“Why is everything so expensive?” Marge asks a store manager in an episode of The Simpsons. The manager replies, “Our product’s philosophy is that–” Marge cuts him off with, “Oh, we’re not rich enough to afford any product with its own philosophy.”
That’s brand storytelling done poorly, with the tangy aroma of pretentiousness.
When it’s done well, brand storytelling evokes customer emotions that enhance their perception of your worth. Duke Greenhill explains this in his Fast Company article, “The Real ROI of Brand Storytelling.” He cites an example of a snow globe that was bought for one US dollar. Writer Blake Butler then wrote a story about it, and the snow globe sold on eBay for fifty-nine dollars.
That’s My Story, and It’s Sticking to Me
Brand storytelling should not be read as an invitation to lie about your product. Don’t call the vinyl seating “rich Corinthian leather.” The goal is to tell the truth — while highlighting the human, emotional sides of your company or product. Okay, yeah, you might sell more cookies by saying elves baked them in a hollow tree. But most audiences want a more realistic tale.
Chip and Dan Heath explain business uses of storytelling superbly in their popular book, Made to Stick. In 2007, excited by the Heath brothers’ tips, I brought the book to my superior in the marketing department. She read it and said, “Nice idea, but you can’t use storytelling in real life. There’s nothing applicable in here.” She pictured marketing as an endless series of spec sheets and competitive matrix check boxes and pricing decisions. Granted, storytelling requires effort and imagination. You have to proactively look for ways to apply it, and reject stories that don’t interest your audience.
Is the effort of finding and telling brand stories worth it? Of course. Unlike other innovations that spruce up your brand, telling your brand story doesn’t require redesigning the logo, changing the product, buying another business, or invading a new distribution channel. Like any great fable, storytelling is conceptual — it only needs to exist as ideas in the customer’s mind. But a good idea can seal the deal:
- What is extraordinary about Toms Shoes? In my candid personal opinion, nothing. But Toms gives a pair of shoes to an underprivileged person when it sells a pair of shoes to you. Toms has built its entire brand around this powerful story, and reaped success and enviable awareness for it.
- Have you ever bought an organic or natural personal care product that didn’t really work very well, yet you bought it again? Why did you? Because you want to participate in the story of good people saving the earth.
- Haven’t you ever looked at products that seemed roughly equal, and selected one because it was made in your country? That sale was a tie, until story provided the tiebreaker.
Think You’re Boring? Think Harder
You might think that your product has no human story worth telling. But I promise you, you do have a unique, interesting story to tell. No company spontaneously generated itself, which means humans made it. Humans are story factories. Whenever we act together, we generate stories of commitment and sacrifice and conflict and failure and little deaths and resurrections. Besides, your company is still in business, right? Every purchase represents someone finding compelling value in your product.
Did your founders start the company on a dare? Did R&D fail numerous times before discovering the breakthrough that powers your product? Does your company have a statistically anomalous number of long-term employees? Is your organization the “only” or the “first” or the “longest-running” or “the underdog”? These examples may not apply, but the stories in your organization are there somewhere. You just have to look for them. Then you figure out how to tell them.
Depending upon your corporate culture, trying to get senior management to buy into brand storytelling can feel risky. Some bottom line-driven executives get squeamish as soon as you go beyond numbers, to the soft squishy humanities. But in times of limited resources for companies, storytelling costs you nothing. And customers aren’t buying your spreadsheet. They’re buying your unique value proposition, a very fancy term for “your story.” If you’re skillful, brand storytelling can turn a dollar into fifty-nine dollars.
Can it do the same for you? You’ll never know, until you try. End of story.