Corporate storytelling: how stories can make people fall in love with your brand and become paying customers.
Last updated: Feb 23, 20176 Comments
Would you like your business to be worth $1trillion, just like Apple?
It’d be nice, wouldn’t it?
But whilst that goal might be a little lofty, there’s no doubt that corporate storytelling could transform your business forever.
Today, I’m going to show you exactly how.
But first, why stories?
Well, let me be a little crass for a moment:
They sell because they evoke our emotions.
You see, as humans, we’re wired to love stories.
We always have done and always will do.
Stories engage our brains and make us feel things.
They shape us, motivate us and… influence us.
Storytelling is almost as old as time itself.
From hieroglyphics to newspapers, novels to movies, diaries to soap operas, stories have connected us and given us meaning for thousands of years.
Good stories can resonate for generations, cut across cultures and sweep us into imaginary worlds.
Stories are an essential component of our lives.
That’s why corporate storytelling is so huge and valuable.
And why the art of storytelling marketing has almost taken on some sort of magical, mystical persona.
Quite simply, powerful brands know what corporate storytelling can do for their bottom line.
They’re aware of what a good story can bring to a business. They do it well and, subsequently, every business now wants a piece of the action.
They all want to ‘tell a story’.
There is no greater power on this earth than story.
But there’s a huge snag:
There’s more than a big whiff of BS about storytelling.
It’s a conceptual term worthy of the great man himself, David Brent:
‘Storytelling’ has become one of those horrid overused boardroom clichés that everyone thinks they understand…
… but, in reality, few actually do.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised.
We know content marketing is huge. And we often hear of the importance of telling a good story.
But that’s normally where the ‘advice’ ends.
And if the strategy is left there, that’s not really that helpful, is it?
We’re left with a bunch of questions:
- What actually is a corporate story?
- How can we get corporate storytelling training?
- Are there corporate storytelling examples for business that can we learn from?
- How can smaller businesses embrace the art of corporate storytelling and start to leverage the emotions of their audience?
- What storytelling techniques, tips and tricks will build a brand and see profits soar?
- How can a story convert a browser into a buyer?
- Basically, how do we generally use stories in business?
So we’re stuck in the following situation:
On one side of the fence, you have a bunch of folk who are telling anyone that’s prepared to listen that storytelling is the greatest thing slice sliced bread…
… but they don’t go into specifics.
And on the other side, you have those who completely overthink this storytelling business.
They then cripple their business by either not doing it right or, worse still, not doing it at all.
However, the real shame is, storytelling is very much worth learning.
Luckily, this post is here to help.
I’m a copywriter who has worked in a couple of the UK’s biggest corporate environments.
In addition, I’ve also analysed a couple of corporate storytelling examples in great detail [including an examination of Apple and their $1trillion story].
So today I’m going to show you precisely how the big boys do it.
[And, equally importantly, why they do it.]
You see, the big, successful brands approach corporate storytelling in a particular way.
And once you know their approach and apply the tips that I’ll cover, you’ll have an identical, proven storytelling framework that you can use to create an effective story for your business.
Look, this post is going to be loooonnng.
[Over 4,500 words to be precise.]
But I’m not going to apologise, since it’s meant to be a comprehensive storytelling resource.
However, because of that, I’ve divided this article into different parts.
I’d recommend reading it all in order, but if you prefer, you can use the links below to jump straight to the section that interests you the most…
I believe that corporate storytelling can be defined very simply:
It’s just accomplished content marketing.
Content marketing with a plan, if you like.
There’s no need to polish this concept up into something fancy when it’s not.
It's pretty straightforward.
Every brand has a message [or several] that they wish to communicate.
Content marketing allows them to do so.
And if that message is contained within a story, it's much more likely that it will be noticed and remembered.
In business, storytelling is inextricably linked with content marketing. They’re simply one and the same.
I mean, what else is storytelling if it isn’t quality content marketing?
Storytelling is just using strategically using content and being a good salesperson.
It works really well for 2 reasons.
Firstly, because it taps into our natural love of stories [something I cover in section 3]. And secondly, because we've tuned out to traditional marketing methods.
Naturally, we filter out most forms of advertising, but storytelling makes a deeper impression on us.
You’re probably already telling a story in some way or another.
It’s much like how you’ve got a brand image regardless of whether you’ve thought about the appearance of your business or not.
If you’ve got a website, if you blog, pitch, tweet or email, you’re telling some sort of story whether it’s intentional or not.
So if you’re already telling a story, then the big question is:
Are you telling a good story?
Our brains are complex, powerful things and they need stories to feed off. It’s a natural, primal urge.
If I was to present you with a large block of complex text without some sort of story, only a certain part of your brain will tune in. That’s the part that translates words into meaning.
But that’s it.
And the end result is that you’d switch off… and do something else.
Stories have a different effect.
Inspiring stories make us react. It’s a proven fact; science tells us this.
[It’s all to do with neuroscience, if you want to get fancy.]
With stories, other areas of your brain get switched on, such as the areas that control desire, morality and emotion.
We can’t resist a good story, but what makes a story effective?
The obvious solution is to look at books.
[Because guess what? Contrary to popular belief, many of us still read books.]
From Mr Men, The Gruffalo and The Famous Five, through to Harry Potter, The Shining and The Da Vinci Code, great books stay with us all our lives.
So, what makes a good story?
Putting business and corporate storytelling to one side for a moment, let’s just purely think about stories in isolation.
A good story must have a number of factors. It must…
Element 1: Read well.
From a technical perspective, a good story will be written by someone a certain degree of writing ability. That means having a decent knowledge of basic grammar and punctuation.
Element 2: Have a plot.
I’ll touch on this in more detail later, but clearly a good story needs a planned structure and an agenda. Much like waffle in copy, every part of a story must have a role to play or it’s a waste of space.
A story has its purpose and its path. It must be told correctly for it to be understood.
Element 3: Have good characters.
Most good stories have a main character that readers can relate to in some way or another. They should have flaws or weaknesses that are clearly identifiable. Perfect heroes or villains aren’t conducive to invoking emotions.
Element 4: Take place in a familiar setting.
Likewise, a sense of familiarity will make a story more enjoyable. More often than not, the stories we love the most are the ones that are set in a familiar place. If that’s not possible, then the scene must be interesting at the very least.
Element 5: Have an appropriate tone and style.
The type of language used in a story should be a good fit for the target audience. A good story is written in the correct style depending on whether it’s formal or informal, for adults or for children.
Now we have a grasp of storytelling basics, it’s time to bring in the business slant and analyse what’s going on in the corporate world.
Clearly, just being able to ‘write a story’ isn’t necessarily all you’re going to need in order to generate business revenue.
Specific context is needed…
We now live in a world of unprecedented transparency.
It’s never been easier for businesses to reach customers. Thanks to technology, potential consumers are extremely accessible.
But that accessibility comes at a price…
Businesses are now under intense scrutiny.
From the way that the businesses communicate to the products we buy, customers now demand more.
Basically, modern life has forced businesses to change the way they market.
Smart brands bought into the whole brand narrative thing and can influence our behavior. Their stories are changing the way we think about their image and how well we understand their products.
A clever brand narrative can provide water cooler moments, since stores encourage conversation and interaction, which is the perfect recipe for creating a memorable brand.
But ultimately, a brand story is designed to connect a business with a customer and deepen the relationship between them.
[Obviously this relationship has the end goal of a purchase, repeat purchases and, in some cases, with the customer becoming a brand advocate.]
From a company’s vision, through to its ethos, morals and USPs, storytelling is vital for conveying a variety of messages and themes [either consciously or sub-consciously].
In terms of the message that needs to be communicated, to do corporate storytelling well, I would suggest that a message must meet 6 criteria:
Thing #1: Demand.
It should go without saying, but there must an underlying need for the product or service that you’re ultimately offering [through your story].
Thing #2: Drama.
Corporate storytelling has to be interesting. There’s no two ways about it. And to be precise, it has to be interesting to the right people - your target audience. So your message must offer the potential for drama.
Thing #3: Trust.
As with most things in business, a customer must trust the business behind the message, or the whole thing is doomed to fail from the very beginning.
Thing #4: Context.
Your target audience must be able to related to the message in order for it to evoke the emotions needed to clinch a sale. With storytelling, it’s their story, not yours. So is the crux of your message actually identifiable?
Thing #5: Simplicity.
A corporate story must be simple in nature. You can’t risk loss of meaning. As such, stick to an easy message to convey.
Consider these wise words from Henry Green:
The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.
Thing #6: Consistency.
Ah, yes. You can create the best brand narrative in the world, but if it’s out of kilter with the rest of your image, it won’t work well.
For instance, perhaps you'd like to transmit a story about how your accountancy company specialises at helping small businesses. But will someone get that message everywhere on your website?
When you need an example of corporate storytelling at its best, look at Apple.
Well, Apple is one of the top brands for storytelling, and they’ve been mastering the art of storytelling marketing for over 30 years now.
Yet the weird thing is, in terms of technology, they’re not even that inventive. They just build excitement better than any other company out there.
Think about it.
Are their gadgets really the best?
Is the iPhone significantly better than the Samsung Galaxy?
Should a MacBook really cost that much more than a normal PC?
The answers to those questions are probably ‘no’. But we buy their products anyway.
And do you know what?
We don’t really care.
Now that’s true power.
And it all comes from storytelling.
As far as digital storytelling examples go, they’re the best.
Storytelling and the launch of the iPhone 6.
Thinking about it, the launch of the iPhone 6 was pretty crazy.
The media attention was huge:
The crowds were fanatical:
Thousands of people were, quite literally, queuing through the night at various Apple stores all over the world, hammering on the doors with their wallets at the ready.
It was akin to the level of excitement you’d find in the front row of a One Direction concert or at Wembley after a last-minute winner in the FA Cup final.
If ever proof was needed that Apple have truly created a cult-like status, eh?
… you don’t create that kind of atmosphere by simply announcing that the next iPhone camera has 50% more megapixels.
Nope, they do it by forging a truly emotional connection between their brand and their consumers.
By communicating messages about their products through meaningful stories. Apple doesn't tell us a story about how a new iPhone will take better pictures, but it does hint at how we'll feel if we own one.
"Finally. The new iPhone 4."
This hints at our excitement [even if it doesn't actually exist, it builds momentum].
"Loving it is easy. That's why so many people do."
This not only implies that we'll love the iPhone 5, but also that we'll be joining some sort of exclusive club.
What's this all about? A nice, juicy hint at new technology. But has much actually changed?
All in all, it's perhaps not a story in the typical sense, but it is storytelling. Furthermore, they're creating a story that loads of people want to be part of.
[Big time. That's why folk sleep on the streets to be one of the first to lay their hands on a new Apple gadget.]
But this relationship isn’t something new and recent.
In fact, it’s a relationship that’s been nurtured.
In other words, this type of successful and influential relationship needs refining over time.
However, there’s no doubt that their story has always been good. Check out Apple’s first Macintosh commercial from 1984:
Ahead of its time, I’m sure you’ll agree.
It feels exciting. By insinuating that they’re about to release a real game-changing piece of technology, Apple is teasing us.
They’re capitalising on the opportunity…
Remember, there was no internet in 1984, and it felt like we basically relied on a Rubic’s Cube and Bullseye for entertainment.
Fast-forward to today and, on the surface, one might suggest that their ‘story’ is actually incredibly simplistic.
We, as the audience, have a problem.
We love technology, so long as it’s usable, stylish and mobile.
But most technology isn’t [or certainly never used to be]. With that in mind, the villain is all the clunky, uncool and unreliable stuff out there.
But a lot of technology companies have a similar angle. So the brilliant thing about Apple’s story is the way they tell it.
They hint at their USPs.
They build excitement.
They create suspense.
Big, brash, shouty advertising campaigns worked for Colgate in the 50s, but times have changed…
Consider when the iPod first came out.
Apple basically had a very distinct less-is-more advertising style:
They didn’t need loads of words or empty platitudes; just a clean style, a great-looking product and a very simple USP.
Other marketing collateral complimented this approach by capturing how the iPod will make you feel.
Note how the supporting copy at the bottom is succinct, yet comprehensive:
The image is simple, but nonetheless, it gives us the entire story.
Moving on to the iPhone, Steve Jobs’ introduction of the gadget in 2007 is now the stuff of marketing legend.
Jobs begins by setting context and justifying Apple’s past success.
If you watch the presentation, you’ll notice that Jobs deliberately takes an age to actually reveal what the product is.
Finally, he announces that Apple would be launching a three-in-one mobile phone that will change our lives forever.
Again, it’s a question of teasing.
He reiterates why Apple is so great, hints and what they’ve done, then…
But their story is consistent.
And not just through the company timeline and all their products.
This consistency exists in their stores, too.
When you enter an Apple store, you’re again met with slick branding.
You don’t have to squeeze past stacked shelves; all their products are nicely spread out.
You don’t see multiple promotions on posters or flyers; instead there’s a confident, minimalistic feel to everything.
You’re not hit with a sales pitch as soon as you set foot inside; instead you’re encouraged to have a pressure-free play with anything you like.
Okay, so let's assume that you've got a brand message that you want to communicate.
When creating your own corporate story, then the easiest template to use is the monomyth model story structure.
The monomyth is a pattern of narrative identified by the American scholar Joseph Campbell.
It’s perhaps more classically known as the hero’s journey.
Traditionally, there are 12 steps in the hero’s journey.
I’m going to go through them all, but there’s something crucial thing to remember:
In a business context, your story doesn’t have to include all 12 steps.
Like Apple and their story, you could just use a couple.
1. Ordinary World
This is the where we first learn that the hero exists. It’s before the story begins, and they’re oblivious of 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 allows us to identify and empathise with our hero.
2. Call to adventure
Something 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.
3. 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.
Again, as humans, we hate change too, so this helps us bond with the reluctant hero.
4. Meeting the mentor
So in order for things to progress, the hero needs help: a mentor.
This could be wise advice, training, equipment, courage, strength… whatever.
5. Crossing the threshold
The hero is now ready.
They commit to the journey and there is no turning back.
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.
7. Approach to the inmost cave
There must be a particular place wherein lies a particularly terrifying danger, or some sort of hazardous inner conflict that the hero has not yet had to face.
Final preparations must be make before taking that final leap into the unknown. Old fears may briefly resurface, but they are nevertheless overcome.
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.
The enemy has been defeated.
The hero is transformed and gets the reward.
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.
This is the climax. There is usually one last test where the Hero must have his final and most dangerous flirtation with death.
12. Return with the elixir
This is the last stage of the hero’s journey, where he returns to his ordinary world completely changed.
The monomyth story structure and corporate storytelling.
The whole point of the monomyth story structure is that it’s conducive for creating a relatable story.
That’s why, typically, this tactic for plot and character development is most commonly associated with movies.
In Star Wars, for instance, we have Luke Skywalker.
Despite Star Wards being set “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” his character is extremely identifiable.
He is a farm boy from a poor family, but through a combination of training and destiny, eventually saves the universe.
The different settings [Hoth, Death Star etc] aren't really relevant. It's his journey that's more important.
Quite the hero indeed; arguably the biggest film hero of all time.
Star Wars might be pure sci-fi, but Luke is very human and very real.
What's more, his transformation is one we all want to make.
But the beauty of the monomyth story structure is that, as long as you have a dash of creativity, it’s infinitely repeatable.
Think of the rise, fall and rise again of Maximus in Gladiator:
Or the dozens of heroes in Pixar films, such as Lightning McQueen [Cars] or Woody [Toy Story].
I could go on [but won’t].
And it’s fairly easy to see how elements of this 12-step journey can easily be applied to a corporate story.
It’s all a question of interpretation.
With Apple, the hero could actually be us.
We start off living in a world where we have to lug around cumbersome telephones, clucky cameras and huge computers.
Then we set off on a journey where we discover the iPhone.
Once we see how we can make calls, listen to music and take pictures with a wafer-thin device that only weighs about 100g.
Having experienced this journey, we’re changed.
We’re no longer the same.
Now, we live in a world where we expect more.
Of course, this is a matter of interpretation.
There are lots of other different angles you could argue.
But if you’re struggling to come up with a brand story for your business, this story structure is a great starting place.
Continuing on a theme, when you think of corporate stories, these days, we often think of video.
As a copywriter it might pain me to say it, but visual messages are often more impactful than written ones.
I guess it depends on the audience – we all like to consume content [and they very shareable too, so they stand a solid chance of going viral].
But with the growth of YouTube and the SEO benefits of video, it’s easy to see why videos are a must-have in any marketing arsenal.
However, before you reach for the record button, there’s something you should know.
Whilst you can certainly create a story in a video in the traditional sense, it’s worth stressing that, for most businesses, videos are used to enhance a corporate story.
In other words, they can’t be relied upon to tell an entire story.
I spoke to Steve Sait, video expert and founder of Chachoo.
Here’s what he said:
In general, video alone isn’t the answer for most entrepreneurs. It’s just one element. The rest of the marketing strategy must be set up and working properly in order for videos to achieve any lofty goals.
Steve also added:
We also need to differentiate between video and storytelling. Whilst video does tell a story and, indeed, can tell a standalone story, it still needs other strands.
If it doesn’t, a video remains just a film.
Corporate storytelling examples.
Check out one of Steve’s videos below:
The video was for Milwaukee, the electric tool company.
They needed a video to help them promote their new battery.
They wanted some marketing collateral that would emphasise the features and quality of the addition.
I’m sure you’d agree that the video is on brand, whilst the motion graphics not only illustrate the USPs well, but they also look nice and professional.
Overall, it’s a quality production that transmits instant credibility.
But let me remind you of the reason why they approached Steve:
They needed a video to help them promote their new battery.
The key word here is help.
Milwaukee isn’t relying on video.
It’s an addition.
It’s another tool.
The point of this video is to enhance a story that’s being told elsewhere.
If you’re thinking of creating a video for your business, Steve advises that you:
- Understand your target audience.
- Create a consistent marketing strategy across your business.
- Devise a distribution plan so that the video can get seen and shared.
It’s only with these 3 points in place that a video can have the desired effect.
So as you can see from this post and from examining examples like Apple, there are a bunch of storytelling techniques and tricks at play.
These are lessons that you can learn from that will help you create a winning brand story for your business.
Your first job is to decide on the key underlying message that you want to market. Then, take heed of these corporate storytelling tips.
In no particular order, here are the 13 most important pieces of storytelling advice:
Lesson 1: How you tell your story is vital.
Lesson 2: Your story doesn’t have to be unique.
Lesson 3: Keep your story consistent.
Lesson 4: It’s important to have a story with a hook.
Lesson 5: Your marketing campaigns should build anticipation and tease.
Lesson 6: People don’t buy the ‘what’; they buy the ‘why’.
Lesson 7: Your story should have ‘edge of the seat’ qualities.
Lesson 8: Your story must relate to the desires of your target audience.
Lesson 9: Your story should be relatively quick and simple.
Lesson 10: Be transparent, authentic and honest.
Lesson 11: Make sure your story has all the elements mentioned in section 3.
Lesson 12: Ensure your story meets all the criteria in section 5.
Lesson 13: Be memorable...
... as the great Rudyard Kipling once said:
If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.
No matter how good a storyteller you are, there’s something that will nullify your success right from the get-go.
Want to know what it is?
It’s being irrelevant.
When creating your brand story, if you do nothing else, make sure that your story appeals to your audience.
Spend some time profiling your customers; it'll pay off big time.
Now you’ve got everything you need to create a brand story for your own business.
Stodgy brands are for losers.
Interesting, vibrant and engaging companies are for winners.
Even The Economist is embracing storytelling in an effort to get closer to its customers. If they can do it, so can the rest of us.
Storytelling is why you remember some ads and forget others.
Why you love some brands and hate others.
Why you buy from some shops, but avoid others.
It’s the future.
It’s your future.
You’ve seen the power of corporate storytelling.
You’ve seen the examples.
You have the template.
And you’ve got the writing tips.
Now, the chances are, you’re probably not a writer.
I get that.
But the good news is, you don’t have to be.
Like all things, becoming a good storyteller will take practice.
Pay attention and learn from those who know what they’re doing.
Don’t forget, as Pablo Picasso said:
Good artists copy, great artists steal.
So get going and start transforming your business into a brand. Believe it or not, that $1trillion business could be closer than you think.
I'll leave you with a quote from Philip Pullman:
After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.