I’ve always been a storyteller. If I find a new product that I like, I’ll weave the origin story, enumerate the benefits, and give the hard sell to everyone I know. I’ve always been this way — I don’t know if that’s something I learned along the way or something I was born with. I guess then that it’s logical that I became a marketer.

As a marketer, I get to discover the story behind products and relate it to people who want to hear it. That last part’s important — not all ineffective marketing is bad marketing, sometimes we just tell the story to the wrong people.

The purest distillation of effective marketing that I can muster is:

The best marketing is customer centric.

So how do we do that? How do we create customer-centric marketing campaigns?

Sell the sizzle, not the steak, as the old adage goes. A great story captivates us and takes us into its midst. It doesn’t leave us keenly aware that we’re still on the couch, listening to someone drone on about people we can’t relate to doing things we don’t understand.

When’s the last time you saw a Coke ad that told you about the product? How about Red Bull?

Stories have to be believable and dynamic. Believability scales in difficulty as the ask becomes larger. Selling a car that never needs its oil changed would be a lot more difficult than selling a pillow that promises you a great nights’ rest.

Narratives allow us to interpret products more deeply than simple advertisements. They allow us to infer other information that supports (or rejects) values and beliefs.

It’s easier for us to think about a great nights’ rest and call into mind certain characteristics of the pillow. If the pillow is going to provide me with a great nights’ rest, it must be very soft. It must be cooler on my face than other pillows too.

Most of us have experiences like these, but to have them all in one pillow, all the time would be believable — and believable is worth buying. A car that never needs its oil changed is a foreign concept. It’s hard to believe.

The next thing your narrative needs to be is dynamic. Traditional marketing lore says that the customer needs to be able to envision themselves using your product. That’s true, but for your narrative to be really effective they’ll need something else too.

Your potential customers need to be able to clearly and concisely tell others about the benefits without even having purchased the product. They need to be able to relate and adapt your narrative based on their audience. This dynamic flexibility is incredible when done well.

Stories are meant to be told. The best stories catch on like wildfire and get retold to anyone who will listen, completely independent of the originator. If every great story had to be told by the person who first spoke it, every time — stories wouldn’t be very powerful.

The same goes for your marketing — the goal is to craft a narrative that can leave its initial medium and travel the way that stories do. From person to person, bending a little each time. This is virality mixed with authenticity and salesmanship. This is the goal of narrative marketing.