Business Storytelling: Engaging Customers through Stories
Sheeba Manish / September 10, 2022
13 min read • 2581 words
Initiating Conversations with Customers and Keeping them Engaged with the Brand
Apple may be the company with the sleek line of computers, smartwatches and air pods today. It wasn’t always so. One of its founders Steve Jobs had the remarkable ability to share stories about how he started Apple with his friend and partner Steve Wozniak. He spoke in anecdotes and stories to form a deep connection with his customers. His passion for his brand came through his stories.
His storytelling was legendary and can be evinced in this story about how his college calligraphy classes helped design the font used in the Apple computer.
Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life.
But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.
Not only does Jobs tell us an interesting origin story about a very important element in his product journey, in doing so he connects with all of us who from time to time have dropped out of planned journeys and taken journeys in unplanned territories. The emotions this story evokes goes way beyond product features and capacities. He transforms the narrative of Apple by talking beyond speed, chips and technology to a creation that is designed keeping the customer in mind, always.
In an interview with Newsweek in 1985, Jobs had this to say about Apple.
To me, Apple exists in the spirit of the people that work there, and the sort of philosophies and purpose by which they go about their business. So if Apple just becomes a place where computers are a commodity item and where the romance is gone, and where people forget that computers are the most incredible invention that man has ever invented, then I'll feel I have lost Apple. But if I'm a million miles away and all those people still feel those things and they're still working to make the next great personal computer, then I will feel that my genes are still in there.
Jobs always spoke through stories and he kept the narrative about Apple alive in such unique ways that its band of fans continue to be attracted to this brand not only for its excellent performance and design but also on account of the legend of Jobs. His black turtlenecks, his product release speeches, and his incredible entrepreneurship continue to live on and fuel the Apple brand.
Enduring brands like McDonald's, Nike, Facebook, and Tesla have a common thread. They don’t just sell products, they tell you stories. All the time.
Nike doesn’t just tell customers that they have the strongest soles, the most absorbent fabric or that their shoes have been tested for all kinds of conditions. They also build products with great stories. For example, they tell their customers that if they buy a pair of Jordan shoes, they are celebrating athleticism and winning, not unlike the shoes namesake Michael Jordan.
Jordan shoes embody his sporting excellence, and his story is intertwined with the brand’s. That’s why people buy Jordan shoes and that’s why it went from generating $3 million in sales in 1984 to $3 million in sales every 5 hours in 2022. (Front office Sports)
Business storytelling is a powerful tool. It helps a brand create an emotional connection with its customers. Stories help brands forge a strong bond with their audience that cannot always be explained logically. If your business can do this, rest assured, you will transform customers into advocates for your brand.
Business storytelling persuades users to try your products and services more than facts or statistics alone. Stories help customers remember the brand story and shortlist it while making purchase decisions. Business storytelling evokes emotions and thoughts in users much more than a statement of features alone. It generates an untouchable, irreplicable connection with the user that goes beyond utility and functionality alone.
How do you tell a great business story?
Good business storytelling has some characteristics. Let’s explore a few of them.
Tell stories that are authentic and true
Make sure that you are truthful and transparent when you tell a business story. A business story with holes and false claims reduces credibility and trust in customers. Telling authentic stories that reveal your business’ values helps build bridges that connect your business with its customers.
This is true for Mailchimp, an enormously successful company that started with email marketing for small businesses. Today they have moved to marketing developer tools and e-commerce marketing platform for entrepreneurs.
Mark DiCristina is the VP of brand at Mailchimp and head of Mailchimp Studios. He spearheads Mailchimp Presents, a collection of original content by Mailchimp with podcasts and videos. He outlines the objective of starting Mailchimp Presents:
Mailchimp Presents is an entertainment platform for entrepreneurs. Mailchimp's mission has always been about empowering small businesses and helping them succeed and to grow. And we've always done that with software.
But over the last couple of years, we began to feel like there are other ways that we could do that. We could make content that inspires them, motivates them, and makes them feel like they're not alone. And so Mailchimp Presents is a platform, a destination for content with that in mind.
…And what we found with the original content is that it's more durable, lasts longer, and doesn't require people to be interrupted. It changes our relationship with our customers. So now instead of interrupting people all the time, they want to come and engage with us.
…For Mailchimp, we have an audience. Over years and years, we've built this really big audience. We have a very big access to lots of people and to our customers. And they trust us. And so we have the audience built-in. So why should we always be spending money to be in front of them when we can just make the thing, we can still be in front of them, we can have a better relationship with them, and we get to keep the content_?
Here is an excellent sample of business storytelling by Mailchimp Presents that celebrates the spirit of the small entrepreneur without pitching in a plug-in for Mailchimp’s products
Mailchimp tells stories that their target audience can connect with instantly. The stories are unique, real and relatable. This should be the focus of your business too. Shortlist on the message and the key emotion you’d like to share in the story. Customers are always able to sense the trueness of the story and will connect with it. If they feel the story is contrived it may push them away from the brand.
Tell a story that solves a customer need or a pain point
Business storytelling can be used to generate relatable content that speaks to customer pain points and offers a solution in a story format. The iconic Dollar Shaving Club video cut to the chase and how.
Founder Dubin talks plainly about his no-nonsense razor blades that cost a dollar and does what a great razor should do — give a great shave. The story in their ad employs a back-to-basics approach. The Dollar Shaving Club tells users to stop getting overwhelmed with choices and worrying about forgetting to change their razors every month.
The brand offers customers a good razor with great blades and an aloe vera strip for moisturizing. Signing up for their subscription boxes means customers will never forget to change their old razors and use new ones every month.
For audiences that were hitherto used to being marketed razors that were made of the same material used to make rockets, this was a fresh new message. This story continues to attract users and has been viewed 28mn times.
This DTC (Direct to Consumer) brand captured the attention of customers using business storytelling. Their story was so powerful that after it was first aired The Dollar Shaving Club received 12,000 orders within 24 hours.
Similarly, you can identify the need your brand is satisfying or the problem it is trying to solve. This comes from customer insights that are available through purchase data, comments and feedback. Use this to empathize with customers and offer them business solutions through a story.
Reinforce brand values through stories
Identifying the values of your brand and sharing stories that communicate these values makes for great business storytelling. It helps relay your brand values without sounding preachy.
Asket uses storytelling to relay its brand values to customers. This Swedish garment brand enlists the pursuit of less as its key brand value. They believe in less clutter, less waste and more authenticity. They achieve this through zero compromises, transparency and lifecycle responsibility. They share how they achieve each.
These brand values are further supported by no-fuss non-lookbooks, product editorials, hits and misses, and market insights. One of the publications is _A framework for responsible business practices in apparel. _This reflects their commitment to not only doing what they advocate but that they are ready to share how.
Asket showcased great product stories through which customers further understand that the brand is customer focused, crafts premium products and offers a great fit, all sustainably.
Identify brand values and look for stories from customers, on product creation and staff. Share these stories to convey to your audience your brand value and how it is incorporated in the business.
Use new stories to reach new audiences
Brands can have enduring stories with a core as old as their inception. Sticking to the same narrative over time can make a brand seem out of touch. As brands learn more about customers and their needs, they can retell stories. Brands that are seeking new audiences must also learn to retell stories to engage and interact with them.
Tupperware started as a brand that empowers women and was popular for its Tupperware parties, where women sold Tupperware products. Their agents were the sole points of distribution. Its inventor Earl Tupper took the Tupperware party route when it failed to sell in retail outlets.
Women were the primary decision-makers about cookware and all of Tupperware’s brand stories kept them at the heart of their narrative. Tupperware products were great to store in, serve in and helped the hostess relax.
However, with time Tupperware was no more the newest or the best in storage and cookware. It was considered a vintage brand that hadn’t learned to move with the times. The brand story needed a retelling to make it modern without compromising its original brand values.
Tupperware moved to a new band story with the tagline “Confidence Becomes You”. They paired it with new visuals and a new tone of voice which is utilitarian and functional rather than just transactional. Its collateral reflected changing times.
Their new tagline, brand stories and campaigns still have women at the heart of their narrative but with a far more expanded role than just within the kitchen.
“Our new look and feel, tone of voice and brand signature, ‘Confidence Becomes You’, celebrate our purpose, who we are – and always have been – inside Tupperware and, importantly, allows us to connect with people in a simple and consistent way.”, says Tupperware CEO Rick Goings.
Direct customers to a clear call to action with stories
An example of a successful use of the story format is the Instagram and Facebook stories feature. The Meta Business Centre offers some useful advice to businesses about getting good Call to Action responses.
- The story should have a clear objective around which the content is built.
- The main message should come out early in the story.
- Logo and other brand elements should ideally be presented early on in the content to increase brand awareness and more calls to action.
CTA goals could include increasing leads, collecting emails to send a newsletter, improving sales, a social follow call to action, a tweet or a product enquiry. The story must incorporate these objectives.
Creating an emotional connection with the brand audience can be a difficult but very fulfilling exercise. Using a powerful story with customers can deepen the brand connection and build an emotional resonance that is simply not possible by merely listing product features.
The Dove Toxic Influence film is one such example. Dove has since 2004 taken the high ground and urged its audience that beauty is inclusive. Its campaigns have consistently pointed out that beauty is much more than great skin and beautiful teeth.
This film was part of the Dove Self-Esteem project and the expected Call to Action was to download the "Detox Your Feed: The Parents Guide and the "The Confidence Kit"
It has taken the position of a beauty advocate that showcases different perceptions of beauty, the impact of social media on how beauty is perceived and loving your real self. Without talking about its products directly Dove still connects with men and women as a conscientious brand.
Business Storytelling: The Way Forward
The way forward in business storytelling is the use of data to tell stories. Using real-time data, businesses can tell powerful stories based on customer insights.
Rapid strides are being made in collecting real-time data in businesses. This helps brands tell stories that are targeted and relevant to a brand’s customers. Data visualizations can be used by marketers to help customers better understand their offerings and make decisions based on them.
Stories are meaningful because they are memorable, impactful and personal according to Jennifer Aaker, behavioural scientist and fellow at the Stanford School of Management. She asserts that stories have more meaning for customers than statistics alone and we remember and connect with stories and the storyteller better.
Good business storytelling helps cut through the noise and resonate with customers emotionally and intellectually.