French is my native tongue, so please pardon me while I rather bluntly express a thought: BS seems to pervade every aspect of modern corporate life.
People who run businesses don’t trust their own marketers not to manufacture meaningless mumbo jumbo. According to a recent study of CEOs carried out by U.K. consultancy Fournaise, 80 percent of company leaders don’t trust and “are not very impressed by the work done by marketers.” In comparison, 90 percent of those polled said that they “trust and value the opinion and work of CFOs and CIOs.”
Many companies emit clouds of hot air in an effort to make themselves seem more important. One of our colleagues passed a Dow Chemical billboard on the way to work one day that read: ”Solutionism. The new optimism.” Ads for American Eagle Outfitters command: “Live your life,” and Hilton has legally registered the phrase, “Travel should take you places.”
Annual global advertising spending was estimated at upward of $5 billion in 2012—roughly the same as Egypt’s annual GDP. That’s an enormous amount of money to spend to say something that means nothing.
It’s easy to become immune to this kind of communication. Annual reports are excellent sources of “play-it-safe” communication. The following are real-life examples:
- “The best firm for our clients, our people and our communities.”
- “The way forward.”
- “Connecting with customers.”
Safe communication is as useless as no communicaton at all. The statements above do nothing to explain why we should care about the companies that espouse them.
So how can companies motivate people that care about what they do? By telling a compelling story.
Rapha, a cycling sportswear company, was founded in 2004 with an eye toward making road cycling the most popular sport in the world, i.e., the “new golf.”
Its founder and CEO, Simon Mottram, an avid cyclist, felt continually disappointed in the “performance” wear he found in cycling shops, so he started Rapha to provide high-performance fabrics that further enhance the aesthetics of the riders. It’s a small, specialized company, and it’s likely you’ve never heard of Rapha, but the elite of world cycling certainly know it.
Rapha employed very focused, strategic storytelling to reach its target audience.
Its first story launched the same year Rapha was founded with a month-long exhibition of cycling memorabilia called “Kings of Pain.” One deep insight about serious road cyclists is that they seek suffering and not pleasure from their chosen sport. No achievement in cycling has worth unless the rider has suffered in its pursuit.
Mottram needed investors for his venture, so he took the next step in telling the company’s story by making a film using archive footage of famous cycling racers from the 1960s and set it to a Pavrotti aria.
These prospective investors were usually men ranging in age from their 30s to their 50s. Mottram talked about Rapha customers who worked desk jobs and yearned to get out on the road, pushing their physical limits.
The attention to detail in Rapha’s story of the sport—whether through its products or its stories and films, has paid off. In January, Rapha became the official performance-wear partner to the international Sky Pro Cycling team. The company provides a complete range of clothing and accessories to dress Team Sky—the world’s highest ranked team—both on and off the bike.
Stories magically turn facts into narratives that people can relate to. Facts provide information, but stories add interest and inspiration.
Nonprofit organizations are well-versed in presenting data through a story. The WWF, for instance, launched a “Size of Wales” project, which aims to attract donations to protect an area of East African rain forest the size of Wales. Save the Children received donations for the West Africa child hunger crisis that affects 18 million people by telling the story of a single child—Noura—a severely undernourished 8-month-old from Niger, who the charity has helped to nurse back to strength.
Effective storytelling in marketing is not about propagating nonsense or telling lies. It’s a way of organizing and simplifying information to create meaning, establish relevance, and demonstrate that you’ve considered your audience.
Stories are the vehicles through which we share knowledge and establish cultural norms. We use parables to convey moral messages. Anecdotes reveal our sense of humor. Legends inspire awe.
Within a business, stories are a powerful force for creating company culture. Legend has it that Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, was once arrested in Brazil for crawling around a supermarket on his hands and knees to measure the width of the aisles. This story tells us a tremendous amount about the culture of his business and his focus on continuous improvement driven by an insatiable hunger for learning.
Stories humanize a business. They demonstrate emotional intelligence. They communicate values and purpose. They fascinate. They draw us in. They reveal truths that information in the form of stats and charts alone cannot convey.