Make Your Story Count

Companies are increasingly reaching clients by replacing traditional marketing approaches with stories, sometimes with viral results.

It takes only five words for David Aaker, Vice Chairman of Prophet, a brand and marketing consulting firm, to explain why companies should rely on compelling stories to communicate with current and potential customers. “Facts don’t work. Stories do.”

To illustrate, he cites Lifebuoy’s “Help a child reach 5” campaign with its message that washing hands can save many of the 5,000 children under the age of 5 who die every day in some parts of the world due to poor hygiene. The statistic is arresting on its own, but it comes to life when Lifebuoy shares the story of Utari, a young woman who lives in a village affected by the high mortality rate of children, including the death of her own son, who might have been saved through better hygiene. The emotional three-minute video, which concludes with statistics showing how Life­buoy’s campaign has reduced incidents of childhood illnesses, has reached more than 11 million views.

What is your signature story?

This is a signature story Aaker finds especially effective, but signature stories can take many other forms as well. As Aaker and his co-author, Jennifer Aaker, Ph.D., professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, describe in their research paper, “What Are Your Signature Stories?” brand heritage, value proposition, types of customers served, bases for customer loyalty and many other targeted messages can be reflected in stories.

Successful signature stories share several criteria: The stories must convey a narrative that has a begin­ning, middle and end; must be authentic, intriguing and compelling; and must carry a strategic message. He emphasizes the importance of each. “Our defini­tion of a signature story was rigorously researched. It is not a casual concept.”

Aaker points to the rise of digital communication and social media as the driver for the increasing use of stories. Companies’ traditional approach of adver­tising and a media plan is proving less effective, he says, given the shortened attention span of custom­ers and their reduced interest in learning about your company’s offerings, “Your challenge is to get their attention, communicate your message and influence behavior, and you can’t do it with facts. You must have stories.”

Organizations that recognize this shift are pursu­ing unique ways to capitalize on it. “I see many companies creating new departments for this purpose,” says Aaker. “They are hiring journalists, who know how to find, cultivate and relate stories.”

Developing a compelling signature story is no easy task so it’s advantageous to create one that can be built on or refreshed over time. Aaker calls out Blendtec’s “Will it Blend?” challenge as an exam­ple of an effective story that lends itself to renewal, as viewers are invited to propose items for the featured blender to tackle. Given that items already “blended” include Silly Putty, golf balls, marbles, cell phones and an iPad, it is clear that the list is virtually endless — as are Blendtec’s opportunities to demon­strate the power of the product and the personality of the brand.

But how does a company get started in finding its signature story? “Begin with the strategic message,” counsels Aaker, pointing back to the specific criteria. “Most organizations have multiple strategies, and each will ultimately need its own story. But, start with the top one or two messages and think about how to convey them in a way that will resonate with customers.”

Aaker is a strong proponent not only of a story’s potential impact but also its relatively low cost. “If you have a small, energetic, growing business and you want to communicate with customers but you have a limited media budget, try connecting with stories. Not everything goes viral, but the potential is there.”

Signature story must-haves

Effective signature stories tend to contain certain common elements that Aaker outlines in his research. While a signature story does not need all of these elements, Aaker recommends each should contain most of the following elements:

  • Empathetic story characters that readers or viewers can relate to.
  • A meaningful challenge or obstacle that is real and worthwhile and is overcome by the story hero .
  • Conflict and tension that create an emotional involvement
  • A surprise, perhaps preceded by the aforementioned tension in the narrative.
  • A visual image that enables the listener to imagine the story coming to life in his or her mind.
  • Detail that adds interest and enhances authenticity. Regarding this final point, Aaker emphasizes the need to create and sustain a tone of absolute authenticity. “The biggest risk in using stories is devising one that comes across as phony — a blatant sales pitch instead of a sincere effort to relate content.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of YPO’s “Ignite” magazine.

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