Brand stories are a hot topic in marketing because they have been shown to be superior to facts in getting attention, being remembered, changing opinions, stimulating social activity, developing emotion and, curiously, communicating facts. Many firms have added journalists, editors and filmmakers to their staffs to create or find meaningful stories and present them in a compelling way.
Stories often support tactical communication objectives. But there is also a strategic role for stories that is developed in an article by Jennifer Aaker and me entitled, “What Are Your Signature Stories?” in the spring 2016 issue of California Management Review.
We call such stories “signature stories” because they represent some form of strategic statement about a mission, values, the brand, customer relationship or strategic intent. Signature stories do this much better than a recitation of facts, which usually ends up sounding not only boring but similar to a host of other firms.
Consider L.L. Bean, a brand aiming to communicate its innovation culture, passion for the outdoors, commitment to quality, concern for the customer and the functional benefits of the Maine Hunting Shoe. Stating such facts is unlikely to create interest, credibility or even a connection to L.L. Bean.
In contrast, consider the following story: Leon L. Bean, an avid outdoorsman, returned from a hunting trip in 1912 disgruntled because of his cold, wet feet. With little resources but a lot of motivation and ingenuity, he invented a new boot by stitching lightweight leather tops to waterproof rubber bottoms. The boots worked so well he offered them for sale via mail order as the Maine Hunting Shoe, using lists of nonresident Maine hunting license holders.
Unfortunately, most of the first 100 pairs sold had a stitching problem and leaked. Bean faced a defining moment. His response? He refunded the customers’ money, even though it nearly broke him, and fixed the manufacturing process so that future boots were watertight. This story communicates the L.L. Bean brand far better than any presentation of facts.
A signature story is an intriguing, authentic, involving narrative (as opposed to a stand-alone set of facts or features) with a strategic message that enables growth by clarifying or enhancing the brand, the customer relationship, the organization or the business strategy. It is a strategic asset that can be leveraged through time, providing inspiration and direction both internally and externally.
A signature brand story needs to:
- Be intriguing—some combination of thought-provoking, novel, provocative, interesting, informative, newsworthy or entertaining to the audience.
- Be authentic—the audience cannot perceive the story to be phony, contrived or a transparent selling effort. Further, there should be substance behind the story and its message in the form of programs, policies or transparency that support it.
- Be involving—the audience member should be drawn into the story, which can precipitate a cognitive, emotional or behavioral response.
- Be strategic—have a message linked to the brand that enables growth by clarifying or enhancing the brand, the customer relationship, the organization or the business strategy.
A signature story is an asset with enduring relevance and capacity to inspire and provide direction over a long period of time. As they get retold, signature stories gain authenticity, traction and influence.
The principle targets for signature stories are employees and existing and potential customers. Signature stories can provide employees a source of inspiration and a cornerstone for organizational culture and values. The L. L. Bean story supports a higher purpose around innovation, the passion for the outdoors, quality and the customer. Millennials, in particular, are attracted to firms that are aiming for more than sales and profits. A signature story can help with making that purpose authentic and clear.
Customers are also a valuable target because there is a segment that will find a brand’s values, customer relationship and strategy important to them as they develop loyalties to brands and firms. Advancing the strategic position of the brand and organization in the eyes of this audience is challenging because of message clutter, media dynamics, growing customer ownership of context and the complexity of social media. Signature stories can be an answer, providing not only breakthrough visibility, but communicating the basic essence of a brand and organization.
To determine what story content would be useful, it is important to understand who you are, what you do and where you are going. Look to your brand vision and value proposition, drivers of customer relationships, your organizational culture and values, as well as your business strategy. What are the priorities? What perceptions and attitudes need to be created, reinforced or changed to allow the business strategy to succeed?
To find or create signature stories, look broadly for story heroes. Stories can be motivated by a variety of heroes such as customers, employees, programs, a founder, an offering, a business revitalization strategy or a future business revitalization strategy.
The customer as hero can be effective because there is no “my brand or product is better than yours” connotation, and the customer story is likely to be closely linked to either the organizational values or the brand’s value proposition. LinkedIn has a series of professionally created, one-minute stories about “creating you own success” that involve leveraging LinkedIn. Dr. Chavez told about his dream of getting pets off of processed foods using LinkedIn to share his big idea. Jenni was laid off during the financial meltdown and several months of intense networking led to a marketing position and, ultimately, supported her decision to be on her own.
The employee as hero can be a source of a strong and memorable brand story because employees are on the front lines. Zappos.com, the online shoe store, has a set of signature stories about its 10 core values, one of which is to deliver “wow” customer service. One such story involves a Zappos.com call center employee who, at 3 a.m., received a call from a customer who could not find an open pizza store. Instead of gently turning the customer away, the employee actually found a pizza store open and arranged a delivery.
The business revitalization story can clarify and motivate a new strategy and inspire employees and customers. Consider Zhang Ruimin, who became the CEO of a troubled Chinese appliance manufacturer, Haier, in 1982. Early in his tenure, he used a sledgehammer to destroy 72 defective appliances. The story and its symbol, the sledgehammer, served to define a new strategy and culture that ultimately led to Haier becoming a global leader. Not all stories are worth elevating to signature status. There needs to be an evaluation process to identify the strength and promise of candidate stories. When candidate stories emerge, make sure that they are not just a list of facts (or features) but rather a narrative that appears intriguing, is perceived as authentic, engenders involvement and has a strategic message.