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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.

Runar B. Maeland Re-tweet of businessweek article on storytelling

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.

Toms website

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.

Remember Enron?


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