Quite simply, big brands use stories to sell stuff because old-school marketing strategies don't work anymore. And as a tactic, this is known as corporate storytelling.
In years gone by, a business could rely on shouting about a list of features and use blunt force to generate revenue. They could call upon a TV commercial, a radio ad, a pull-out in a magazine, a flyer or a billboard, but the approach would generally be the same.
However, as time has gone on, more media channels have been created and made consumers more accessible than ever before. But that accessibility has come at a cost. We're now inundated with various forms of communication as a result. Basically, we can be reached whether we're at work, at home, in the car, in the gym and even when we're on the toilet, so it's harder for all these different brands to be noticed and heard.
Sharp businesses spotted the issue and adapted. They realised that they needed more creativity if they were to cut through the clutter and reach their target audience.
Stories gave them this power. They enabled companies to sell more things and to build a popular, long-lasting brand.
Well, as humans, we're hard-wired to love stories.
We’re exposed to them from an early age and our love affair with a good yarn continues throughout our lives in a variety of forms.
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 the like.
And it's not all about books, either. Let’s not forget about comics, soap operas, newspapers, magazines and movies. Even most sports have a narrative of some sort, as battles are continually won or lost on pitches and in stadiums all over the world.
Stories are everywhere.
Whether we realise what's happening or not, we love stories because they engage our brains, evoke our emotions and make us feel things. They shape us, motivate us and influence us.
Stories can resonate for generations, cut across cultures and sweep us into imaginary worlds.
It’s pure neuroscience in action.
When done right, corporate storytelling is an awesome weapon.
Logic tells us that a story can engage, entertain, inspire and influence us more than any bland advertisement could.
[Oh and by the way, remember that a company narrative also serves an internal purpose too. It brings staff together, fosters team spirit, gets people working towards the same goal, develops a cult-like spirit and encourages goal-setting behaviour.]
Here's a great example of corporate storytelling in a TV commercial from a few years ago:
For those who don't know, Robinson's is a UK company that has been making soft drinks since 1823. Now, as good as Robinson's products are and as well established as the company is, we're not talking about a particularly memorable brand here. Nevertheless, this was certainly a really popular campaign that really helped cultivate their image.
Imagine if they'd just used a boring poster with a picture of a drink. That would have been the easy option, but the two approaches would have been like night and day.
I think this example really brings home the real long-term value of storytelling. If we look past the potential for a sexy spike in product sales, we see that stories can transform the perception of a brand, increase trust and encourage customer loyalty by conveying a powerful vision, ethos, mission or set of values.
Airbnb is another example of a business that uses storytelling well.
This is a brand that focuses 100% on the customer [whether that's guests or homeowners] and uses stories to promote this fact.
Because of the variety of stories that they publish [most of which are organically generated by the Airbnb community], the idea of letting a stranger stay in your home or you staying in someone else's place suddenly doesn't seem like such a big deal.
For Airbnb, you could argue that stories underpin their entire business. They're used to transform a potential obstacle into something desirable.
Elsewhere, brands like Apple, Nike, Google and Coca-Cola have enjoyed incredible success with storytelling. They've inspired many other companies to try their luck as well, changing the way businesses communicate forever.
But hold on. Before you grab a pen to start crafting your own tale, there are a number of potential pitfalls with corporate storytelling that you should be aware of.
For starters, the story has to be honest and authentic.
Many companies have jumped onto the storytelling bandwagon and been busted with metaphorical fingers in the till.
Volkswagon cheated diesel emission tests in the US for 7 years despite advocating clean fuel.
Huawei and Samsung were caught pretending that pictures were captured with their smartphones when they were actually taken by a professional DSLR camera.
Meanwhile, Lush uses environmental causes in their marketing, but many of their products are still packed with harmful preservatives.
Just as a good story can transform a business for the better, it can also destroy a reputation in seconds.
We live in a time of unprecedented transparency. This is about brand perception and being able to withstand close scrutiny. The key lesson is, as your parents probably told you, if you've not got anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.
The next thing to note about corporate storytelling is that people have to genuinely care about your story or there's no point telling it.
I'm sure we've all seen enough trashy sales pages and shouty emails to last a lifetime, right? Thing is, the deluge of drivel has made everyone more sceptical and everything a notch harder.
And that’s a huge problem.
Unfortunately, most corporate content looks like corporate content. It's created by people who don't fully understand the art of storytelling and when that happens, the content is no longer content... it's an advert. And that's exactly what we're trying to avoid.
You might see what you've developed as a story. You might even call it a story. But everyone else doesn't. They see it as a pitch. And a boring one at that.
The goal with storytelling is to create a narrative that gives people some sort of experience. One that either doesn't resemble an ad, or one that's so enthralling that folks don't care even if they know full well that they're being sold something (like the Robinson's example).
Good stories always have a few things in common.
- Be unique and authentic to generate trust
- Be based on reality to trigger engagement
- Create empathy with the audience
- Be simple enough for anyone to understand
- Be immediately relevant to your target audience
And the last important point about corporate storytelling worth highlighting is the structure of the narrative. Stories have to flow and make sense, so I'm going to give you an easy-to-follow template.
I'd advise using what’s technically known as the monomyth story structure... and more commonly referred to as the hero's journey.
This is the most used story format. Pretty much every popular story you’ve ever come across uses the monomyth structure. It contains 12 steps and all of them are covered below, but remember that your story doesn’t have to include every single element. It’s fine to be flexible and only use a couple at any one time.
To make the concepts easy to understand, I've used the Star Wars trilogy to illustrate each step [because I think most people have seen the movies]. Then, after going through the 12 steps, I've looked at Apple's storytelling through the eyes of the monomyth structure to add a business context to all this.
Step 1: The ordinary world
This first step to story is all about setting the scene for what's to follow. It’s where we first learn that the hero exists.
The hero is usually oblivious as to what’s going to happen. And it's here where we discover the hero’s characteristics, personality and morals.
The hero is usually positioned as being uneasy for some reason. Either way, this is the where the groundwork is done. This is the bit that helps the audience to identify and empathise with our hero later on.
At the start of the first Star Wars film, Luke Skywalker is portrayed as being a good, hard-working boy. However, he's also restless and bored of life on the family farm.
Step 2. The call to adventure
Once the scene and the hero have been established, the next step revolves around something shaking up the current situation - either in the form of a direct threat from the outside or via some sort of internal change.
Regardless, it becomes apparent that the hero must now adapt in some way.
In Star Wars, Luke experiences 2 early situational changes.
There's the arrival of R2D2 [carrying Princess Leia's emotive plea for help]. Then, a little later, Luke's uncle and aunt are brutally murdered by the evil Empire, setting off a chain of events.
Step 3. The refusal of the call
Here, the hero doesn’t want to adapt. Not initially, at least. He or she fears the unknown [as we all do].
The problem the hero faces may seem too much to cope with and the comfort of the world the hero knows seems far more attractive than the uncertainty of what lies ahead.
We all tend to hate change too, so this step helps us bond with the reluctant hero.
In Star Wars, Luke doesn't believe that he has what it takes to be a Jedi at first. He doubts himself.
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.
In Star Wars, Luke obviously meets Obi Wan Kenobi, a former Jedi Knight who once trained his father. It becomes his job to guide Luke. Later, Yoda takes on that role.
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.
In Star Wars, Luke is gradually convinced that he is the only person who can help Leia. Once his uncle and aunt are killed, an irreversible decision is made.
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.
In Star Wars, Luke needs to start learning the ways of The Force. He also has to contend with many new challenges.
Step 7. Approaching the inmost cave
For step 7, we zero in on 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.
In Star Wars, Luke realises that he must confront Darth Vader. He's scared, but he knows that the meeting is inevitable. He feels that battling Vader is his destiny [before he understands why].
Step 8. Going through the ordeal
Step 8 us 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 clear tension. Failure for the hero means either death or the knowledge that life won’t ever be the same.
In Star Wars, the only way that peace will be returned to the galaxy is if Luke defeats Darth Vader. Part of him doesn't want to face his fears, but Luke knows that doing so would be for the greater good.
Step 9. Getting the reward
The enemy has been defeated. The hero is transformed and gets the reward.
Need an example?
This step is more applicable to The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke finally gets the better of Darth Vader.
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.
In Star Wars, Luke faces a new reality after each battle with Darth Vader. He won't ever be the same again.
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.
In Star Wars, it emerges that the trouble won't end with the elimination of Darth Vader. Luke has a new, additional enemy to kill off: the Emperor.
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.
Finally, at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Luke gets the better of both Darth Vader and the Emperor. He has helped restore peace to the Galaxy.
His work is done and everyone's happy. Moreover, Luke is a Jedi now. He has new skills, a new ethos and will never be the same again.
Right, so those are the 12 steps. Let’s move back into business mode and compare these steps with Apple's approach to storytelling.
Most tech companies talk about their products in very uninspiring ways. They speak about features and specs. They use jargon. They lack emotion. They struggle to convince.
On a macro level, Apple has always pledged to create stuff that'll change our lives. The setting might be us living with 100s of CDs. We're offered something different: the ability to walk around with 10,000 songs in our pocket [the iPod]. We're unsure, but eventually cross the threshold and never look back. From here on in, the idea of physically storing a library of music seems ridiculous.
On a micro level, Apple have also created a variety of compelling stories which both enhances their brand image and builds excitement around a product. Just check out Steve Jobs announcing the iPhone in 2007:
A product like the iPhone gives Apple lots of storytelling opportunities. The scene is set:
We want to stream content, play games and take high-quality pictures. We want the battery to last. Oh and ideally we don't want to be carrying around something the size of a brick.
The iPhone arrives and shakes up our world. Once again, we tentative about trusting something so innovative, but when we do make the move and buy one, everything's different. Such a narrative enables Apple to tell portions of this story at a time:
Each time they focus on a hook and leverage our emotions. Apple do a great job at marketing, but you should also check out brands like Nike, Google and Coca-Cola. They all do the same thing, but in slightly different ways.
Okay, so we're done. You now know what corporate storytelling is, why it's needed in the business world and how powerful it can be.
You’ve also got the most common and effective story template around, the one that forms the basis of pretty much every awesome tale that there's ever been told.
You can be flexible. Your story could be bold and brash or subtle. Either way, the next thing to do is get thinking.
What story are you going to tell and why?
As all good copywriters know, the truth is, you're really only limited by your imagination.
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