Why “strategic storytelling”?

Most companies advertise or otherwise communicate with the people they'd like to turn into customers. And many are working hard and spending even harder to share those messages. But few companies have compelling stories to tell. Communicating generic messages like "Sale ends Friday" simply won't work, unless your product is so unique and meaningfully different that your customers are clamoring to have one.

Yesterday, I heard the ice cream truck driving through the neighborhood, with calliope music blaring in its Pied Piper attempt to lure sugar-crazed children from their homes and back yards. That guy behind the wheel doesn't even have to tell a story -- because he's the only merchant offering individually wrapped ice cream treats at the foot of our driveways. Hot, hungry children and tired parents who are counting the days until school starts will buy, repeatedly and indiscriminately.

But if you're like most business leaders, your product or service has stiff competition. You have to find a way to help people understand your value and your difference. Are you the low-cost leader with industry-best operational efficiency, like a WalMart? The leader in product excellence, like Nike? Or the stand-out provider of customer intimacy, like Nordstroms?

At the risk of using too many metaphors in a brief blog post, we find that our clients often can't see the forest for the trees. They are so busy managing the demanding day-to-day operations of their organization -- from motivating their people to sourcing their materials to managing the books -- that they don't take the time to really examine what drives the customer's buying behaviors, what the competition is up to, and what will move the dial in terms of revenue. That's where strategic storytelling comes in. With a compelling and memorable story -- that is unique and "ownable" by your brand -- you can begin to pull away from the competition. Your products and services will sell in the short term, and your company brand will survive in the long-run.

Last week, I saw a commercial for Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Cancer treatment is big business in the United States, and -- while it's uncomfortable to even talk about profiting from illness and fear -- organizations like CTCA must find a way to convince the public that they are the only choice for innovative treatment options. In their newest commercial, they show clips of people playing backyard soccer with their kids and a woman getting a piggyback ride from her husband in the park. They tell a story about happy, healthy people living the kinds of lives we can relate to and admire, and then they tell us all those moments "began with a second opinion" at CTCA. While I can't speak to their bedside manner, technology or patient outcomes, I can tell you that this storytelling approach in their marketing is a strong one. As the viewer -- and someone who is well aware that there are many, many oncology practices available in a 50-mile radius -- I am left with a very clear message: If I or a loved one has cancer and the future seems unsure, I have to get a second opinion from CTCA. The commercial doesn't waste any of its valuable 30 seconds talking about generic, universal things like "integrated care" or "world-class doctors." Instead, it focuses relentlessly on its story.

Every brand can have a compelling story -- whether you're selling iPods or ice cream or integrated cancer care. And stories matter.

Perhaps it was inevitable that I would commit my career to storytelling. As a student, I was fascinated with mythologies -- Greek, Roman, Hebrew, American, religious and secular. I even began naming my dogs for goddesses (I have had shelties named Calypso, Luna and Chloe). The timeless nature of our mythologies is a strong reminder that stories matter. They help to explain the world. They make our existence relevant, safe, inviting, romantic or meaningful. As marketers, we too have an opportunity to explain and to inspire. So whether you're trying to change the world or raise your stock price (or both), a good place to start is with a story that sticks.


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