’t have to be. There are numerous examples of courage and compassion where service and support are exemplified. These may be meaningful messages which build your culture. Moreover, they can be ideals around which customer service programs can be built.

McGonigal reminds us, “There are many ways to tell stories of resilience and growth. Sometimes the storytelling is through news reports, but sometimes it is through artwork, photographs, and other images. Sometimes it is through websites, letters, or one-on-one conversations. Any organization or community can choose to share stories of growth, connection, and resilience.” We’re limited only by our creativity. It is up to us to determine what kind of message we want to communicate. We should work to cultivate, curate, and communicate those messages which will reflect our core values and showcase the level of care we have for those our organization seeks to serve.