We humans are wired to connect to, and relate with one another through stories. In a 2014 Techcrunch article, Kobie Fuller reminds us that stories also “connect us to places, products and brands and help us identify which brands we champion by substituting promotion with engagement.” Thanks to social media, startups can drive customers by “leveraging human emotion through the art of storytelling.” To be successful, founders must learn what drives early adopters to make purchasing decisions. Fuller notes that “creative, emotion-driven marketing enables any size company to drive product awareness with millions of consumers in real-time. These digital and social direct-to-consumer channels have replaced traditional advertising that once favored larger companies with big budgets.”
All good stories need a compelling arc, a villain (the problem) and a hero (the solution) as well as clarity of purpose to make sure that you are tapping into, as Fuller says, the story button part of the brain. A well-told story helps a startup connect through emotion-driven marketing, which creates more authentic moments of customer engagement. A well-told story helps a startup connect through emotion-driven marketing, which creates more authentic moments of customer engagement. The best marketing uses both art (empathic listening to better understand consumer needs and wants) and science (research and data analysis to identify consumer trends). In her 2017 Forbes article Jenna Gross states simply that “art gives marketing impact; data gives it direction.”
“A brand without a narrative is a brand without customers.” – Mingo Press
As Simon Sinek demonstrated so eloquently in his 2009 TED Talk, customers don’t make buying decisions based on what you do or how you do it. They want to know why your organization exists and why they should care. His iconic Golden Circle diagram identified the 3 key steps in the sales process and why most companies have it backwards. A typical sales call, says Sinek, starts with what the company does, as in “we make computers,” and quickly moves into how they do it: “we use the latest technology and great design” and then they wait for the potential customer to buy their product. It turns out that people are much more motivated to buy an idea, which is why getting clear on your company’s “why” is so critical to sales. When you can articulate why buying your product will change your customer’s life for the better, competition falls away. Martin Luther King didn’t have a plan, says Sinek. He had a dream. It’s hard to imagine 250,000 people showing up to hear a plan.
The most successful brands tap into the power of stories and use them to increase customer engagement. A great example is Airbnb.
In the second half of the 20th Century, travel accommodations for the average American family, were a hit or miss affair. Holiday Inn rose to brand leadership status in large part because it guaranteed that no matter where you traveled in the U.S., your experience would be exactly the same, thereby taking the guesswork out of travel accommodations.
Founded in 2008, Airbnb is a San Francisco company built on a diametrically opposed brand promise, based on the needs of a traveler who is looking for an immersive travel experience. There are two beneficiaries in an Airbnb experience. Travelers who gain a unique understanding of a place and the locals who become brand ambassadors for their town, their city, and their country.
Unlike the Holiday Inn franchise, Airbnb is not a brick and mortar company and sells no product. Instead, it curates content and within a few years, it grew into a marketplace for people to list, discover and book unique accommodations around the world. It now offers 600,000 listings in 190 countries that includes 1,400+ castles and attracts 100,000 monthly users to their website and app. Most recently, Airbnb has partnered with Hearst to create AirbnbMag to help travelers “see the world through a local lens.” The stories and tips in the magazine (and digital edition), are hyperlocal but also universal. Unlike a conventional travel magazine, AirbnbMag is more than just pretty pictures. It also depicts real life stories from real people.
From a marketing perspective, Airbnb and AirbnbMag are using their customers’ stories to sell their brand. It’s a brilliant twist on traditional advertising and much more effective. We are far more likely to trust the stories of people who are sharing their personal travel experiences—both the good and the bad—then we are to trust a company’s website to sell us on the benefits of immersive travel. This is what makes a magazine like AirbnbMag so effective. It provides authentic, curated content. The brand has come full circle.
Good Stories Build Brands
Think of the last PowerPoint presentation you attended. What do you remember from it?
Maya Angelou famously said that “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” The average PowerPoint presentation isn’t built around a story but instead favors facts and text heavy slides that often leave listeners dazed and confused. In a 2017 interview, Black Sheep founder, Jeff Black said that “leaders need to get back to being messengers instead of just reading off presentation slides” and that using the “power of a good story is the best way to influence others.” Black also reminds us that “Steve Jobs …was the messenger, he was the star of the show — not the PowerPoint slide.”
“An estimated 33M PowerPoint presentations are given every day in the U.S. According to a 2018 Wall Street Journal article, bad PowerPoint presentations cost companies $252 million/day in wasted time.” – Tomayo Consulting.com
Jobs knew that complex ideas presented in a simple way, were more likely to be remembered and as a result, he typically used a one-sentence summary of a product to capture the main message he wanted to deliver. Shortly after launching the first iPhone in 2007, Jobs announced, “Apple reinvents the phone.” It was the only sentence on the slide. He repeated the headline several times during his presentation to drive home the point and to make sure that people would remember it. A Google search for the phrase turns up roughly 25,000 links, most of which come directly from articles and blog posts covering the launch presentation.
Storytelling helps us connect with complex ideas and engage with brands on a personal level and as a result, we are more loyal to their products. Before launching a new product or service, startups should consider adding a story that ties it to a human experience. Stories not only build emotional connections but also make a startup more relatable and accessible to early adopters who will help build a community of brand evangelists.