I invented the grab bag post as a forum to share three vignettes on business storytelling that otherwise couldn’t stand on their own.
And here’s the latest …
Serendipitous Nature of Social Media Breaks LeBron James News on My Twitter Feed
On Friday LeBron James officially announced that he is taking his talents back to Cleveland.
But my Twitter followers who have put up with my bad puns and periodic snark were rewarded on Thursday when Bud Shaw, sports journalist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, passed the following tweet my way.
Leaving nothing to interpretation — unless you think Lyndon Johnson’s grave is headed to Cleveland — we knew LeBron’s decision on Thursday.
Contrast as a Storytelling Technique
Journalists, the masters of business storytelling, depend on contrast as a staple in their writing.
Communicators would be wise to follow suit. No question, contrast is one of my favorite storytelling techniques.
Here’s one quick example from The Wall Street Journal and its coverage of the Mexico/The Netherlands World Cup match.
The contrast — simply put, more orange than green — tells a story of Dutch control.
Now, take a look at the graphic with only data on The Netherlands.
The storytelling disappears.
Contrast by definition must contain a frame, communicating the difference between point A and point B.
Most companies want to jump right to point B, especially if point A depicts any semblance of a negative light.
Visual Storytelling Meant to Guide Bathroom Behavior
Most of us in business communications come by way of words.
We recognize the increasing importance of visual storytelling, but making the shift can feel like asking Dairy Queen to offer healthy alternatives. Anyone up for a kale blizzard? Not exactly a natural transition.
The head of our Beijing office, Lucia Liu, passed on this example of visual storytelling posted on a Sina weibo account (Chinese micro blogging platform).
You don’t need to read Chinese to get the gist of these visuals or the levity.
I particularly liked the first image discouraging people from standing in the trash can while dropping the paper towel on the floor. I can see how that might be a problem.
I attended the Communicator’s Conference in Portland last week where keynote speaker Jim Olson shared Starbucks’ commitment to storytelling in its communications.
When asked how Starbucks measures the impact of storytelling, he explained that it’s still early days.
I’d like to answer the question, but before doing so it’s useful to dust off the axiom, “Interesting trumps dull.”
The same qualities that shape our entertainment tastes – drama, failure, redemption and Breaking Bad-like bizarre – play a role in media relations. Storytelling techniques borrow from these concepts and have the potential to push a pitch into the interesting quadrant (as perceived by journalists).
Back to the question –
You can measure the storytelling lift in media relations activities.
As the Internet commoditizes news announcements, journalists increasingly look for fodder that allows them to write unique stories as opposed to those already in the public domain.
In addition, there’s a greater premium on fresh points of view to insert into their stories. Offering raw content – even pre-packaged executive quotes – based on the principles of storytelling allows journalists to do just that.
You can measure the spirit of this concept.
Reverse-engineer a company’s coverage over a given period of time, categorizing the stories based on the following:
- Industry or trend
- Feature or blog post on the company (not tied to news)
For old-school approaches to media relations, this type of benchmark will inevitably show that most of the media coverage comes from news. If the company is a top three player in its space, it might fall into some competitive coverage and industry/trend pieces.
But without a storytelling dimension, stand-alone pieces on the company, arguably the most valuable, will be scarce. Building out storytelling fodder will increase what we’ve come to call one-off stories as well as the company’s voice in industry pieces.
Simply breaking down your coverage by news-driven coverage vs. non-news coverage can be revealing.
Here’s another cue that storytelling in your media relations is working. Measure the amount of content emailed to journalists that finds its way into published stories. As workloads crush journalists, some will use slices of emailed content if it’s narrative grade, not corporate speak.
For example, The New York Times wrote a story on China last year that included us. The highlighted vignette was taken from an email.
Definitely not corporate speak.
Drilling down to the next level, you can even measure what constitutes storytelling fodder. For example, we analyzed non-news stories in a mix of business publications. Anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of the content ended up being anecdotal.
Yet, the communications function (internal + outside resources) often creates content with few or no anecdotes. If the PR function were to capture its top anecdotes from 2013 and the percent of these anecdotes that appeared in the media, it would be a revealing benchmark. Because if your anecdotes are appearing in the media, deeper coverage often isn’t far behind.
Combined, these metrics offer a decent look at the impact of storytelling on your media relations effort, but they’re hardly a comprehensive list. If you have additional thoughts, by all means expand the list.
The same folks who publish “the molecule of the week” and find humor in the periodic table have cracked the mainstream with storytelling techniques worthy of a big brand.
Before jumping to the tactic, it’s useful to rewind the tape to Nov. 27, 2013. That’s when the Los Angeles County court sided with the fine citizens of Irwindale and ordered Sriracha to cease operations until they could figure out a way to stop that dreadful odor emanating from the factory.
As I wrote back in 2012, here’s a brand that says the hell with branding and it works. In spite of snafu with its Irwindale factory, Sriracha has enjoyed an ever-expanding public profile. In the Google Trends chart below, you can how searches on [sriracha] started climbing roughly four years ago.
The Nov. 27 court order triggered the biggest spike on the chart. Regardless, Sriracha’s public profile continues to push up and to the right largely driven by popularity that transcends the foodies.
Which brings us back to the American Chemical Society.
The ACS PR smelled a PR opportunity – can’t resist a bad pun – to leverage Sriracha in reaching a mass audience. While they couldn’t predict when Sriracha would be in the news again, they recognized that the power of the Sriracha brand guaranteed a steady of stream of media coverage. And by explaining in plain language the science behind the sauce and the reaction from one’s taste buds in a video, the ACS stood to insert its voice into future Sriracha stories.
OK, that’s not exactly true.
The video created by the ACS delivers this ditty on the chemistry behind Sriracha:
“Inside the red chilies is a group of molecules called capsaicinoids. Within this Group, two molecules pack up to 95 percent of the blistering punch, capsaicin and dihyrdocapsaicin. These two molecules trigger the TRPV1 receptor protein in the mouth which usually responds to scorching temperatures above 109 degrees Fahrenheit; thus, causing the spicy hot sensation. Then the body responds to the capsaicins burned by releasing a pain-killing endorphin rush kind of like what a jogger experiences after a long run.”
While not exactly language for the technically challenged, the storytelling techniques in the video and underlying PR strategy worked. Numerous media properties including NPR, The Atlantic and USA Today published stories on the video. Plus, the evergreen quality of the video means continued exposure for the ACS as we saw this month with Sriracha once again in the media for that smelly Irwindale factor.
One final comment on the ACS video –
After explaining how the chemical makeup preserves Sriracha even without refrigeration, the video calls out this information as useless:
“… because as far as we understand, it’s impossible for a bottle of Sriracha to go bad without eating it all because again, it goes good on absolutely everything.”
While no one enjoys a language tug of war more than I do, the ACS should probably steer clear of double entendres.
Still, levity in storytelling does make for a potent formula.
Such storytelling isn’t easy to find.
When organizations and consultants go through branding exercises and come to be part of associating words with their brands, they rarely highlight “cold” or “heartless” (suppose someone selling ice fishing equipment might go for “cold.”).
After scouring the Web I finally found one.
Meet Nick Murray, a self-professed “premier speaker” on the financial services industry.
I don’t know Mr. Murray. He could be great at his profession and the second warmest human being in the world behind the Dali Lama.
But if you want information on Mr. Murray speaking at your fine organization, you’ll come to his speaking page structured with five core sections: Fee, Deposit, Expenses, NO-NOs and Conference Calls.
In spirit of analyzing how to suffocate storytelling techniques, let’s examine each module.
That’s big of Nick to be open (no guarantee) to allowing the client to fork over another $4,500 for him to speak a second time on the same day.
I always get a kick out of someone talking about himself/herself in the third person. Famous athletes employ this technique, “It wasn’t a good night for LeBron.”
I suppose Mr. Murray figured a clause like “Nick will NOT return the deposit if he has to cancel the engagement at any time for any reason” might not go over well.
Glad we’re clear on who keeps the original receipts and who receives the photocopies. I can’t even count the number of business relationships that have soured from this issue.
To Mr. Murray’s credit, he doesn’t make any weird requests like insisting that a six-ounce jar of watermelon Jelly Bellies must be in a hotel room upon arrival.
No question, this is the section where Mr. Murray bares his soul.
First, I love the use of informal language in the subhead, which softens the point. Going with the formal “What Nick Will Not Do” might put off potential buyers.
Still, if I am a potential buyer, I would find some of this language confusing.
Like what is the difference between people are drinking and people who were just drinking alcohol?
And while I appreciate that Mr. Murray wants all attention on him, the section on speaking at breakfast or lunch leaves too much open for interpretation. If he’s speaking in front of 100 people over lunch, must every single person be finished? What if just two people are slow polishing off the peach cobbler? Does sipping coffee count as eating? If the waitstaff can stand perfectly still like statures on the perimeter, are they allowed to listen, and if yes, does this incur an extra cost?
Savvy pricing strategy.
If $10K for a keynote is too high, you can still get Mr. Murray on a conference call at half the price point.
Knowing the audience will be so captivated they will insist on the 30-day audio playback for another $5K, Nick ends up with the same fee and with zero risk of running into people “who were just drinking.”
Obviously, I don’t have any insights into Mr. Murray’s operation.
It could be that the cold and heartless business communications serve as a filter to keep the speaker requests at a manageable level.
But I’m guessing that’s not the case.
Bloomberg Businessweek published an article by Ty Montague back in September, “Is Your Company a Storyteller? Or a Storydoer?”
After a quick scan, I determined the piece focused on storytelling in business and tweeted out the link.
In a weird juxtaposition of social sharing, a retweet of my original missive (thank you Runar from Oslo) prompted me to actually read the article.
I should have read it the first time.
I’m all for contrarian viewpoints, but the idea that successful companies are “storydoers” – not storytellers – carries the absurdity of watching the emperor minus clothes.
Storytelling is a means, not an end. It can help the outside world get to know a corporation or organization. Storytelling can inspire. In the right hands, it builds equity in the brand. At the very least, it pushes an organization a smidgen closer to the interesting quadrant.
But storytelling is not a product. It doesn’t send a surge of dopamine through the customer (unless you’re a communications consultancy with enlightened clients).
Let’s break down the Businessweek article –
The old way to market a business was storytelling. Today, telling your story isn’t enough. In the rising number of brands and unending din of social media, it is increasingly difficult—and expensive—for companies to shout loud enough and long enough to be heard through the megaphone of paid advertising. In response, a new kind of company, one with a clear narrative conveyed through action, not communication, is breaking through the clutter.
I’m lost. The companies shouting “me, me, me” aren’t telling stories. And if Mr. Montague’s premise that actions alone break through the clutter were true, how do you explain Warren Buffett spending so much time on CNBC, “a touch more powder on the nose?”
Today’s most successful businesses are storydoers.
Storydoing companies create products and services that are manifestations of an authentic and meaningful narrative. They learn to organize themselves around this narrative and then express it through product design, customer service, and even how they reward and encourage employees. Whereas in storytelling companies, a brand’s story is the domain of the marketing department, in storydoing companies the story is weaved into all aspects of an organization’s culture.
As a result, storydoing firms are more nimble, adaptive to change, and, growing evidence suggests, more efficient businesses. Reebok and Adidas are storytellers; they make ads to sell shoes. Toms Shoes, on the other hand, is a storydoer. Through its one-for-one movement (for every pair purchased, a pair is donated), Toms sells more than shoes. It sells a belief system. Similarly, in the cleaning category, Tide and Clorox are storytellers. Their ads are designed to sell cleaning products and nothing more. Method is a storydoer that sells more than soap, it sells a worldview: people against dirty.
The directions didn’t work. I’m lost again. Storytelling and advertising are not one and the same. But there is a word for what Toms Shoes does. It’s called philanthropy.
What makes these storydoing companies so interesting isn’t the fact they’re unique. It’s that they aren’t unique at all. Today, dozens of companies in multiple sectors are building large businesses by pursuing the principles of storydoing: from startups beginning with a new idea and a clean slate, to large multinational corporations beginning to do the difficult but necessary work of restructuring themselves to behave in this new way.
I challenge you to find one startup pitching venture capitalists with a business model called “Storydoing.” Now, that would get a rise from the gang at Andreessen Horowitz.
When it is done correctly, storydoing is simply better business. For instance, the best storydoing companies can reduce their cost of paid media. Sometimes to zero. Red Bull is a great example of a company that spends almost no money on paid advertising but instead conveys its story through events and experiences created and owned by the company (Flugtag, the Red Bull Air Races, content like the snowboarding film The Art of Flight).
Finally, a line that’s kind of true. When companies apply storytelling techniques to their communications, more people gravitate to what they have to say, including journalists. This can allow a company to reduce its paid media spend.
There are other benefits as well. One core attribute of storydoing companies is that they have a clearly defined purpose, transcending “creating shareholder value” and “maximizing profits.” This characteristic creates intense loyalty among customers and employees alike. Storydoing companies don’t just practice what they preach—they preach by practicing. JetBlue (JBLU), for instance, is a storydoing airline in a business sector full of long-established storytelling competitors. JetBlue’s higher purpose is “to bring humanity back to air travel.” JetBlue “tells” that story by creating better customer experiences at every possible point of contact. Its story has always been spread primarily by word of mouth—it does very little advertising, and it only advertises in cities it flies to or from. This has led to some unusual outcomes. Several years ago, as JetBlue contemplated expansion into new markets, it commissioned a national survey. One of the most notable findings of the survey was that it was the most beloved airline in the city of Chicago. JetBlue didn’t even fly to Chicago at the time.
No question, everyone wants a higher purpose than just causing the cash register to go ka-ching. That’s why organizations including public companies strive to carve out a mission that’s meaningful and relevant to its employee base. I’ll bet not even JetBlue has a chapter in its employee handbook called “storydoer.” Yet, the same handbook does explain the behavior and actions expected from the company’s employees.
Fanatical loyalty and devotion like this can have obvious quantitative business benefits, like greater pricing power, lower salary requirements for staff retention, and higher employee morale. There is a qualitative difference to storydoing companies as well, harder to measure, but just as meaningful for the customers and employees who experience it: Storydoing companies have a feeling of authenticity and humanity about them that has been lost at many traditional companies today. It makes them magnetic.
Again, there’s already a word for this in the English language: “culture.”
The future belongs to these storydoers. To survive, companies must learn to do their stories, or they will be disrupted and replaced by storydoing competitors.
Peter Drucker he’s not.
One final thought on the subject –
There have been companies that put the story before the deed. One immediately comes to mind.