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How to Use Business Storytelling to Market to Consumers

In 2012, Edelman Berland found that consumers want businesses to tell stories. He surveyed 1,250 adults in the U.S, 18 years of age or older (1,000 in the general population, 250 marketing decision-makers), about the state of online advertising.

This market research firm asked them to rate 17 statements that included phrases such as “people buy what celebrities wear or like,” “advertising works better on men than women,” and “in-store experiences trump online experiences.”

The top result was crystal clear: Consumers want to be told a story. Seventy-three percent stated that advertisements should tell a unique story, not just try to sell.

Give consumers sharable stories

What sort of story do consumers want to be told? Good question! Ed Keller and Brad Fay, authors of The Face-to-Face Book: Why Real Relationships Rule in a Digital Marketplace (Free Press, 2012), say, “Start a story that consumers will want to talk about.”

To find the story, answer the question, ”What messages about my organization’s brand and category are talk worthy?” This question stems from Keller and Fay’s research showing 90 percent of word-of-mouth brand conversations take place offline and are primarily face-to-face. Marketing is often charged with developing these messages (hopefully in the form of stories), but remember that internal staff have authentic sharable messages and stories for the outside world, too.

What’s one kind of story that consumers find to be “talk worthy?” We all desire products and services that simplify and ease our lives and are less expensive. But above all, we each strive for meaning. One example is TOMS shoes. The company’s multitude of fans support them because staff personally distributes free shoes to Argentine children for every pair sold, creating a meaning experience for both customers and employees.

This means your organization needs to ask: “What do we stand for?” Follow these steps to uncover stories that answer this question.

  1. Gather examples of each type of organizational hip pocket story.

  2. Dig into each of these stories.

    Go below the surface. Identify those core beliefs, philosophies, and values that are routinely demonstrated by the organization and the fundamental assumptions that underlie them.

  3. Pinpoint stories that best showcase what the organization stands for and how it provides meaning.

    These stories embody the organization’s fundamental assumptions, beliefs, philosophies, and values.

Giving people stories that spark conversations keeps your enterprise top-of-mind. They also connect your firm to the values, beliefs, and feelings of your audience that build sales, profits, and a long-term relationship with them.

Provide insider stories

Because humans are curious souls, consumers also want insider knowledge. They love to peek behind the curtain to learn the inner workings of your organization. It makes them feel special. Consider the stories associated with a product or service’s entire life-cycle, from beginning to end. This set of “supply chain” stories also reflects your organization’s values.

So, expand your thinking beyond “Here’s a story about how we make ABC product” or “Here’s a story about how we crafted XYZ process” to “Here are the stories along the entire life-cycle of this one product (or service).”

Close the gap between inside and out

An organization will come across as insincere if it jumps on the “we do good in the world” bandwagon and treats finding and telling sharable stories as another project to check off the list.

Whether you’re a micro-entrepreneur or part of a mega enterprise, the inside and the outside stories have got to match if your organization’s credibility is to be maintained in the marketplace:

  • Employees need to know what stories are being conveyed externally and have the ability to elaborate on them. Ideally they need to be able to engage people in an exchange about these stories.

  • As an organization, don’t claim to offer happiness, inspiration, or greatness when the internal culture and tone don’t match these messages. You’ll be found out and talked about on the web or elsewhere, as Thorp has done on his website.

As consumers, we like to align with enterprises that speak to us authentically, answer our questions, engage us in dialogue, and solve our problems so we can live the life we’re inspired to live. The following is an example of how inside stories about core values can spark a unique external marketing effort and generate word-of-mouth stories.

Holstee, known for its greeting cards, posters, t-shirts, and wallets, says it “exists to encourage mindful living. We hope to change the way people look at life by designing unique products and sharing meaningful experiences.”

Since its inception, because it has continually talked about and valued both mindfulness and using less and doing more with its employees, in 2012 the company renamed Black Friday as Block Friday. Block Friday encouraged its customers to block off a portion of the day for a personally meaningful activity — whether it be sitting quietly and reading a book or taking a walk with a close friend.

How does this relate to storytelling in marketing? Given the unusual nature of the day customers likely spread stories via word-of-mouth about the company in several ways. First, it’s likely they talked about Holstee’s invention of Block Friday when they enlisted others to join them in meaningful activities. Second, they probably mentioned the company again in response to questions about how they spent the holiday weekend.

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