The power of "story"

Stories are insanely powerful in marketing, careers, and life in general.

The power of "story"

Even though I’m a technical marketer, I recently said “we have to think about what story we want to tell, first!” to the CEO and board members of a chain with more than 230 restaurants and 10,000 employees. I live and breathe numbers but instead of blasting statistics into the CEO and board members’ faces, I spoke about “story”!

Am I insane? Maybe! But the reason I did this is less my fuzzy brain. I could have created a catalog of technical marketing optimizations but it wouldn’t have had the same impact on the company. That’s because times have changed.

Reach isn’t enough, you need to stick out

When I started my career in SEO in 2011, all companies wanted was reach, reach, reach. It was so prevalent that the consultancy I worked for was called “The Reach Group”. No Joke.

It made sense at the time. The internet wasn’t as stuffed as it is today. Simple optimization tactics helped you to be found and more people converted when coming to your site compared to nowadays. Heck, even ads weren’t burning users out as much as today.

That’s not the case anymore.

We live in times of choice overload and attention scarcity. Reach is easy to get, you just need enough money. Run a ton of ads and book those unskippable 30 seconds YouTube videos. Many companies do that, in fact.

But you feel that this might not be a good idea, don’t you ;-)? Deep down you know that just holding your logo into people's faces isn’t the answer. Do you enjoy these ad formats when you go home and watch YouTube at night? Or browse Forbes and have to wait for 5 seconds until you can read the article? Of course not! You switch tabs and consume something else.

Reach is not enough, you need to stick out. The question is: how do you stick out? The first thought that comes to mind is: “by being different” but that’s a fallacy, my friend.

You don’t stick out by being different but by being heard

You reach people by addressing their needs and problems authentically. That will give you their attention.

The medium for speaking to people is called “story". It affects all marketing channels: SEO, paid ads, viral marketing, social media marketing… Everything! That’s why “story” was the first thing I spoke about in that meeting. It's a the best brand position tool.

The brand I consult got old over the years and kind of forgot to prepare for digital #classic. Besides many missed opportunities, the company also didn’t have a story. Their story consisted of coupons, cheap food, and fast service.

That might have worked well with previous generations, but not Millennials.

One of the largest generations in history is about to move into its prime spending years. Millennials are poised to reshape the economy; their unique experiences will change the ways we buy and sell, forcing companies to examine how they do business for decades to come."

Goldman Sachs

Millennials are also the biggest generation in US history. They grew up playing video games, watching TV online and streaming music. The price point is still important to them but the experience is more important.

Millennials don’t go to a restaurant because the food is cheap and plenty. They go to a restaurant because of the experience they can share on social media. They are also social, so they want to bring their friends. And they care about the foods’ ingredients because they’re health conscious. No wonder Red Lobster is so popular amongst Millennials!

To bring it down to one point: Millennials want food with a story. “Today’s diners, Millennial and otherwise, respond to dining options that offer an experience, rather than just an opportunity to fill up"


Now we know that story is important. The next question should be:

How do you develop a story that’s being heard?

There are 6 characteristics of a successful story that help you to develop your own.

1) An authentic story is the child of a brand’s core values and culture

As Ben Horowitz of Andreessen & Horowitz recently pointed out, culture is the sum of a collective behavior. It’s shaped by every big decision and everything people do when left to their own device.

At the same time, every company should have core values. Amazon is a good example. They embrace things like “Think big”, ”Insist on the highest standards” and “earn trust”.

When we marry the two, by definition we get an authentic story because it’s lived by most employees. It’s lived by most employees because smart companies don’t have folks who don’t fit into their culture and cannot embrace their core values. When people interact with the company they typically do so with service, customer support or sales. If those touch points don’t fit into the company’s story, people will not believe it. It gives the brand a bad reputation!

2) It’s not the brand’s History

The story can include the history, but shouldn’t consist of the company’s history. The eggs you can hatch from history is the story of the company’s founder or leader because he created the culture and core values.

That’s only an option. Most people don’t know who started Coca Cola (it was Asa Griggs Candler) and they don’t have to for the brand to be successful. Most people do know who started Facebook, though. The story of Mark Zuckerberg is also the story of Facebook. It’s so strong it became a movie.

The point I want to make is that I see a lot of companies mistaking story for History and that’s plain boring.

3) The story connects people with their favorite moments

The story should address a memory people have with the product. Look at the success of Pokemon Go. It got so successful because Millennials played that video game as a kid and always dreamed of playing it in the real world one day. And then it became (almost) true.

Coca Cola’s current story is “taste the feeling”.

What they mean is “taste the feeling when you’re out with your friends having a good time and drink some Coca-Cola”. It’s “taste the feeling when you watch a horror movie in the movie theater and drink Coca Cola”. You see where I’m taking this.

4) Story shapes the customers’ personality

When people buy, they buy something that shapes their personality. Books make them appear smart, an expensive car makes them appear rich. As a company, you want your story to represent the way your product makes your customers appear.

Microsoft wants to help people achieve more.

As broad as it is, people who use Microsoft’s products want to appear as overachievers.

GM’s story is not good because the customer cannot identify wit it.

Instead, it seems more like a goal of the company than their story.

Your customers are also the people you want to hire, by the way. We join companies because we want to belong to their tribe, to put it in Seth Godin lingo. We want to identify ourselves with what the company represents, its mission. That’s why we need to know our customer’s personality.

5) Story isn’t static

No brand should tell the same story forever. Our world is changing - fast - and so are the products we buy, the content we consume and the leaders we follow.

Microsoft won’t always make the same product, so they have to change their story. The same applies to a social network like Facebook. It started out connecting people at Harvard, then connected university students and now connects the world. Those are three different stories.

Make sure the story you’re telling reflects the time your company is operating in.

6) Story has to be homogenous

When crafting a story you have to know what it is and what it is not. You cannot claim your products to be innovative and to value tradition in the same story. In your head, it might sound good but to the customers, it comes across as unserious.

Crafting a story that is heard also means making trade-offs. There is no way it can be heard by everybody. Some people will not agree with the worldview the story reflects. Therefore, others will resonate with it even more. Some people believe in global warming, others not so much.

Tell a story that’s believable. Another reason to work your culture and core values into your story.

To summarize, your story should be

  • authentic
  • more than your history
  • connect with memories
  • shape personality
  • homogenous

Now that it’s formulated, it has to be shared. That’s where technical marketing comes into play. Your story has to be told in your YouTube videos, Instagram ads, on your blog and through SEO (meta-titles, long-form content, keywords you target, etc.).

This builds brand identity that will make people click on result #2 instead of #1 because they recognize your brand from the resonance with your story.

And that’s why it was the first thing I pointed at as a technical marketer.

What is your story?