How to Use Storytelling in B-to-B Marketing

David Aaker
Key Takeaways

What? Stories of customer success are often the best material for B-to-B marketers.

So what? Marketers may have a hard time finding these stories and organizing them.

Now what? B-to-B brands should create a story management framework and regularly audit their content for quality.

​B-to-B brands don’t have to fulfill the prophecy of bland marketing. With a well-managed bank of stories, they can convey their value to customers

The power of story is applied to strategic messaging to inform, energize, persuade and inspire. The use of signature stories is particularly relevant to B-to-B firms because their customers are often buying a relationship with an organization and their employees. Communicating organizational values and a brand vision with authenticity is critical.

However, the nature of signature stories and the process of developing and using them is different for B-to-B firms than B-to-C firms, which raises the question: What are the challenges of using signature stories that are unique to B-to-B firms, and how can they be addressed?

In B-to-B contexts customer success stories are often the best vehicles for signature stories. Given that reality, there are three challenges facing B-to-B firms:

  • Finding effective B-to-B signature stories that are intriguing, authentic and relevant.

  • Having so many stories that their management is overwhelming.

  • Creating an organizational structure and process to find and use signature stories.

Finding Effective B-to-B Signature Stories

Effective B-to-B signature stories that can break through to disinterested, skeptical audiences need to be intriguing. In a B-to-C context it is easier to find stories with emotion, tension and connection with relatable characters. In contrast, B-to-B customer success stories tend to show functional benefits and processes. To avoid bland, shallow customer stories, look for ways to dramatize the problem, solution or outcome.

The problem context might be so dire that it intrigues. Lou Gerstner’s turnaround story in the early 1990s started with a failing IBM paralyzed by silos focused on their own interests. Customers were annoyed at the resulting confusion, inefficiency and absence of system capability. The firm was in serious financial trouble with a proposal on the table to split IBM into seven firms. 

A solution that is dramatically creative grabs your attention. Marc Benioff started Salesforce in 1999 with the idea of using cloud technology to change software usage and make social programs a part of his business. The story involves a retreat to India, experience with an Oracle program to aid education and some research around what other firms were doing. The solution was the 1-1-1 program, whereby the firm would devote 1% of equity, 1% of people and 1% of product to addressing social problems. The solution was so unique and compelling that more than 70 other firms decided to adopt it.

An eye-opening, impressive outcome can intrigue. One of Prophet’s signature customer stories was about T-Mobile. The “Uncarrier” program took the business from a loss of 4.5 million subscribers to a gain of 22.5 million subscribers in 18 months when it scrapped contracts and roaming fees. The amazing turnaround transformed the industry.

The story should not seem exaggerated or contrived. Nor should it feel like a veiled sales pitch, providing no information that would help or interest the audience. Authenticity and intrigue are greater challenges when the brand resists dramatization or the telling of the complete story. A company might be embarrassed about the problem or feel there are trade secrets at risk. The result can be a shallow story with no punch.

People’s ears perk up when they hear a story that is relevant to their problem, their industry or their type of firm. Having many stories will increase the chances that one or several are relevant.

Dealing with Story Overload

Introducing new signature stories can provide freshness, energy and visibility to a brand. Multiple stories can also give the brand message depth, breadth and texture. Organizational values, for example, are likely to need many stories to capture all the dimensions and facets. But there is a tipping point after which there are too many signature stories for employees to manage or for customers to grasp.

Some ways to manage story overload include:

  • Screen: Some stories won’t break through the clutter. Screen out stories that are not intriguing, authentic or relevant. If they do qualify but their impact declines over time, they should be candidates for removal.

  • Prioritize: High-priority, lead stories intrigue and are dramatic examples of an important strategic message. Give them more resources and visibility.

  • Draft a Composite Story: Sometimes a story that incorporates some of the experiences of several customer case stories can work.

  • Link: A lead or meta-story may be elaborated by signature stories that involve different applications or perspectives. Link them to add freshness and relevance.

  • Bank: Create a story bank and code stories so they can be easily found.

Creating Organizational Support

Success with signature stories is more likely in an organization that can supply employees with motivation and a story support unit.

Employees should realize that stories are valued and necessary to adequately communicate organizational values and other strategic messaging. Role models that demonstrate story power can help. Visibility of the task can be stimulated by contests. Before its merger with Exxon, Mobil had a contest to find the best stories around three values: leadership, partnership and trust. The winners got to be on the infield in the Indy 500. There were more than 300 entrants and a host of great signature stories.

Appoint an organizational team or person to support the stories. This person can also take on a reporter’s role, seeking out signature stories, refining stories, executing presentation options and finding outlets such as podcasts, trade press and as internal communication opportunities.

B-to-B firms have their own characteristics to create and implement an organization in which signature stories can thrive.

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David Aaker
David Aaker is vice chairman of Prophet, the author of Aaker on Branding and a member of the NYAMA Marketing Hall of Fame.