Tell me a story…
Storytelling has been part of the human experience for millennia. Now it has moved into the business arena – and compelling narrative has become an essential plank of commercial success
In 2016, visitors to Airbnb’s website found a new option called Experiences. Beyond the brand’s usual peer-to-peer accommodation offerings, the Experiences tab offered locally approved and led adventures: a trip to an underground jazz club in London’s Brixton; a “sunset silent disco” beneath San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge; and even a “laugh your way through the Louvre” tour with a Parisian stand-up comedian.
By the end of 2017, Experiences had been hailed as a success for Airbnb. Use of the feature was up 2,500 per cent and the company swiftly expanded into Adventures – featuring more extreme outings, such as island-hopping in Indonesia and a “warrior boot camp” in Kenya. But Airbnb’s successes with Experiences and Adventures went beyond merely extending users’ options. More importantly, they reinforced the brand’s story.
Cutting through the noise
In 2020, if you want to make a sale, sell. But if you want to forge a loyal, lifetime customer base, story-tell. It’s an age of information overload, and the average consumer interacts with more than 5,000 brands a year. So increasingly, in both business to consumer and business to business endeavours, the competitive advantage does not go to the best-priced offering, the superior product or the company doing the hardest sell. Instead, it often goes to the firm that can cut through noise and earn customers’ emotional investment through a story.
Traditionally, business to business marketing has focused more on facts, numbers, and outcomes, so a story that appeals to the client’s emotions, ideals or heroic aspirations can stand out even more
According to screenwriting and narrative-marketing guru Robert McKee: “Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.” And he should know – not only does he advise Pixar and other companies on storytelling, his “storynomics” sessions for business executives regularly sell out months in advance. In these sessions, McKee stresses the importance of approaching marketing as a kind of hero’s journey, in which every company’s narrative needs familiar figures: a hero, an objective, an obstacle and an action.
Consider again the seductive power of Airbnb’s story. It says: “We, and therefore you, are about connecting the world. We are united in our open-minded, adventurous, globalist identity.”
Within this story, Airbnb affirms the user’s heroic self-identity, while simultaneously defusing the insecurities and fears that a first-time user might feel. On the Stories section of its website, Airbnb features a diverse range of hosts and guests, united in their sentiment that sharing homes is good for individuals and good for the world. The overpriced hotel chains and the killjoy city legislators are the enemy. But Airbnb users – who just want to explore the world or share their own world with others – are the heroes.
In 2020, if you want to make a sale, sell. But if you want to forge a loyal, lifetime customer base, story-tell
Airbnb owns nothing it sells and had to overcome the world’s natural scepticism about staying in strangers’ homes. Yet it is estimated to be worth about $38 billion and is the undisputed behemoth in the space. But the group is not alone in using narrative and storytelling to notable ends.
Back in the 1990s, Nike stood out because it sold shoes and athletic clothing without bothering to talk about shoes and athletic clothing very much at all. Instead, it told a story about perseverance, overcoming obstacles, and believing in yourself. From a famous Michael Jordan retirement ad that played like a motivational speech (and never mentioned the brand, just showed the iconic swoosh at the end) to today, when figures such as Tiger Woods and Rafael Nadal remind us to “Just do it”, Nike has long understood that a heroic narrative earns emotional investment, and that is more important than touting sneakers’ specifications.
Departing from the norm
Other brands have created loyal customers without celebrity stories, but instead by using their own, deeply personal tales. Today, the natural beauty and bath products sector is crowded, but when Burt Shavitz and Roxanne Quimby started Burt’s Bees in 1984, the brand’s all-natural ethos was a huge departure from what everyone else was selling. The couple sold their new-fangled idea by telling an old-fashioned story. They were big-city people. She was an artist in San Francisco, he was a photographer in New York. Together, they decided to leave the rat race behind and move to the wilds of Maine, where Burt traded apartment life for an apiary. The story featured prominently on the brand’s packaging and marketing – drawing in the consumer and inviting them to make the same heroic choice: depart from the norm and choose nature, like Burt and Roxanne!
Building a community
US businesses are often associated with more extravagant and creative storytelling, but they are not alone. UK-based juice maker Innocent has pursued a similar strategy, focusing on its origins, while building a community around the narrative. As the lore goes: long, long ago, in the late 1990s, when times were simpler, three friends took £500 worth of fruit to a music festival and started selling smoothies. On their stand they set up a sign saying: “Should we quit our day jobs?” and they asked people to vote by putting their empties in bins marked “yes” and “no”. At the end of the weekend, the “yes” bin was full, so they went on to do just that. As the company grew, this story was repeated often, but its spirit was also infused in every social media post and in marketing material. Consumers knew right away: Innocent was, at its heart, “innocent” – laid back, transparent, built on camaraderie and community. This message was backed up by an authentic commitment to philanthropy. And even though the company is now 90 per cent owned by Coca-Cola, the timeline of its humble beginnings still features prominently on Innocent’s own website.
Once upon a time…
... Bradley Bergeron and Jonathan Dalton of Atlanta-based agency Thrive Thinking suggest that, when a brand starts to think about creating a narrative, the first step is a change in mindset: stop thinking that the what of your product or service is of primary importance; instead, focus on the why. Bergeron and Dalton say: “When they buy you, they are looking to buy a better version of themselves, their lives and businesses. If you know your audience, you can craft your narrative to align with their aspirations. And it all starts with the why.”
... Build a community around you. Innocent was able to do this, both by consistently participating in philanthropy and keeping its just-three-guys-at-a-musical-festival tone consistent across all packaging and social media communications. In that way, it built a fan base that was not just invested in the product, but rooting for the founders’ success (not to mention the quit-your-day-job fantasy their story represented).
... Do a gut check for authenticity. Then do it again. Crafting a narrative isn’t just pushing a relentlessly happy face on the business. It’s telling a real, human story that transparently includes nuances, and isn’t afraid to show some highs and lows or chinks in the armour. Audrey Gelman, founder of international female co-working space The Wing, was recently transparent on social media about the brand’s occasional financial struggles. In so doing, she told a greater story: how difficult it can be for women to succeed as entrepreneurs. The story of her struggle aligned with the story of the company, and The Wing’s mission to promote women’s success in business.
Putting clients front and centre
Storytelling and narrative-crafting tend to be associated with consumer-facing industries, but they can be just as relevant – if not more so – on the business to business side. Traditionally, marketing there has focused more on facts, numbers and outcomes, so a story that appeals to the client’s emotions, ideals or heroic aspirations can stand out even more.
Take Salesforce, the international software and customer-relationship management service. The group’s website includes a Trailblazer section, which highlights the personal side of businesses that have succeeded with Salesforce. This is both smart and effective. While it is fundamentally a story about Salesforce’s own successes, the section puts clients and users front and centre, as heroes of their own diverse range of stories. Salesforce helped them to overcome obstacles in their business – and can do the same for you.
Marketing is a kind of hero’s journey, in which every company’s narrative needs familiar figures: a hero, an objective, an obstacle and an action
Does the centrality of narrative and storytelling show any sign of stopping? Ed Woodcock, director of narrative at London’s Aesop Agency, says no: “It may seem faddish, but it’s not going out of fashion anytime soon. It’s just too useful.”
Missing the mark
Of course, there are challenges around crafting a genuinely useful narrative. Consistently telling the same story across multiple platforms can be a hard needle to thread, and there is a very real risk of getting it wrong along the way.
Consider the cautionary tale of a McDonald’s advertisement, where a young boy asks his mother about his deceased father. The more the mother talks about what a great man Dad was, the more the child feels as if he doesn’t measure up… until they go to McDonald’s, he orders a Filet-o-Fish and finds out it was his Dad’s favourite, too.
The advert was pulled amid widespread condemnation. In this story, it seemed as if the hero (the boy) was simply a tool to pull heartstrings; the obstacle (death of a parent) was beyond the appropriate range of McDonald’s purview, and the action – eating a fish sandwich to honour a father's legacy – was at best, laughable, at worst, tasteless. Instead of creating a heart-warming story about a family coming together over food, McDonald’s came across as manipulative and tone deaf. Of course, the fast-food chain was big enough to brush off this embarrassment, but for a smaller brand it could have been disastrous.
Looking ahead, there may well be further accidents. But these can be viewed as natural hiccups in an unfolding world of possibility. To many, rhetoric and selling points feel like relics of the past, as immersive storytelling experiences play a growing role in the corporate landscape. The shift could enrich both consumers and businesses. McKee suggests that brands that are willing to master storytelling “will plant and harvest a timeless bounty as they create the future”. That may stretch the credulity of more down-to-earth executives. More prosaically, however, today’s forward-looking storytellers have the opportunity to create a lasting connection with customers, while highlighting their credentials to all stakeholders n