Postmodern Lessons in Storytelling for Marketers

I have a feeling that some people get uneasy when they hear the word “postmodern.” They get images of paintings that are too weird to be appreciated, or artsy movies without a plot (two things I’m admittedly a little into), but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. 

Postmodernism is also a term used by philosopher Jean-François Lyotard to describe what he saw as the intellectual landscape of the late 1970s, and believe it or not, marketers can learn a lot from his depiction of this landscape. This is because postmodernism is primarily concerned with the power of narratives.

What is postmodernism?

In his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard defines postmodernism as an “incredulity toward grand narratives.” This means that in our current postmodern age, we tend to have a mistrust of the big stories we’ve been telling ourselves for generations to contextualize pretty much everything. These grand narratives can be religious, political, economic, etc., but they all effectively do the same thing, which is give events and experiences meaning.

Lyotard says that totalizing grand narratives should instead be replaced with smaller, localized narratives that preserve the diversity of human experience instead of trying to give everything meaning by means of a totalizing story.

What’s interesting is that Lyotard was considerably ahead of his time with his characterization of the postmodern condition. Today, we see that Millennials and Gen Z have largely dissociated with mainline religion and voiced skepticism toward traditional political and economic institutions. These are obviously not the people Lyotard would have been addressing in 1979.

What does the postmodern condition mean for marketing?

Lyotard’s proposed transition to localized narratives is an alternative to grand narratives. This transition is meant to preserve how rich and diverse the narratives we tell ourselves and each other are. Considering how many contemporary political and social movements are concerned with encouraging and celebrating diversity, we can assume this transition is important to younger generations.

In marketing, it’s more powerful when messages are centered around varied stories about individuals’ experiences, not appeals to grand narratives audiences may not have faith in.

For example, let’s say you’re a nonprofit that works in food security. A narrative in that context could be “together, we will end world hunger.” Though this is a noble goal, it may come across as too lofty to be realistic and could lead to skepticism among people who otherwise support ensuring food security. You could instead focus on the story of an individual whose life has been impacted by your nonprofit’s work and show how you’ve made a difference instead of just telling audiences what you plan to do.

One of the problems with grand narratives is that, though it’s usually clear what their end is, it’s always an end that hasn’t come yet. People want results, and a focus on actual stories shows results more effectively than aspirational grand narratives rooted in lofty hopes for what could happen.

Though Lyotard would likely be skeptical of somebody using his work to propose a more effective approach to marketing, marketers have a lot to learn from him. As grand narratives become less essential to the lives of younger generations, their usefulness as appeals in marketing is going to wane. 

This is worth keeping in mind when working on your next campaign: storytelling is incredibly important, but make sure you’re telling the right types of stories that share real experiences versus vague stories without a lived experience at their center.