Telling Stories for Profit – Part 1

Discussion
Aug 16, 2007

By George Anderson

In their upcoming book, What’s Your Story?, authors Ryan Mathews and Watts Wacker look at the power of stories and storytelling to drive business in the 21st century. In this first installment in a multipart series, RetailWire speaks with Ryan Mathews to look at the need for storytelling in business and how it has evolved in recent years.

It’s not unusual to think about storytelling in frivolous terms. It’s something we do to pass time, to serve as a form of entertainment. Sure, it might be fun but it doesn’t have any practical business applications, does it?

“The story form over time has been proven and demonstrated over and over again across all cultures to be the single best way to transfer information, belief, history,” Ryan Mathews, founder and CEO of Black Monk Consulting and author of the upcoming book, What’s Your Story (2008, FT Press, Upper Saddle River, NJ), told RetailWire. “Really all of what we know about ourselves comes down through stories because they are easy to transport. They’re easy to remember. They’re easy to repeat. They’re compelling if repeated well. Stories are the compelling driver in mythology, in religion, in culture and in everything else.”

According to Mr. Mathews, it’s easy for many to see the application of storytelling in terms of advertising, promotion, branding, public relations and merchandising. There are perhaps less obvious opportunities to use storytelling in areas such as recruitment, retention, morale building, investor relations and more.

“There are companies that are using traditional storytelling more or less effectively to promote brands and even to guide their internal operations. P&G has a corporate storyteller but unfortunately the company would not go on the record for the book,” he said.

What’s Your Story? is filled with numerous examples of storytelling for good and bad in corporate America. A number of points become clear in the reading: 1) the practice of storytelling has a dynamic role to play in corporate America; 2) stories change; 3) the nature of storytelling has changed dramatically in the era of internet and wireless communications, and; 4) companies need to formalize the process of storytelling within the organization to maximize results.

Referring back to Procter & Gamble, Mr. Mathews discussed the story behind Ivory Soap. “The Ivory story was, “Eureka, it floats.” It was the happy accident story. But, if you check it out now it is no longer the happy accident story, now it’s the end product of research and development, trial and error. They’ve changed the story. The facts haven’t changed – the soap has air bubbles and floats – but the story around the facts has changed significantly and it tells us a lot more about how the company has matured.”

Another example of a changing story is Ben & Jerry’s.

“They had a very consistent, interesting story about two hippie, trippy guys who loved ice cream and who took their money and gave it to good causes like folk festivals and world peace and all of that. When it got acquired by Unilever, all of a sudden it’s much harder to tell that story when you’re owned by a multinational.”

One of the new challenges storytellers face in the 21st century, according to Mr. Mathews, is that audiences are more engaged and vocal.

“In the age of the internet, everybody is critical about everything so you get the AdBusters, the blog sites that are trashing false claims and hypocrisy and so on. You’ve got the NoLogo people and all these things. It becomes harder and harder to maintain your story.”

In a growing number of cases, said Mr. Mathews, marketers have turned to the audience to develop and maintain the company/brand story.

“A group of very smart marketers have now realized that if the audience is turning to storytelling so the big twist in the 21st century is that the audience becomes the storyteller. So you have a whole group of companies that suddenly have become very active in becoming storytellers,” he said. “Think of Shedd’s Spread Country Crock and its promotion of sharing. If you tell them a story of sharing with somebody or a time someone shared with you, they’ll donate one meal for every story to America’s Second Harvest. The name (Shedd’s) becomes linked to the notion of sharing.”

Discussion Questions: What roles do you see for storytelling in corporate America? How have you seen business storytelling change over time? What companies/brands have impressed you with their storytelling ability?

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16 Comments on "Telling Stories for Profit – Part 1"


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Al McClain
Guest
Al McClain
14 years 9 months ago

One thing that strikes me about corporate storytelling in the age of the Internet is that whatever story you are trying to tell, you have to make it quick. Whether your message is to consumers or businesses, people of all types are multi-tasking more than ever before so your story has to capture their imagination quickly, and you have to tell the story succinctly. In other words, corporate storytelling has become in large measure the ability to give a good elevator pitch. It’s true for marketing, too. We’ve gone from 60 second to 30 second to 15 second ads, and who has time to read a 4 page spread ad in a magazine anymore?

Ian Percy
Guest
14 years 9 months ago

I’m kind of the anti-elevator speech guy. A story needs to be short only if it’s boring and inconsequential. A truly good story engages on intellectual, emotional and spiritual levels.

Someone going in to buy a Porsche doesn’t say to the sales person “Give me your elevator speech about this car and give me the short brochure.” She’s more likely to say “Tell me again the story about the downforce and how fast I can take sharp corners.” And then she asks for more brochures and the DVD.

In a romantic moment we don’t say to our partner “Give me a soundbite about why you love me.” We want them to go on and on about how wonderful we are.

When a prospective client wants only an elevator speech I almost always assumes he also wants a quick fix–preferably one that doesn’t require him to change.

Maybe we find ourselves in the era of 10 second sound bites because 10 seconds is all what is being said deserves.

Roger Selbert, Ph.D.
Guest
Roger Selbert, Ph.D.
14 years 9 months ago

Stories are indeed powerful. Yet, as was pointed out, we do live in the hyper-critical, immediate-response world created by the Internet. P&G must be one of the only corporations to have an official storyteller, and yet they weren’t willing to talk!

Perhaps stories are best utilized for the internal purposes listed: morale, team-building, recruitment (I would add strategic planning–that is, getting everyone on board in fulfilling purpose, mission and goals).

Ben Ball
Guest
14 years 9 months ago

A different, but important, twist on the role of story-telling in business is in the art of internal and external business communication. Whether trying to sell an idea for funding internally, or convincing a retailer to add a new product to the shelf, it’s all about telling a compelling story. It is the difference between “fact-based selling” and facts.

In dealing with our own clients we see the same things. You can present trend data all day long, but when you start out with “when I was talking to the detergent buyer at Kroger last week” everyone starts to listen a little harder.

Mark Burr
Guest
14 years 9 months ago
American consumers love a great story. To borrow a line from Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams,” “It’s a long story, but its a really good story.” In that particular event, the story got a skeptic to join and follow the dream. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? To convince the consumer to be part of your dream? The story built its way to the understanding that it was about “all that once was good and could be again.” In that case, it was about heritage. But that’s really what stories tell, isn’t it? They share a history. The inspire a passion. Each story has bends and curves and sometimes it becomes lost. When heritage and passion is lost, the story can sometimes have outcomes no one might have imagined when the story began. No one really intends to tell a story with a bad ending. You can however, lose a connection and just as we all know, send a story around a room and by the time it returns it could be a completely… Read more »
Ryan Mathews
Guest
14 years 9 months ago

A note on Al’s comment. My sense is that this a Yes AND No issue. Yes messaging has to be quick but content should be constant. So, storytelling should be the core of the messaging although the messages themselves are quite perishable.

Rick Moss
Guest
14 years 9 months ago

Tagging on to Al and Ryan… I see a lot of companies abandoning their core “stories” in attempts to reach new generations of consumers or to take advantage of new media options, but it’s usually a big mistake. Oftentimes, stories are closely associated with company founders: Colonel Sanders; Famous Amos, etc. Wendy’s ads, for example, have been adrift since Dave Thomas’ passing. (Currently, they’re trying to tell a story using a guy dressed in red pigtails…I can’t quite follow the plot.)

Of course, when a founder/icon dies, it presents a problem. Recent efforts to resurrect Orville Redenbacher have just been plain creepy. However, the attention being played to “Orville Deadenbacher” in the blogosphere may actually create a new “storyline” that could result in an unplanned boon for the company. Maybe, in the internet age, it’s important to leave flexibility for consumer-generated storytelling, as well.

Li McClelland
Guest
Li McClelland
14 years 9 months ago

Storytelling is a beautiful, rich and time-honored method of perpetuating human connections and cultural history over time and generations. It is also, has been pointed out, highly effective within organizations to help demonstrate founder’s vision, norms and values. Storytelling usually is based on fact, but almost always has liberal doses of myth and wishful thinking thrown in, too.

The problem with much of today’s external corporate story telling is that it is increasingly recognizable as pure PR and propaganda. Even the perfectly respectable word “story” has taken a credibility hit via the tongue-in-cheek phrase, “that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.” For any corporate storytelling to be useful short term (and especially long term) it must be viewed in the harsh light of its essential honesty and truth. I hope that Ryan’s book will help corporations to better understand that and give them the tools to honestly evaluate their “stories.”

Jerry Tutunjian
Guest
Jerry Tutunjian
14 years 9 months ago
First, let me apologize for getting “artsy-fartsy.” On second thoughts: I’ll withdraw the apology. We tell stories to ourselves to live. Many, many artists, psychologists, psychiatrists, anthropologists, and writers confirm this–we live a novel whose main character is us. We are the hero/heroine. Some call it our myth (see Joseph Campbell). We can’t live without telling this internal, ongoing story to ourselves. This myth drives us, makes us survive and succeed. It’s no different for small or large corporations. They need their story, their myth. How many times have we seen movies being promoted with a single powerful peg? While “The Raging Bull” was a great movie, the marketers sold it by hyping the story that Robert Deniro had put on XYZ pounds for the role, or Dustin Hoffman spent time in psychiatric ward to learn about autistic people for “The Rain Man.” Corporation often rely–sometimes for too long–on the birth legend: how the founder of the company discovered the secret formula, process, method, poor boy gets rich, the North American Dream, etc. While essential,… Read more »
Mel Kleiman
Guest
14 years 9 months ago

As a professional speaker and trainer, I learned a long time ago if you really want people to remember something, tell them a story. Remember, we think in pictures not words and stories paint better pictures.

Smart companies like Southwest Airlines, Disney, Ritz-Carlton and Nordstrom have been using stories for years and in a number of different ways…
1. To stand out in the market place. Everyone has a story about these organizations.
2. They tell them in lots of professional settings, not only to attract customers but also to reinforce the message to their internal customer
3. They use them to develop and maintain their culture.
4. To pass on the learning to future generations of what works and what is expected.

Mary Baum
Guest
Mary Baum
14 years 9 months ago
There’s an old line in the human-potential field: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I think there’s a version of that dynamic under every relationship, including and especially the early stages of a new hire in an organization or a new long-term consultative/client relationship of any kind. And I think stories are the glue the binds those relationships–that show where the organization is coming from and what it cares about, and why the newcomer should care. I know that in my own career, I am still most closely attached to the clients and people whose stories touched me the most deeply at the time, and that part of my job is to tease out those stories from new clients and get them out where the world can hear them too. It’s probably true that in the beginning we need to give a short version, but the folks here are also right that what we don’t want is the 30-second synopsis. That kicks the life right out of… Read more »
Herb Sorensen, Ph.D.
Guest
14 years 9 months ago

Absolutely spot on in terms of the need and power of stories. I find that I can know something important for years, and talk till I am blue in the face, and nothing happens until I have a story that intersects with my audiences own story. Then stuff starts to happen.

Kevin Mahon
Guest
Kevin Mahon
14 years 9 months ago

I find it interesting that Ben & Jerry’s and Shedd’s Spread are both owned and managed by Unilever. People buy products because of the benefits that they deliver. Stories need to change to keep the brands and their benefits relevant to consumers.

John Rand
Guest
John Rand
14 years 9 months ago
If you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you–particularly if you tell it badly or it is not based on truth. A few years ago when I was traveling as a consultant (instead of traveling as a speaker and analyst as I do now) there was a great example–a couple of consultants had a very bad experience with a hotel one night. Guaranteed rooms weren’t, alternatives were not presented, frequent traveler promises not honored, some bad employee attitude–all the stuff we never want to hear about a lousy customer experience was present. The difference is, they went back to their room and made a computer slideshow ridiculing the company (by name) the night desk clerk (by name), the hotel location (detailed) and created a delightful funny, sad and brutally realistic PR nightmare story, which had a lovely viral life on the internet for months thereafter. For all I know, it still is out there, bouncing around, making it clear that the “story” for this chain includes dreadful incompetence. The story will… Read more »
Mark Lilien
Guest
14 years 9 months ago

If it’s a choice between telling a memorable story or explaining the theory, the story wins. Great propaganda always generates memorable stories. Biggest corporate obstacle: lots of advertising/pr stories have no credibility. Furthermore, great stories are sustained over long time periods (decades). They don’t disappear when you change ad agencies every 2 years. And great stories need great characters: El Exigente beats Sam Breakstone.

Stephen Denning
Guest
Stephen Denning
14 years 9 months ago
Liatt says that “the problem with much of today’s external corporate story telling is that it is increasingly recognizable as pure PR and propaganda.” I’m not sure that this is the problem. Could it, in fact, be the solution? Storytelling has always been used by businesses for PR and propaganda, long before snake oil was ever invented. What’s happened is that the shift in the balance of power from seller to buyer, through radically expanded access to information by the Web, means that PR and propaganda are being increasingly recognized for what they are. Which to my mind is a good thing. So when Ryan Mathews says, “It becomes harder and harder to maintain your story,” I think he’s right only insofar as we’re talking about inauthentic stories, stories that don’t tell like it is. For authentic stories, the web makes it infinitely easier to get the story out to a global audience. If the story is authentic, widespread scrutiny should help to establish that fact. Bottom line: one of the keys to the effective… Read more »
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