Business storytelling – the good, the bad and the downright disastrous

Marketing and business communicators at the top of their game know that to tap into an audience’s emotions, there’s no better vehicle than narrative. To learn why, put the kettle on, make yourself comfy and read on.
An old typewriter with the question 'what's your story?' typed on a blank page.
MarketingStorytellingThought leadership

When neuroscientist Antonio Damasio undertook a study of individuals with brain lesions that impaired their emotional responses, he discovered something interesting. Although the individuals’ reasoning faculties were intact, all of them struggled to make any sort of decision, from the great (what to do for a living) to the small (what to make for dinner).

Every choice we make – what to buy, who to hire, who to fire, where to invest and who to borrow from – is informed, at least in part, by how we feel. That’s why when we listen to effective communicators, we’re unlikely to hear long, dry, fact-heavy lectures. What we’re likely to hear is a story.

Marketing and business communicators at the top of their game know that to tap into an audience’s emotions, there’s no better vehicle than narrative. To learn more about the importance of storytelling in business communication, put the kettle on, throw another log on the fire and gather round.

Stories light up our brains – literally

Walk past any billboard in the world and it’s easy to see how consumer brands use our emotions to get into our wallets. Feeling bad about your thighs? Try this slimming shake. Ashamed of the state of your kitchen? Buy this wonder cloth.

Most forms of business communication, however, are a bit different. After reading a letter to shareholders or a case study for a new software system, you’re unlikely to walk away feeling bad about your weight. But if it’s a good piece of writing, you should feel something.

Award-winning annual reportseffective white papers and compelling pieces of thought leadership are more subtle, but they do exactly what the billboards do. They tell stories.

Because it stimulates our emotions, narrative is the most efficient of all communication forms for getting people to understand, remember and accept new information. In fact, messages delivered as stories can be up to 22 times more memorable than when they are delivered as straight facts. When we listen to abstract, conceptual language, the only parts of our brains that light up are the language comprehension and analysis regions. But when we listen to the descriptive language in stories, our sensory cortexes come to life – we feel stories.

Stories – and the empathy they induce – release oxytocin in our bodies. It’s known as the bonding hormone, and the feelings it creates can compel us to act. In fact, economists at the Claremont Graduate University found that the levels of oxytocin released in participants watching a video about a struggling family predicted how much participants would donate to that family with 80 per cent accuracy.

Successful storytellers choose the right protagonist

When businesses tell us stories about who they are, they tend to meet success. According to Forbes, companies that articulate their own values can outperform those that don’t in stock price by a factor of 12.

But while it’s important for companies to tell their own stories, the most successful businesses deploy narrative in a far more powerful way. In the stories they tell, their target audience – whether that’s a customer or an investor – is always the hero.

Just ask the exercise company SoulCycle, with its celebrity cult following and close to 100 studios across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. “Take your journey. Change your body. Find your soul.” With this call to action, SoulCycle positions its customer at the centre of their own story and casts itself in the role of helpmeet.

Google adopted the same tactic in its Reunion video advertisement. The ad tells the story of two childhood friends separated by the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. Six decades later, both men have resigned themselves to the fact they will never meet again. But one of the men’s granddaughters has a clever idea: she uses Google to track down his long-lost friend and orchestrates a tear-jerking reunion.

With overwhelmingly positive responses and more than 15 million YouTube views since its 2013 release, the ad distributed Google’s message far and wide – telling us that the company is less a money-making entity and more a facilitator of individuals’ dreams.

Stories create brand evangelists

SoulCycle’s marketing copy keeps its role as a commercial outfit so far from the customers’ view, you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a non-profit community organisation. “Our riders share a SOUL experience,” reads its website. “We laugh, we cry, we grow – and we do it together, as a community.”

Google’s About page likewise contains little reference to its status as a for-profit business. Instead, it features an oversize banner reading, “Our mission is to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. The multinational’s other, perhaps equally important mission – to appease its shareholders – gets nary a mention.

Google’s own preoccupations are irrelevant when it’s speaking to us, its customers. “The best part about technology is seeing what the world does with it”, reads one textbox further down the page. “Dedicated to improving people’s lives”, reads another.

By positioning the consumer as the protagonist in a story, rather than as the buyer of a product – and positioning themselves as that protagonist’s trusted partner – companies like SoulCycle and Google can enmesh their brand in that consumer’s sense of self.

“Once a person believes a brand is part of who they are, then asking them to change their brand is asking them to change who they are,” Americus Reed, Professor of Marketing at the University of Pennsylvania, said on NPR recently.

As well as instilling a powerful sense of loyalty in their customers, stories like the ones Google and SoulCycle tell lead to a lot of free advertising. Within five days of its release, 665,000 Facebook users and 11,400 Twitter users had shared Google’s Reunion ad. Many of SoulCycle’s 300,000 riders are equally happy to fill the informal, unpaid role of one-person marketing departments for the exercise company. As co-founder, Julie Rice puts it: “We have never been in this to create users. We’ve always been in it to create evangelists.”

When good stories go bad

What Google and – with one major caveat – SoulCycle get right, plenty of other companies get wrong. Spectacularly wrong, in some cases.

Usually, they do this in one of two ways. The first is by misreading their target audience. When it released its Bic for Her line of pens in 2012, the world leader in stationery, lighters and shavers showed us that it understood the power of story. But the story it told didn’t resonate. Women were not, as it turned out, fed up with gender-neutral pens. So, they felt little relief at Bic’s promise of a pen grip specially adapted to women’s hands.

Unfortunately, Bic’s executives didn’t make much of an effort to try to understand their intended protagonist before they started telling her story. If they had, they might have learnt that while women have a lot of problems particular to their gender, insufficiently feminine stationery isn’t one of them. Needless to say, the line didn’t catch on – Bic for Her was mercifully discontinued at the end of 2016.

It’s important that businesses understand the people they’re trying to tell stories about. But it’s equally crucial that businesses understand themselves. Because while misreading your audience is embarrassing, misleading that audience is even worse.

In the 1980s, Chevron launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign marketing the oil company as an environmentally friendly force. But the public wouldn’t listen to the story Chevron was trying to tell. How could it, when the corporation was violating clean air and clean water acts and polluting wildlife refuges with oil spills?

Which brings us back to SoulCycle. Early in August 2019, the Washington Post reported that Stephen Ross, one of the company’s co-owners, was planning a fundraiser for President Donald Trump.

The backlash among SoulCycle’s younger, left-leaning clientele was swift, savage and revealing. “We joined this gym because it shared our values,” wrote Wilson Cruz-Echevarria, an incensed rider petitioning the company to change its policy on “We believed we were supporting a company that was inclusive, accepting and celebrating of our diversity. You have a MORAL obligation to be all of those things for your members.”

Whose story is it anyway?

Customers like Cruz-Echevarria were genuinely shocked and hurt by Ross’s actions. But was it because they were invested in the brand’s identity? Or was it because the brand was such a rich part of their identity?

When he’s trying to explain the role emotions play in consumer decision-making, Americus Reed likes to use the example of the headache tablet Tylenol. Despite being 20 cents more expensive than its unbranded counterpart – which contains the same active ingredient – Tylenol continues to sell.

“If people were rational, that entire market for Tylenol wouldn’t exist,” Reed explained on NPR. “What it suggests is that there’s something beyond the drug’s features that has utility.”

That something, according to Reed, is story. “Stories are valuable because they create an impervious connection to the brand that’s hard to break. And a brand is so much more than a tagline or a logo,” he explains. “It’s more of a meaning system. Brands are like flags. They tell the world who you are, or who you want to be.”

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