Storytelling in marketing is a hot topic, with a growing and well founded belief that legendary brands like Apple, Nike, Coca-Cola and Harley Davidson have been successful building great stories around their products that people naturally want to be part of.
Books for marketers are appearing by people like Seth Godin and Laurence Vincent which instruct the marketer on how to build a company’s brand using stories. But this is only half the story! Everyone is focussed on storytelling while there is huge potential for storylistening.
The power of collecting stories
Marketing professionals have known for some time the power of collecting stories. Dupont collected stories about women’s thoughts on wearing panty hose, and eventually discovered (after first hearing disdain expressed about these garments) that wearing panty hose made women feel more sensual, sexy and attractive to men. Dupont modified its brand image to match these feelings.
Kimberly-Clark collected stories from parents who were toilet training their children, and discovered tremendous stress associated with having children ‘still in nappies’. Pull-ups were introduced, and a new $400 million per year market segment was born.
In both cases the marketeers understood that they were unlikely to discover the telling factors through formal interviews and focus groups. Stories, on the other hand, provided a natural way of expressing what was actually happening. It provided the context required to get at the heart of the issue.
The best form of research is storytelling
Listening to stories is one of the best ways to understand what is happening in a complex and dynamic situation. Analytical methods are great when the issue can be divided into its components but much of life is not that simple. The issues facing marketers involve unpredictable outcomes, ill-defined problems, going with your gut.
Stories help us see the established and emerging patterns from which interventions can be designed. So for marketers there are three skills required to become an effective storylistener:
- Be able to elicit stories from whoever has relevant stories to tell (customers, staff, stakeholders, shareholders)
- Be able to make sense of the information contained within and across all the stories collected; and
- Be able to design interventions that account for the complex nature of the issue being tackled.
Aligning brands with customers
Let’s take the specific example of aligning brand promises with customer service. Companies spend millions on developing a brand image yet this can be significantly eroded if staff misunderstand the brand and deliver contradictory service.
Take this instance of how customer experience contradicts the brand message: ”Dave … saw an ad by Tweeter that emphasized it’s staff’s “boatload of knowledge”. He needed a DVR and walked into a Tweeter HiFi Buys store wanting to take advantage of that knowledge. “Hi, I want to buy a DVR and accessories if someone can show me how to use it.” He was told, “I don’t know how it’s used, but they’re supposed to be really easy.” Dave says, “The boatload of knowledge just capsized.” (Barlow and Stewart 2004: 49)
The role of storytelling in marketing
Imagine this situation being played out in your organisation hundreds, if not thousands of times. The result is a total undermining of your brand position, a position in which you have invested heavily and which you are pinning the future of the company on. In this case you would go out and collect anecdotes from the staff which they think illustrate on and off-brand service.
These stories are then used in a workshop environment to extract the key themes, values and archetypes. The workshop participant (the organisation’s decision-makers) is forced to gain new perspectives and uses the insights to develop interventions designed to improve the brand to customer service alignment.
Narrative is a powerful technique.
So far marketers are only making use of half its power. Become a storylistener as well as a storyteller and reap the rewards. If you want to find out more, we have been working with an Australian based company that is a world leader in storytelling and story listening – Anecdote.