Successful Brands Are Built on Business Storytelling

Everybody wants to be part of a bigger story.

Written by Hal Koss
Published on Oct. 20, 2021
Successful Brands Are Built on Business Storytelling

Throughout his two decades as Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz told the company’s origin story to anyone who would listen. He wrote about it in his memoir. He recited it to Oprah. He included it in the employee onboarding process.

Tips for Business Storytelling

  • Find the right story to tell.
  • Use classic storytelling principles.
  • Rehearse the story internally.
  • Keep the story authentic.
  • Tell the story in the right places.

The story always included two major experiences. The first took place during Schultz’s childhood growing up in one of Brooklyn’s public housing projects. When Schultz was seven, his father got injured and later fired from his truck delivery driver job. Without health insurance or worker’s compensation, the family was put under financial strain. Schultz would sit under the stairwell and daydream about a better future.

The second experience came in 1983, one year after Schultz took a marketing role with a company called Starbucks, which at the time only sold coffee by the bag and didn’t have sit-down cafes. Schultz was in Italy on a business trip when he wandered into an espresso bar. Sipping from a porcelain demitasse, he couldn’t help but notice the romance of the cafe atmosphere, which buzzed with lively conversation and connection. Schultz thought there should be cafes like this in the States, that provide a “third place” between home and work. So he resolved to turn Starbucks into that type of experience.

Schultz bought out his business partners, opened a bunch of cafes designed as third places and gave his employees the benefits he wished his father had when he was a kid.

That’s the Starbucks story Schultz tells. It’s the one everyone knows. And it’s the one that helped a local coffee chain become a global giant.

Schultz made Starbucks into more than a company, he made it into a compelling narrative — one about community, conversation and care, one that people could easily remember and develop affinity for, maybe even draw inspiration from, feel a part of.

In doing this, Schultz participated in the art of business storytelling.

ReadHow Brands Wield the Power of Storytelling Marketing

 

The Reason for Business Storytelling

Stories are more easily remembered than facts. They also effectively engender empathy, connect the storytellers with listeners, move people into action and break through noise.

Rob Walker’s Significant Objects project helps illustrate how consumers respond to stories. In the early 2000s, he rounded up a bunch of random thrift store items — including a plastic banana and a used Fred Flintstone Pez dispenser — and commissioned writers to come up with elaborate, often surprising and heartfelt personal backstories to attach to them. He put the items and their descriptions on eBay. They sold for wildly high prices.

That helps to explain why brands use the power of storytelling. More than facts and figures, stories compel consumers.

Consider the story of Leon L. Bean. In 1912, the outdoorsman returned home from a hunting trip disappointed that his feet got cold and soggy. Determined to do something about it, Bean stitched together leather tops with waterproof rubber bottoms. He liked the boots he made, so he started selling them to other hunters through mail order. When Bean heard complaints from customers about the boots’ leakiness, he didn’t hesitate to give them a complete refund — despite how much money it lost him — while looking for a way to make his next batch of boots watertight to satisfy his customers.

In a 2016 paper published in California Management Review, marketing professors David Aaker and Jennifer Aaker write that the L.L. Bean story “shows a firm that has an innovation culture, a heritage around fishing and hunting (which has since been generalized to the outdoors), a commitment to quality, and a customer concern reflected in the legendary L.L. Bean ‘Guarantee of 100% Satisfaction.’”

Now, compare the L.L. Bean story with a list of facts about L.L. Bean’s signature duck boot: It’s waterproof, comfortable and comes with a money-back guarantee.

Aaker and Aaker ask in their paper: Which is more memorable? Likely to change perceptions? Persuasive? Likely to be retold? The answer should be obvious.

“[A signature story is] an intriguing, authentic, involving narrative with a strategic message that clarifies or enhances the brand, the customer relationship, the organization and/or the business strategy.”

Their paper describes the L.L. Bean story as a “signature story,” which they define as “an intriguing, authentic, involving narrative with a strategic message that clarifies or enhances the brand, the customer relationship, the organization and/or the business strategy.”

They call the signature story a strategic asset. It can be a complete, standalone story — as is the case with L.L. Bean or Starbucks — or a series of messages that orbit a central theme or story arc.

Business storytelling isn’t just about engaging customers though. It’s also a tool that can help motivate workers, convince investors and build a thriving organizational culture, said Ron Shachar, an economics PhD and novelist who teaches a business storytelling course at New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business.

Shachar believes the next wave of business and tech leaders will be storytellers.

“That’s the future,” he said. “All corporations will have to adapt.”

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Tips for Effective Business Storytelling

If you’re not sure where to start your business storytelling, consider the ideas below.

 

Find the Right Story to Tell

For some brands, a signature story can be easily spotted when looking through their own historical archives. Others may have to construct one using a little more creativity.

Some places to look for brand stories include:

Customers. They’re the ones buying and using the product. GoPro, the action camera company, is an example of a brand that centers customers in its storytelling, relying heavily on user-generated content.

Founders. Sometimes the most interesting story is one about the company’s founder and how they developed the product or service. The lore around Apple’s charismatic and visionary co-founder Steve Jobs almost certainly contributed to the company’s foothold on culture. Further, “the core values and value propositions are often apparent at the firm’s origin,” Aaker and Aaker wrote.

Employees. Stories about employees exemplifying the company’s core values goes a long way toward endearing customers and inspiring the company’s workers. Online shoe seller Zappos has long been known for its emphasis on customer service. And it often tells stories of employees providing stellar customer service, such as when an employee stayed on the line with a customer for more than 10 hours.

Heritage. Some brands leverage their endurance and innovation over time as a central part of their stories, as is the case with little-red-wagon maker Radio Flyer.

Offerings. The product or service itself can be a primary character of the story. In the case of search engine service DuckDuckGo, the story of an underdog providing a privacy-forward alternative to tech behemoths is one many find compelling.

Suppliers. The sourcing of the product’s materials takes center stage for some companies, such as clothing retailer Everlane, which endeavors to demonstrate transparency by offering details on its supply chain. Many coffee companies also emphasize the farmers who grow their beans in places like Kenya, Ethiopia and Costa Rica, rather than draw attention to the roastery itself.

Pivots. An overhaul in business strategy can become the focus of a company’s story, like when Domino’s Pizza reinvented itself in 2010, producing a commercial where it fully embraced the negative customer feedback about its pizza and vowed to turn itself around. That story energized the company: In the decade since, the pizza company’s stock price has gone from around nine dollars to about 480 dollars a share.

Whatever story a brand decides to tell, it needs to be “intriguing, authentic and involving,” Aaker and Aaker wrote.

 

Use Classic Storytelling Principles

The best way to do marketing is to have a clear message, J.J. Peterson, the chief of teaching and facilitation at StoryBrand, said. And the way to get a clear message is to understand “there are rules to story, and when you break those rules, people stop paying attention.”

Depending on whom you ask, the rules of storytelling vary. One classic example is the hero's journey, a template popularized by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

In essence, the hero’s journey describes a character who leaves their world behind, navigates the various trials and adventures of the unfamiliar world, and then returns home transformed.

StoryBrand tweaks the hero’s journey, describing story as when a character wants something, encounters a problem, meets a guide who gives them a plan and calls them to action, and then takes action, which results in avoiding failure and finding success. Under this storytelling grid, StoryBrand advocates that brands position themselves as the guide and the customer as the hero.

 

Invite Customers Into the Story

Everybody woke up today as the hero of their own story, Peterson said. So if brands are telling them stories where they (the brands) play the hero, “there are competing stories.”

“If you actually want to engage customers,” Peterson continued, “you have to invite customers into a story and say, let me tell you your story: This is what you want, these are the problems you’re experiencing, this is how we can help you, and this is what life will be like on the other side.”

“Your customer is Luke Skywalker and you are Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

Tech companies often miss this, Peterson said. They get too close to their products, which results in messaging that lists a set of features and facts. But when they do this, they inadvertently make themselves the hero of the story, a role that, in Peterson’s framework, should only be played by the customer.

“The only reason why companies exist is to overcome customers’ problems,” he added. “When you can articulate all that really well — talk about their problems and how your product features benefit them and help them overcome [their problems] — you’re going to win in the marketplace.”

Peterson put it another way: “Your customer is Luke Skywalker and you are Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

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Rehearse the Story Internally

In an article published in Harvard Business Review, Joseph Grenny, a popular speaker and author on the sociology of business, wrote that people’s feelings about their work “are only partly about the work itself. They are equally, if not more so, about how they frame their work.” 

In other words, whether someone’s job is to create presentation decks or clean windows, brew coffee or sell software, their feelings about it often boils down to how the job is framed: Do they believe they’re helping to change the world, or are they working for the weekend?

“And nothing changes frames faster than a story,” Grenny wrote.

At his company VitalSmarts’ monthly all-hands meetings, time was carved out for what they called Mission Moment — their term for an opportunity to share stories about how they saw their work making a positive impact on the people they served. Doing so helped to maintain the frame and keep employees engaged and motivated.

“If you want to convince people that the work they’re doing matters, tell them about the future that is going to happen if they’re successful.”

When Shachar teaches his students how businesses can use stories to motivate workers, he always shows them a video clip of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech. He has them break it down and examine what makes it so compelling. A big reason it’s so inspiring, Shachar said, is that King used vivid details to paint a picture of a better tomorrow that is only achievable if people work together to bring it about.

“If you want to convince people that the work they’re doing matters, tell them about the future that is going to happen if they’re successful,” Shachar said.

“And do it as Martin Luther King did — in great detail, so they can connect with it.”

 

Keep the Story Authentic

In their book The Storytelling Edge, authors Joe Lazuaskas and Shane Snow described an experiment they ran hoping to prove the power stories have in getting people to take action with their wallets.

They found two homeless signs on Google Images, one that said “Homeless, I need help,” and another that said “Mom told us to wait right here, that was 10 years ago.” They polled 3,000 people and asked which sign they would donate to if they had a dollar to give. 

Lazauskas and Snow expected the second sign — the one with the story — to handily outperform the first. But it was the first sign that got the majority (57 percent) of the vote. Many of the respondents said that, while the second sign told a story, they didn’t think the story was actually true. The first sign at least seemed authentic.

That’s when it dawned on Lazauskas and Snow: humans may be hardwired for stories, but they are also trained to reject inauthenticity.

“[D]espite all the power that stories have for good, a story that deceives people is likely to backfire,” they wrote. “For stories to make a powerful and lasting impact, they have to be congruent. You can’t post YouTube videos about protecting the environment while you’re dumping sewage into the river out back.”

Brand stories don’t have to be real. (Sadly, the Most Interesting Man in the World from Dos Equis beer commercials does not exist.) But they have to be true. In other words, they do have to be authentic — consistent with the company’s values, drawn from a place of genuineness and sincerity, not cynicism and phoniness.

One way to lean into authenticity is to acknowledge the perceptions of your brand. (Even if that means owning your failures, as in the case of Domino’s Pizza.)

GE’s “Owen” campaign is an example of a brand playing with consumer expectations to tell its story.

A few years ago, GE ran a television advertising campaign featuring a character named Owen. In the story, Owen lands a software developer job at GE. He’s really excited to share the news with his family and friends, but when he tells them he got a job at GE, he’s met with a wave of confused looks. They ask him: Will you be working on a factory floor, an assembly line? Their perception of GE is of an old-timey hardware manufacturer, not the innovative technology firm it is today. Owen humorously flounders trying to disabuse them of that notion.

The Owen campaign was a success — and in more ways than GE anticipated: Applications for positions in the company went up by 800 percent, said Linda Boff, GE’s chief marketing officer.

The campaign wasn’t even intended to be a recruitment tool, but the fact that it had fun playing with the assumptions people have about GE, and used them as an opportunity to discuss the new ways the company has advanced, resonated with viewers.

“Sometimes acknowledging what people think about you ... can be very disarming,” Boff said.

ReadHere’s How Word-of-Mouth Marketing Works

 

Tell the Story in the Right Places

A compelling story is only a starting point. In order to take hold, it needs to be heard by its target audiences. And to be heard, it needs to be strategically distributed through the right channels.

Internally, that often means stories should be told and retold during employee training and all-hands meetings, as well as in internal newsletters, blogs or podcasts.

Externally, storytelling distribution tactics include advertising, making media appearances, writing company blogs or books, and being active on social media, where company leaders can “build in public.”

Like Starbucks’ Howard Schultz, brand leaders should share their stories widely, consistently and with vivid detail — so that the brand’s surrounding mythology can boost its perception in the marketplace.

Maybe they’ll get to tell it on Oprah.

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