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.
Changes at the Oregonian last month triggered gut-wrenching hoopla.
Naturally, a slew of media watchers weighed in with my favorite headline compliments of the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), “The Hamster Wheel is institutionalized at the Oregonian.”
On the surface, this might look like inside baseball, journalists bitching about the state of their profession. No one wants to be relegated to the hamster wheel, not even the hamsters.
Why should PR care about a metro daily with a print circulation that tips 185,000 and page views commensurate of a metro reach?
What’s taking place at The Oregonian reflects a bigger trend that absolutely has relevance to PR, an accelerated push by daily newspapers to find favorable economics in their online properties.
Take a look at the following slide from The Oregonian presentation to employees – leaked to the media, making for an ironic double entendre – that calls out the content goals:
The third bullet highlights the expectation that reporters will publish a minimum of three posts per day. Keep in mind this writing is on top of the reporters’ workload for the print product though a post might be a riff on article earmarked for print.
Such journalistic throughput requires a turn-the-crank mentality. It’s the difference between making a single point in a discussion and capturing the complete discussion.
Of course, if a single point is going to serve as your narrative, it had better be a darn good one – defining “darn good” as something informative, useful or amusing and ideally not in the public domain. In short, storytelling techniques still count.
Which brings us back to the opportunity for PR.
PR-generated content is still largely tuned to news announcements that sit in the public domain and full-blown features. To align with the changing makeup of daily newspapers, we need to be building out “single-point” content that still offers exploration and, yes, storytelling. Visual assets are also part of this equation as one glance at The Oregonian’s online business channel shows:
The upshot –
The demand versus supply ratio when it comes to content for online dailies can work in PR’s favor.
The CJR story closes with the following line:
“Here’s the bottom line: Real journalism should make people smarter. If your readers are losing IQ points reading your stuff, you are doing something wrong.”
All I can say there’s more nuance to “real journalism” than helping readers qualify for Mensa, although I did enjoy the CJR journalist channeling the 1982 best-seller, “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche.”
Who cares if Warren Buffett is still getting the hang of this Twitter thing?
The man knows how to apply storytelling techniques to business communications (heard he’s a pretty good investor too).
There’s no better example of Buffett’s storytelling acuity than his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders that came out over the weekend.
The typical shareholder letter is so dry that an action verb comes off as racy. But Buffett treats his letter to shareholders as a platform to bring out his humanity and show he’s just “one of the guys,” no easy feat when he’s one of the wealthiest people in the world with a worth of $53 billion and change. His shareholder letter as much as his regular TV appearances — “Hi Charlie, good to see you again” — is a tool for brand building.
Turning to his 2014 letter, even as he walks the reader through a narrative on the numbers, he breaks up the cadence with an “aw shucks” moment:
In a year in which most equity managers found it impossible to outperform the S&P 500, both Todd Combs and Ted Weschler handidly did so. Each now runs a portfolio exceeding $7 billion. They’ve earned it.
I must confess that their investments outperformed mine. (Charlie says I should add “by a lot.”) If such humiliating comparisons continue, I’ll have no choice but to cease talking about them.
Self-deprecation plays in Peoria. It’s a pattern in all of Buffett’s shareholder letters and one repeated in his most recent composition:
Fortunately, my blunders usually involved relatively small acquisitions. Our large buys have generally worked out well and, in a few cases, more than well. I have not, however, made my last mistake in purchasing either businesses or stocks. Not everything works out as planned
Buffett’s storytelling also makes ample use of metaphors and analogies.
Woody Allen stated the general idea when he said: “The advantage of being bi-sexual is that it doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night.” Similarly, our appetite for either operating businesses or passive investments doubles our chances of finding sensible uses for our endless gusher of cash.
Not every executive can get away with 266-word anecdotes. Still, the following offers a storytelling lesson in how to take the reader behind the curtain with words that ring with realism:
I think back to August 30, 1983 – my birthday – when I went to see Mrs. B (Rose Blumkin), carrying a 1 1/4-page purchase proposal for NFM that I had drafted. (It’s reproduced on pages 114 – 115.) Mrs. B accepted my offer without changing a word, and we completed the deal without the involvement of investment bankers or lawyers (an experience that can only be described as heavenly). Though the company’s financial statements were unaudited, I had no worries. Mrs. B simply told me what was what, and her word was good enough for me.Mrs. B was 89 at the time and worked until 103 – definitely my kind of woman. Take a look at NFM’s financial statements from 1946 on pages 116 – 117. Everything NFM now owns comes from (a) that $72,264 of net worth and $50 – no zeros omitted – of cash the company then possessed, and (b) the incredible talents of Mrs. B, her son, Louie, and his sons Ron and Irv. The punch line to this story is that Mrs. B never spent a day in school. Moreover, she emigrated from Russia to America knowing not a word of English.
If I were going to quibble (I suppose I’m about to do just that) I didn’t see the flawless finesse in the 2014 letter compared to previous years. Buffett has always treated bragging and the “obvious” like a penny stock. Yet, the 2014 narrative includes phrases like “amazing growth” and “another reinsurance powerhouse” and “our little gecko continues to tell Americans how GEICO can save them important money.”
Perhaps Carol Loomis, Buffett’s trusted writing assistant, is delegating down the final polishing these days.
Regardless, Buffett’s shareholders letters could underpin a MBA class on how to bring storytelling techniques to business communications.