How many times have you heard a friend say, “I met this really interesting guy/girl at the mall (or wherever) today?” If I were to take a fair guess, it would be ‘more times than you can remember’. Now, as juicy as the follow-up conversations must have been, let’s just engage in a bit of analysis of the statement itself for the sake of posterity. Why do you think your friend found that person interesting? Could it just have been the way that person looked like, the way they dressed or even the way they moved? Umm, that couldn’t have been the reason, could it? No, these are merely cursory traits that catch our fancy and force us to steal a few extra glances (or even stare on some occasions). Real interest develops when an actual conversation is struck, when a story is shared between two people, a story that would eventually go on to become the foundation for a deeper connection, and that’s exactly how it goes down every time.
Interestingly enough, the world of business is not very different from our personal lives either in this regard. Every business owner can be the author of a story that’s deep enough to build interest in a customer’s mind. Customers relate more to businesses that have a story to narrate, stories of how they started, why they even started, of the obstacles they faced and overcame, of why their customers should trust them, and so on. It is, let’s say, the most potent way for businesses to connect to a customer, because through these stories a bond can be created, based on underlying emotions and thus leading to customer loyalty. But brand loyalty cannot be earned overnight, nor can it be manipulated with marketing gimmicks. There are hundreds of brands out in the market and everyone is offering something they claim is great for consumers. Don't be just another face in the crowd. Be a brand with a humane touch, be a brand with a story. Because nothing captures human attention more than a good story, and the art of storytelling has evidently made a comeback, and how.
Having said that however, there’s a little caveat that I would like to draw your attention towards, especially if you’re starting a new business. You see, just like you would expect someone to share a real story with you, your customers too would expect real stories from you, not concocted scripts suitable for daily soaps. You have to realise that you simply cannot fib your way to your customers’ hearts by manufacturing lies about your products, your operations or even your vision. That kind of bond is not going to last long and will break the moment the truth spills out, bringing you and your brand image down with it. If you want to build a strong connection with your customers, be honest and never mislead them for once. If this serves as a fair warning, some of the biggest names like Nestle and Johnson & Johnson have paid the price for making false claims in the past.
Why is storytelling so important?
Once you have stepped into the business world you will realize that it is intimidatingly vast and has a highly competitive environment. There will be literally hundreds of competitors popping up from every corner, pumping some serious dough to promote their products so they can have an edge over each other. Promotional activities including regular emailers and social media posts will grace the screens of every prospective buyer who may have browsed the internet for a similar product recently, much at the risk of being blocked as spam at the hands of many. As much as I would like to admit that these tactics do work to an extent, I would however like to steer away from them for now and rather talk about what is safer and works even better, with long-term results, and why you should practice it for your business.
Be you, be unique
Instead of indulging in just noisy and pompous promotions that every business usually resorts to, be unique and engage the visitors with your brand at an emotional level. Yes, buyers are primarily concerned with the price and quality of a product, but they are also curious to know more about the creators of those products. When you share your unique story with the buyers, you invariably let them in to your world and build trust through your candidness. No matter if it’s some silly anecdote from your early days as a rookie in the business world or about those failed attempts to perfect your product. Just make it simple and thought provoking, and suddenly you're not a corporation that is simply belching commodities to make money anymore. You metamorphose into a bonafide contributor that they can relate to. Your products and services may go through a sea of changes, but your story will always remain the same, and that’s what will leave an indelible imprint in your buyers’ minds.
Find your people, tune them in
Before you launch your brand into the market, armed to the teeth with the best marketing techniques money can buy, take a pause and reflect on the following. What does your brand signify in the larger scheme of things? What kind of positive change/s would your product or service bring about in the lives of your buyers? How is your product or service any different than all the others that are available in the market today? Once you have some clear answers to these questions with all conviction, share them with your audience in the form of a story that they would love to read. Your story should be strong enough to draw reactions from all quarters, thus paving the path for a bond that is more meaningful than just a buyer-seller one. Keep the channel for communication open, even take a step further and invite suggestions from your buyers on how they think you can improve your products to make their lives better. Once you start receiving responses, you will know that you have found your people, people who now believe in your story and your brand and will be loyal to it.
Connect through a common cause to drive sales
If you have spent a decent amount of time on Facebook or other social platforms, you will have come across what are known as pages and groups, with several hundreds of followers linked to them. These followers are people that share an interest in a common cause, hobby, sport, musical group or just about anything and these pages or groups are their meeting ground where they express their interest by posting stories related to it. As a business owner, you have a great opportunity to build your own community of people that you can influence with your brand. Think of this as a platform for you to prove that in some way you are making a positive contribution to society with your product or service, and that you’re not driven by mere profit. According to a report by Edelman, 67% of buyers put their trust in brands that make a positive impact in society.
Don’t hold back and pour your heart out into your story, because good stories, especially the humane kind, never go out of fashion. There will be a lot of competitors with great products, but what you will have is a great product and a great story behind its very existence. Who do you think consumers will go for? A good product with a huge list of technical specifications or a good product with all that plus a soul? No matter how cheesy or corny it may sound, people do fall for anything that has a moving storyline attached to it. Those TV soap operas don’t just run into years of anguishing seasons for nothing. It’s popular demand that brings them back again and again. Play your cards well and you will be able to immortalize your brand in your consumers’ minds too.
What kind of stories are good stories?
If you have reached till this far in the blog it means you are curious about the benefits of brand storytelling and want to know more. This is where I’m going to raise the level of excitement bit higher by sharing the secrets of a good story.
First of all, the basic tenet of a good story is authenticity and freshness. You cannot and must not wrap a lame story around your brand that doesn’t make any or much sense just to get your consumers to fall for it. British condom manufacturer Durex launched a very cheeky ad during the times of Covid19 to highlight the importance of safety measures and netizens couldn’t keep calm. Now that’s what I call a fresh and impactful story for your brand, something that’s simple to absorb and so hard-hitting at the same time, that you just can’t help but share it with others. And that’s what gets you attention plus some new consumers.
A good story makes the readers think. Your product need not always do the job it’s supposed to do and be tucked away into somebody's prefrontal cortex to sit alongside other short-term memories. More than that, your product should inspire change. Take for example Coca Cola’s 2019 Christmas ad, which was more of an appeal for people across borders to unite based on what they love about each other, instead of what divides them. It was clear, it was inspiring, and most of all, it was something that everyone would relate to, regardless of race and religion – the spirit of giving, the spirit of Christmas.
There are many brands for which companies rope in high-profile celebrities believing that it’ll lead to more sales. While the touch of glamour and entertainment does create a certain amount of excitement around the products, conversely the celebrities themselves take away most of the attention even as the products take a backseat and eventually fade out of people’s memory. Building brand awareness doesn’t necessarily require the aid of glamour and entertainment. As long as you’re pushing your brand into the market with a relatable story attached to it, be sure that you will connect with the audience.
Creating your own brand story: what you should know
Coming up with your brand story is not an easy task at all, I’ll admit that. I mean I get bogged down by writer’s block from time to time and it’s not even in the same league as this one. But if it helps, here are some tips you can follow.
Your brand is like your baby, and it will help if you look at it as such. Think of your brand as a living, breathing entity with certain qualities and you wish to introduce it to the world. This way you’ll find it much easier to create a brand story that is genuine and unique. One way of starting the story is explaining to the audience how the brand was born and what they could learn from it. Introducing a human factor to your brand somehow makes it more vulnerable and open for communication.
Sometimes, writing a story involves reaching out to people for motivation and suggestions. After all, the purpose of the story is to make an impact in their lives. So, it makes all sense when you go to those very people to hear from them what they want or what they would like to change. Make them feel like they really belong and that their feedback matters.
Just being a good storyteller isn’t enough though. You have to be a visionary if you want your brand story to reverberate through the years, perhaps even longer. Of course, that's easier said than done considering how brands, especially automobile and electronics, go through several upgrades throughout their lifetime. But therein lie the challenge and the thrill of immortalizing a brand. In order to find a middle ground between creating a story that lasts and a brand that undergoes several changes, you have to create a plot that you can develop further in the future. Something like a movie that is a setting for future sequels.
Top 5 companies that care
Now that I've laid down the reasons why you should adopt an emotive storyline for your brand and how to do it, I'd like to do a little case study of some companies that followed this principle and succeeded in it.
To present the case for South Korean automotive manufacturer Kia Motors, I’m going to use one of their story-based commercials that is also one of my favorites. In 2017 Kia gave to the world its customary annual Super Bowl ad, which featured Emmy Award winner Melissa McCarthy donning the role of an environmentally conscious and fearless heroine on a mission to save whales, rhinos and trees from impending threats. The one minute 13-second-long video created by David&Goliath (Kia’s ad agency) is aptly titled “Hero’s Journey” and has a resilient Melissa making arduous journeys to fulfil her missions, a manifestation of the very soul of Kia Niro 2017 itself, the subject of the ad. Riddled with humorous capers, the ad managed to capture the attention of the audience with its earthy tone and serious environmental message. And why not? Who doesn’t love a story with a happy ending, especially one that makes you tear up a little and think at the same time? In the words of the then Kia Motors America COO Michael Sprague, “People will go to great lengths to support the causes they are passionate about, and the Niro is a ‘smarter kind of crossover’ for those looking to go green without making sacrifices.” And in case you’re wondering where it led the automobile giant to, just look at Statista’s report on Kia's growth rate and projection for 2020. But for now, watch the video below if you haven’t yet.
The world’s biggest and most loved search engine company is also one of the most generous when it comes to providing economic opportunities. Dubbed the Google Economic Impact, this noble initiative by the American technology pioneer saw utility tools such as Google Search, Google Play and YouTube provide $385 billion worth of economic activity to over 1.4 million American businesses, non-profit organizations, publishers, creators, and developers in 2019 alone. From small-scale businesses and content creators to well established companies, there’s always some resource for everyone so they can use it to boost their business further. Besides this, Google also offers USD10,000 worth of in-kind Google Ads advertising to deserving non-profits every month, an initiative that they call Ad Grants. This grant gives deserving non-profits the perfect platform to share their cause via Google Ads so people looking to donate for a cause like theirs can reach out to them. A step in the right direction towards enriching society with humane values, Google has clearly propelled itself as a company that cares. And the resulting scenario? A jump from USD 136.36 billion in 2018 to USD 160.74 billion in 2019 in Google’s revenue according to a report by Statista.
American online (peer to peer) vacation home rental aggregator Airbnb’s founders Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia and Nathan Blecharczyk probably still consider the story of their rise to this level no less than a fairy tale. But then their fairy tale can easily go down as one of the most remarkable success stories one would hear of. Three young lads in their mid-twenties renting out an air mattress in the living room of their San Francisco apartment to afford the high rent sounds like a cliché script from some lazy Hollywood drama. But it was their story and it gave way to an idea, which in turn gave birth to a company that is valued at $26 billion today (even during Covid-19 times; down from $31bn in 2019).
It wasn’t their inspiring story however that saw them reach this stage. In 2012 when Hurricane Sandy’s fury left behind scores of homeless people on the streets, Airbnb partnered with city mayor Michael Bloomberg to launch a program through which its registered hosts offered free lodging to the victims, while it waived off fees for both renters and hosts. Fast forward to 2017 and Airbnb was at it again. This time Airbnb was offering free housing to people (including students and refugees) from seven Muslim-majority nations who were abruptly banned and thus left stranded through an executive order by President Donald Trump. It appealed to its hosts to open their doors to the refugees in need and waived its booking fees. Airbnb still has and promotes an Open Homes program, which is a community of kind-hearted and generous hosts offering free temporary housing to disaster victims, people with medical emergencies and even refugees. Airbnb’s initiatives prove that success doesn’t just come through financial calculations, but through stories that touch human lives...deeply.
Procter & Gamble (P&G)
Ohio-based global consumer goods company P&G is a household name, providing products under categories including beauty, grooming, healthcare, home care, hygiene and family care. Founded in 1837 by William Procter and James Gamble, P&G today sits on a cushy revenue throne of US$67.68 billion, while supporting 97,000 employees globally. P&G was no stranger to controversies, having soaked its feet in some serious stinkers like price fixing, animal testing and child labor. But unlike many companies that court controversies and make no efforts to change, P&G did absolve itself with an ad campaign that was powerful and at the same time uncomfortable enough to ruffle a few feathers. I’m talking of Gillette’s ‘The Best Men Can Be,’ a video-based corporate social responsibility campaign that sought to address repressive male behavior like bullying, misogyny, hyper-masculinity and sexual misconduct. Not just that, brand Gillette also promised to donate to non-profits for three years if they helped men achieve their personal best. Launched in 2019, the ad faced a lot of criticism as well as praise. There were threats of boycott, which only went on to egg CEO David S. Taylor into saying this - "the world would be a better place if my board of directors on down is represented by 50% of the women. We sell our products to more than 50% of the women." And then it followed up with another campaign titled ‘First Shave,’ which featured a trans man being taught by his father how to shave, evidently Gillette’s take on gender identity and social inclusion. Stories like these are what influence people to make a difference in society, no matter what the cost.
Levi Strauss & Co.
This one is going to make a lot of us feel proud that we are among its most avid patrons. It also makes me really glad that I could add it to my list. After all, the world’s most popular denim manufacturer also happens to be my favorite...ever since I started wearing denim that is. Born in 1853, San Francisco based Levi Strauss & Co. started off as a wholesaler in denim material until a joint patent (for rivets) with a regular buyer/tailor led them to manufacturing trousers that were sturdy enough to be worn as workwear. Serving lumberjacks to railroad workers, and most notably the cowboys from the western era, Levi’s soon become a major sensation, pushing the company further towards success. Enter the 1940s and Levi’s jeans became the official clothing of the defense forces engaged in World War II, making it a household name in America. But the tipping point of its real success story was its widespread acceptance across multiple subcultures whose most notable advocates included the working class, bikers, musicians and hippies, thus sealing its status as a global denim phenomenon.
More than a clothing brand, Levi Strauss has proved itself to be an ambassador of a clothing culture that was followed by some of the most prominent figures in global history. It therefore feels just right that their dramatic success story should transcend to brand stories that make an even deeper impact with its noble initiatives. Levi Strauss has 27 stories dedicated to sustainability that speak volumes on its commitment to environmental causes. But perhaps the most notable campaign by the company was what they called Waterless, introduced in 2011 and continues to this day as its contribution to water saving efforts.
The denim manufacturer also donated a tidy sum of $1 million to support the cause of LGBTQ and immigration rights in 2016, besides raising its voice against gun violence.
Storytelling is a strategic priority if you aim at positioning your brand over your competitors’ brands and if you have something socially impactful to share. With the technology to make yourself heard across the world instantaneously at your fingertips, there’s no better time and way to influence your audience than telling them brand stories that are both authentic and emotionally hard-hitting to take home.