Signature Stories As a Research Tool

David Aaker
Key Takeaways

What? Conventional research tools are not the only means marketers have to uncover customer sentiment.

So what? Reviewing or uncovering signature stories can be a powerful research tool because stories are often vivid, textured pictures of an organization.

Now what? Record, categorize and study your signature stories to reveal your brand's purpose, principles and customer benefits.​​​​​​​​​

Stories can reveal important foundations for a brand, including vision, differentiation and higher purpose​​

Conventional research tools are not the only means marketers have to uncovering customer sentiment. In fact, traditional research has some limitations. Survey research often reflects respondents who are unable to provide informed judgments, and it generates findings driven in part by halo effects that limit textured insights. Qualitative research is subjective and limited by the topics that surface. And quantitative research often suffers from inadequate dependent variables (an overreliance on what is available, which is usually short-term performance) and independent variables that lack variation.

Reviewing or uncovering signature stories can be a powerful research tool because stories are often vivid, textured pictures of an organization. They can help:

  • Determine customers’ perceptions, loyalty drivers, use experiences and brand relationships.

  • Understand employees’ knowledge and approval of the organization, its values and its culture.

  • Find opportunities that will support new offerings or programs. 

  • Create or refine an organizational purpose or brand vision.

  • Identify programs that will break out and be on brand. 

Here are some common marketing objectives that can be realized with signature story research.

1. Creating a Brand Vision

I was hired to create a brand vision for a nonprofit that helps seniors stay in their homes by providing basic services. Before researching customers and employees, we solicited signature stories. The results were stories in which the hero was the client, a volunteer or both. Many stories involved a client whose life was made better by acts that had love, humor and a functional benefit. This exercise gave the task of creating a brand vision an expanded set of options with proof points rather than aspirations. 

2. Creating a Set of Guiding Principles

University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business has a legacy of social consciousness, which signature stories helped reveal. There are signature stories about pioneer courses, professors, books and research programs that influenced the way that business leaders thought and acted over a century. This body of knowledge helped to conceive “beyond yourself” as one of the four pillars of the new Berkeley-Haas. 

3. Developing a Turnaround Strategy 

When an organization loses its point of differentiation, it can examine its organizational assets, strategies and market trends for turnaround ideas. The key is to return to its roots as represented by its signature stories. 

Starbucks had lost its way when Howard Schultz returned as CEO in January 2008. Two signature stories informed Schultz’s strategic moves. His working-class father had an ankle injury that cost him his job and health care. That story influenced Schultz to resist calls to reduce health care benefits for Starbucks employees to save money. On a trip to Milan in 1983, one year after first joining Starbucks, Schultz experienced the romance, ritual and the personal relationships of Milan coffee bars and the role of the baristas there. To bring back the magic of the Starbucks in-store experience, he brought 10,000 store managers to New Orleans to revitalize their passion for coffee and their ability to create a Milan-inspired experience. Signature stories helped generate on-brand ideas and guide options at a challenging time. 

4. Understanding Customers

Charity: Water told the story of Natalia, a 15-year-old girl from a small village in Mozambique. Natalia walked with pails each day to a riverbed, where she stood in line to get dirty water from a hand-dug hole. That meant she could go to school only twice each week. After her village received a well from Charity: Water, she was a regular school-goer and always on time. When Charity: Water met with the village’s five-person governing board of the well, the last member stood to introduce herself—her feet wide apart, her arms crossed proudly and a pleased half-smile on her face. “My name is Natalia,” she said. “I am the president.” Her ambition had changed. She now plans to become a teacher and then a headmaster. Her story gave emotion, depth and texture to customer insight research.

5. Understanding Customer Benefits 

A signature story from IBM Watson Health focuses on a client, Orlando Health, that had seemingly intractable problems that inhibited efforts to contain costs and care for patients. The solution: Use Watson technology to enable a new health management system. The story details the problems of the prior system, the goals of the new system, the implemented changes and various achievement measures. The results were updated and streamlined processes and a transition from fee-for-service reimbursement to payment models, improvements on key measures and insights into the nature of benefits delivered by the brand offering.

6. Creating Higher-purpose Programs 

Many organizations seek a higher purpose that inspires employees and creates customer affinity. Developing programs that provide substance and credibility to the higher purpose is a challenge that can be met with signature stories about employees with programs and activities that represent the higher purpose. 

7. Energizing the Brand

Molson Canadian found a signature story about a prior success to serve as an operating model. The brewer created a professional hockey rink high in the Purcell Mountains in British Columbia. Players were selected based on their personal stories about their obsession with hockey. The campaign illustrated the emotional side of the brand. It also provided guidance and inspiration for future programs.

Signature stories can play a role in the informed creativity that is the heart of developing strategies and programs. They provide a vivid picture that can energize and inspire with low ambiguity and high authenticity and relevance. When researching to inform the development of strategies or programs, uncovering or reviewing signature stories can be the key to the insights you need.

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