We all know that behind every great company is a great story. We are completely infatuated with stories; we love hearing them and telling them. I think it goes back to when we were kids and got to listen to a story read to us before going to bed each night. Later, we learned to read; first, it was Little Golden Books, and then series like The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Harry Potter. Everyone loves a good story.
In recent years, the trend in marketing has moved to telling your company’s story. A few years ago, marketing was about flat advertising—listing a company’s features in print and on television and radio. These ads were just an endless, and sometimes mindless, stream of what you should buy from one company over another—why Tide was a better detergent that Cheer, or why the new and improved Crest toothpaste was better than the old Crest and certainly better than Ipana. (Remember Ipana? I can still sing the jingle if you like.)
But now, in the age where content is king, we have moved over to storytelling. It’s all about your company’s story. Today, when I start with a new client, I begin by interviewing key individuals and using that interview to tell their story in fewer than 2,000 words. This story becomes the basis for their marketing messaging.
We get it! People want to hear stories, and they want to hear your story. Or do they?
I just reread a book by my favorite marketing guru Seth Godin called All Marketers Are Liars, and he has some great insights into how and why stories work. Here are some highlights from the book on what makes a great story:
- A great story is true—not because it’s factual but because it’s consistent and authentic. Consumers are too good at sniffing out inconsistencies; a marketer won’t get away with a story they just slapped together.
- Great stories make a promise. They promise fun, money, safety, or a shortcut. The promise must be bold and audacious. Very good isn’t good enough; it’s exceptional or not worth listening to.
- Great stories are trusted. Trust is the scarcest resource we have left. Consumers don’t trust the spokespeople on commercials.
- Great stories are subtle. Surprisingly, the less a marketer spells it all out, the more powerful the story becomes. Talented marketers understand that the prospect is ultimately telling themselves the lie, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions; this is far more effective than just announcing the punchline.
- Great stories happen fast. They engage the consumer the moment the story clicks into place. First impressions are far more powerful than we give them credit for. Great stories deliver the voice the consumer’s worldview was seeking, and they sync up with audience expectations. Either you are ready for what a Prius delivers, or you aren’t.
- Great stories don’t always appeal to logic, but they often appeal to our senses. People decide if they like someone after just a sniff.
- Great stories are rarely aimed at everyone. Average people are good at ignoring you. Average people have too many different points of view about life and they are satisfied, by and large. If you water down your story to appeal to everyone, it will appeal to no one.
- Great stories don’t contradict themselves. If a restaurant is in the right location but has the wrong menu, you lose.
- Great stories agree with our worldview. Great stories don’t teach people anything new. Instead, the best stories agree with what the audience already believes and makes the members of the audience feel smart and secure when reminded about how right they were in the first place.
Interesting stuff, right? It reminds me of when you meet a person for the first time, and during the conversation, you discover how many things you agree on; then, you walk away thinking about how that smart they are.
It has been proven, time and again, that a great story makes credible advertising. Often, the company with the best story wins. We have all heard them and repeated them. Remember the story of Nordstrom’s refunding a customer’s money when they returned snow tires even though the company doesn't sell snow tires, or the car company sending a technician all the way to Alaska to fix a door hinge on one of their cars?
How about when an operator at Proctor and Gamble screwed up the formula for the soap they were making and found that the soap floated? The company decided to go with it and name it Ivory—the soap that floats. And do you remember the 3M engineer who created weak glue that could not hold anything for any length of time, thus inventing Post-it Notes?
These are all great stories, but sometimes, you can’t help but wonder what came first—the product or the story?
It’s only common sense.
Dan Beaulieu is president of D.B. Management Group.