Seven strategic insights for the successful implementation of „Storytelling in Marketing and Sales“ – based on insights of the Management Focus Group “Storytelling in Marketing and Sales” (October 6th/7th, 2015 in Paris)

Insight 1: Rediscover the nature of stories and their value in marketing.

A key finding of recent research highlights the positive impact of emotional customer involvement on profitability. Storytelling is a key tool to achieve an emotional connection between customers and brands.

As Prof. Dr. Peter M. Fischer elaborated, telling stories is a fundamental cultural behavior. People naturally think narratively rather than argumentatively or paradigmatically (Weick 1995; Wells 1989). A substantial amount of information stored in and retrieved from memory is episodic (Fournier 1998; Schank 1990). Retrieving, reliving, or repeat-watching stories results in «proper pleasure» and is also cathartic (Holt 2003). Effective narrative processing helps consumers create meaning of the information through transportation, a process that refers to the extent to which consumers “transport” or immerse themselves into the world described by the narrative (Woodside, Sood, and Miller 2008).

Storytellers convey content, give an impression of their personal experience and convince the listener of a reality that they create. This makes storytelling a powerful and versatile tool – particularly in marketing. Whether it’s the creation of brand perception or in the introduction of a new product line, in the attractive representation of the company’s history or the positioning of key people: storytelling is the method which can’t be missed from the toolkit of the modern marketer.

Insight 2: Align your story with the “The 4 Truths” of storytelling.

There are four distinct truths that are required to be upheld for effective storytelling (Guter 2007).

The first truth is the truth to the teller. This entails that the story and its teller need to be congruent with each other – vice versa, the teller needs to have an authentic relationship to the content of the story. Most vivid stories are told from the key person who experienced the story first hand and simply relies the experience to the audience.

”I want you to feel what I feel” (Ron Bass)

The second truth is the truth to the audience. Making a story true to the audience means that storytelling is far from being a solo performance. On the contrary: effective storytelling is a collaborative effort. Through their cognitive and imaginative processes, the audience contributes as much value in depth and context to the story as the storyteller provides value in terms of a relatable plot and description of the setting. Thus, a good story needs to be accessible and relatable to the audience in order to allow the listeners to develop their own, creative contribution.

”Everyone wants to be a star, or at least to feel that the story is talking to or about him personally.” (Chad Hodge)

“Make the ‘I’ in your story become ‘we’, so the whole tribe or community can come together and and unite behind your experience and the idea it embodies.” (Tery Schwartz)

The third truth is the truth to the moment. Telling a story is an art that demands practice – not, to create perfect reproductions of one and the same plot but, rather, to allow the storyteller to be flexible and to adjust their story to the audience, the setting, the required depth and / or breadth. Thus, for stories to be effective, storytellers must make adjustments to better allow the individual audience to immerse themselves in the story.

“A great storyteller never tells a story the same way twice.” (Peter Guber)

The fourth truth is the truth to the mission. This truth is hinting at the role of the underlying message of the story above and beyond authenticity and presentation technique. An effective story needs to connect to values that are shared among the audience in order to make the story emotionally salient to them – to root for the good and to oppose the bad.

“Even in today’s cynical, self-centered age, people are desperated to believe in something bigger than themselves.“ (Peter Guber)

“As a modern shaman, the visionary business leader taps into the human yearning to be part of a worthy cause.“ (Peter Guber)

Insight 3: Allow the audience to experience your story and make it their own.

Connecting the customer journey with carefully orchestrated experience landscapes is one approach to allowing customers not only to listen to a story, but experiecing it first-hand.

In our focus group in Paris, Dr. Tiia Mäkinen, Founder and Managing Partner of musta experience strategy consultancy and former Head of Client Experience at UBS Wealth Management, elaborated on the role of customer experience in storytelling based on her experience in the financial industry. Relating to the challenging and fragile customer journey in private banking, Dr. Mäkinen highlighted the notion of not only allowing the customer to relate to the story, but rather going one step further and making the customer the hero of the story that is the bank’s offer. Based on this approach, she reported on approaches in the financial industry to better understand the customer’s perceptions of the bank’s branches just as good as creating a multi-sensory experience throughout the customer’s interaction with the bank as part of experience eco-systems.

Tiia’s presentation illustrated the necessity to making the story not only accessible, but actually immersive by creating appropriate customer experience settings along the customer journey toward the goal of winning a new customer.

Insight 4: Speak to the inner child of your audience to stir up emotions.

An Hermès window impressively demonstrates how products shown in the right light and at the right angle reveal a hint at the brands‘ playful contents and substance.

Storytelling not only speaks to the cognitive capacities of an audience, but should always carry an emotional component. Prof. Patrick Albaladejo, Affiliate Professor in Marketing at HEC Paris and former Executive Vice President of Strategic Development & Corporate Image at Hermès International SCA, highlighted the importance of speaking to the inner child of Hermès’ customers when creating brand stories that resemble dreams. In his experience, by using playfulness, humor, and wit, brands can create stories that are not only relatable but also immersive. Building on the notion of using stories to create dreams for customers, Prof. Albaladejo put emphasis on the necessity for stories to be inspiringly open and inviting rather than pre-structured, strict, and constraining.

Having introduced the necessity for brand stories to be emotionally accessible and pleasing, Prof. Albaladejo presented several examples of how the brand story of Hermès is being implemented. As two key methods, he highlighted “Le Monde d’Hermès”, the brand’s customer magazine, and the brand’s retail decoration to uphold and continue telling the Hermès brand story – the former outlet allowing for a tool to communicate more complex content on the brand’s story and the other allowing customer to experience the story first hand.

Insight 5: Curate and develop your story to turn it into a reality.

As for any creative idea, the origin of a story-telling project is crucial. In the origin, any powerful story can easily be overlooked or brushed away – just like Microsoft’s agenda-setting project that started with one simple but intriguing question.

Stories do not only hold the power to explain and letting an audience experience a plot but, beyond that, also to grab attention for a specific mission. Barbara Josef, Director Communications and Social Responsibility, Microsoft Schweiz GmbH, presented a project that she developed and curated over a period of six years that positioned Microsoft in Switzerland as the leading company in terms of remote working environments and infrastructure.

Particularly for a story of a broader reach, winning collaborators is key to realizing the project’s full and broad potential. This highlights, once again, that a story is not the sole property of one storyteller, but becomes powerful as it is shared and filled with the creativity of collaborators and the audience.

In 2010, Microsoft initiated the first “Home Office Day” jointly with a broad alliance of organizations who support the benefits of working remote and aim to alleviate the challenges that result from ever growing shares of the population commuting to work every day. The project was positioned as a public-private partnership and – instead of a marketing campaign – as an independent and neutral platform for communicating a vision of distributed collaboration and decreasing traffic at peak times.

Developing a compelling story requires an underlying framework of values and a mission. Microsoft highlighted these statements systematically while constructing the story concept.

The initiative built upon several external opportunities to further the story on the benefits and pragmatism of remote working, building upon the Europe-wide grounding of airplanes during volcanic activity in Iceland as well as the multiple-month long reconstruction of Microsoft headquarters which the company used to exemplify a complete organization working remotely over a prolonged amount of time.

Every good story will come to an end at some point – for the Home Office Day, the „end of story life cycle“ came with its fith year. However, coming to an end also meant that the story had been told, generated substantial resonance and, due to an increasing pressure on the topic, became less effective to tell. The Home Office Day story reached its goal.

For Microsoft, the initiative of positioning the story of working from home has not only greatly added to their brand perception as a provider of solutions for a modern society, but also generated substantial awareness. In fact, the awareness lead to an emergence of a story lifecycle: after five years of careful curation and development of the story, it found its imitators, the story lost momentum due to its permeation of the media. However, more importantly, the story reached its substantial goals of providing extensive examples for Microsoft’s competency and social responsibility in terms of creating the work environment of the future.

Insight 6: Discover and tell stories that make your company unique.

Mary Stevens, Senior Vice President Global Marketing of the furniture and design brand Herman Miller, focused in her presentation on the organization as the prime source of storytelling. During her presentation of over a dozen examples for making Herman Miller more palpable to the individual audiences, Mary highlighted the close relationship of the company’s mission and storytelling as not just any other tool, but the prime approach of making a creative company perceptible and comprehensible to the outside world.

For a design company like Herman Miller, illustrating clever solutions is key. The „honey video“ exemplifies the reaching of this goal and adds greatly to making the processes and approaches of the organization comprehensible.

For example, Mary presented a story on how the new company building and production facility attracted a natural challenge that Herman Miller found a clever and natural solution to: the plant attracted colonies of aggressive wasps and Herman Miller installed beehives housing multiple hundreds of thousands of bees to drive out the wasps. As a result, the bees did not only provide a natural solution to the wasp problem, but also provided a great additional benefit: honey to be bottled as gifts for the company’s guests. Told in a playful way, this graphically illustrated short film makes the brand comprehensible and approachable, building on charm and not only a sustainable but moreover a clever solution.

Other examples for Herman Miller storytelling can be found online on YouTube in the company’s channel.

Insight 7: Start your storytelling project with careful observation.

Telling of stories requires the previous, careful construction of a story – which in turn tests the storyteller’s capabilities for careful observation, collection of material, distilling the cornerstones of the plot, central roles, and key themes. Dr. des Johanna Gollnhofer, associate researcher at the Center for Customer Insight at University of St. Gallen, elaborated on the value of ethnographic methodology for crafting compelling stories.

In her talk, Johanna highlighted the necessity of combining relevance of topic and a rigorous data-gathering and –analysis processes in order to produce most compelling stories. With regard to data-gathering for a story development, compelling stories require a broad array of material to emerge from. This data usually stems from a multitude of sources (video-recordings, interviews, statistics, official documents, participation etc.).

In order to turn data into a compelling story, Johanna introduces a process that covers four phases: collecting, organizing, interpreting, and crafting.

The origin of collecting data through careful and thorough observation lies the discipline of with ethnographical research in anthropology. The subject has changed, however the methodology remains comparable.
Distilling insight from the gathered data depends on methodological approaches in coding, comparing, refutation, and dimensionalization.

After the data has been carefully systematized, interpretation is needed in order to make sense of the underlying phenomena. Here, metaphorical thinking is helpful to quickly evaluate the gathered data by help of familiar concepts.
Finally, crafting the story requires constant reviewing and refocusing of the key content, reframing the plot, and aiming for convincing the audience.