Successful companies use stories all the time in some way or another and they do it because stories connect people, elicit emotion and, quite frankly, help with sales.
As a business tactic, it’s referred to as corporate storytelling.
It’s lot harder than it seems and it's a strategy that's fraught with danger, so we’re going to reveal how big brands use stories to sell so that you can do it too.
So, like any good story, let’s start right at the beginning...
As humans, we’re hard-wired to love stories
We’re exposed to stories from an early age and this love affair with narratives continues throughout our lives. We start off with fairy tales, Mr Men books and The Gruffalo.
We move on to Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton and JK Rowling. Then it’s time for Dan Brown, Stephen King and co. And it's not all about books.
Let’s not forget comics, soap operas, newspapers, magazines and movies.
Stories are everywhere.
Whether we realise it or not, we love them because they engage our brains, evoke our emotions and make us feel things. They shape us, motivate us and influence us.
They can resonate for generations, cut across cultures and sweep us into imaginary worlds.
It’s pure neuroscience in action.
Storytelling in the business world
Businesses use stories in outward comms because they can be influential and motivating, so they help with identifying potential customers. Brands like Apple, Nike and Tesla create stories that resonate with a target audience.
Not necessarily stories in the traditional sense, but carefully curated content that is effectively saying ‘if you’re like us, step this way’.
As the adage goes, only 3% of the market is ready to buy from a business at any given stage. Well, stories help you find that 3% quicker.
The harsh reality about corporate storytelling
People are naturally sceptical.
We’re saturated with content so, perhaps now more than ever, we assume that everything we read and see is BS.
For businesses, that’s a huge problem.
When creating stories for commercial use, be careful not to trigger any alarms or spin the truth. What you see as a story, others might see as an ad. Or what you think of as a mission statement might turn out to be a target on your back.
The aim is to avoid publishing corporate content without any backbone - there are loads of examples of companies that say one thing and do another.
- Lush uses environmental causes in their marketing, but many of their products are packed with harmful preservatives.
- The Body Shop champions Fair Trade, natural ingredients but most of their goods come in plastic containers.
- Vivienne Westwood calls on consumers to buy less and links the capitalist economy to the destruction of the planet. Yet her clothes are often made from PVC and she can’t guarantee that her designs don’t contain toxic dyes.
These kinds of contradictions can be dangerous.
Ultimately, success boils down to knowledge about and awareness of your ideal customer – because whatever story you write, it’s meant for them. And, as your parents must have told you, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
Okay, so what makes a story effective?
Whether they’re used in business or not, good stories always have a few things in common. They must:
- Be unique and authentic to pique interest and generate trust
- Be based on reality to trigger engagement
- Create empathy so the audience feels compelled to take action
- Be simple enough for anyone to understand
- Have a logical structure so that readers don’t feel lost
- Be immediately relevant to your target audience
How to write a corporate story for your business
If you’d like to use corporate storytelling in your business, use what’s technically known as the monomyth story structure.
From Enid Blyton through to Star Wars, pretty much every popular story you’ve ever come across uses the same universal story template. Basically, everything revolves around what’s known as the hero’s journey.
There are 12 steps in the journey. All of them are covered below but remember that your story doesn’t have to include all 12 steps. In fact, it’s perfectly fine [and usually advisable] to just use a couple at any one time.
Step 1. The ordinary world
This is essentially scene-setting. It’s where we first learn that the hero exists.
It’s before the story really begins and the hero is oblivious to what’s going to happen. Here we find out the hero’s characteristics, morals and suchlike.
The hero is usually uneasy for some reason.
Hopefully, this is the where the groundwork is done; the work that facilitates readers to identify and empathise with our hero later on.
Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Maximus Decimus Meridius... the intro is eerily familiar.
Step 2. The call to adventure
Once the hero is established, something then shakes up the situation - either a direct threat from the outside or some sort of internal change.
The hero must now adapt in some way.
Luke is bored on his farm and the arrival of R2D2 changes everything. For Harry, it's learning that he's a wizard. For Maximus, it's the death of Marcus Aurelius.
Step 3. The refusal of the call
Initially, the hero doesn’t want to adapt. He or she fears the unknown [as we all do].
The problem he faces may seem too much to cope with. Instead, the comfort of the world he knows seems far more attractive than the what lies ahead.
As humans, we tend to hate change too, so this helps us bond with the reluctant hero.
Luke doesn't want to leave his aunt and uncle in the lurch. Harry's new world is completely foreign to him. Maximus can't accept Commodus' hand.
Step 4. Meeting the mentor
For things to progress, the hero needs help: a mentor. This could be wise advice, training, equipment, courage, strength… whatever.
Luke meets Obi Wan Kenobi. Hagrid takes Harry under his wing. Meanwhile, Maximus is reduced by Proximo.
Step 5. Crossing the threshold
The hero is now ready. They commit to the journey and there is no turning back. The focus is now on what happens next.
Luke's aunt and uncle die, so there's nothing to stay on Tatooine for. Harry is an orphan and Maximus' wife and child are killed.
They're all forced down a road.
Step 6. Tests, allies, enemies
The hero is now out of his comfort zone.
He or she is met with a variety of obstacles that they must assess and overcome. The test for the hero is working out who or what can be trusted.
Luke meets Han Solo, Harry meets schoolmates and teaches, Maximus stands shoulder-to-shoulder with other slaves.
Step 7. Approaching the inmost cave
There must be a place where a particularly terrifying danger surfaces or where the hero must face some sort of hazardous inner conflict.
Final preparations must be made before taking that final leap into the unknown. Old fears may briefly resurface, but they are nevertheless overcome.
Luke frequently doubts himself when he sees Darth Vader. Harry is scared of some of the teachers. Maximus must overcome a number of initial fights.
Step 8. Going through the ordeal
This is the ultimate physical or mental crisis that must be beaten.
Only through some sort of ‘death’ comes a form of ‘new life’. In other words, something big needs to be overcome if the hero is to prevail and live on stronger.
There is a knife-edge. Failure for the hero means either death or the knowledge that life won’t ever be the same.
Luke battles Darth Vader; Harry learns about the terrible evil that haunts the magical world; Maximus must put on a show in the Coliseum.
Step 9. Getting the reward
The enemy has been defeated. The hero is transformed and gets the reward.
When Darth Vader dies, Luke gets to hear an apology [of sorts] and this redemption gives him peace. Harry finds a purpose in life, whilst Maximus avenges the death of his family.
Step 10. The road back
It’s time for the hero to return to the world that he left some time ago. The journey is the same, but there is now a feeling of vindication or absolution.
Luke, Harry and Maximus all return to their 'normal' world at some stage, but each of them are changed forever.
Step 11. Resurrection
This is the climax. There is usually one last test where the Hero must have his final and most dangerous flirtation with death.
There are always pitfalls facing Luke, Harry and Maximus.
Step 12. Return with the elixir
This is the last stage of the hero’s journey, where he returns to his ordinary world completely changed.
Luke returns a powerful jedi. Harry does the same as a wizard. Maximus restores order for the Romans and repairs his reputation [through his own death].
A simplistic and relatable business example
Let’s move back into business model and look at Apple and the iPhone, so that you can see how to apply some lateral thinking and use a few of the above steps to create a corporate story. Apple might paint a life without an iPhone as an ordinary world.
We want to stream content faster, take better pictures and have a phone that lasts ages. When we can’t, that makes us uneasy [as the story goes]. And the hero is obviously the iPhone.
With a powerful processor, top-notch cameras and a battery that lasts ages, so it can really save the day.
When we buy the iPhone, we’re crossing the threshold before eventually returning to our world completely changed. That’s one story that Apple tells through its ads and you can see how it doesn’t cover all 12 parts.
Unleash your inner creativity
Now you know what corporate storytelling is, how powerful stories are in the business world and what purpose they serve.
You’ve even got the full storytelling template that forms the basis of pretty much every ripping yarn out there. The next thing to do is get writing. What story are you going to tell?
You're only limited by your imagination.