Successful Business Storytelling – Making It Real for Prospects and Customers

Stories are in vogue right now, and every business communications professional and marketing agency talks about the importance of strong business stories. But many smart business people would choose competitive advantages over great stories, and rightly so. Unfortunately, competitive advantages often don’t last. Conversely, good stories can last for decades. They are critical to your business success if you want:

• Your customers to keep you top-of-mind;

• Customers to refer you, and prospects to remember you

• Employees to talk about your organization in memorable ways; and

• To make an impression that lasts longer than a conversation.

How do you find the right stories in your business? Ben and Jerry’s ice cream offers an ideal example. Early on in the company’s life, as Ben & Jerry’s Premium Ice Cream started gaining popularity in and around the company’s home state of Vermont, founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield discovered that Pillsbury was strong-arming one of its distributors. The food giant had told the distributor that it could either represent Pillsbury’s brand Häagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s, but not both.

Many business owners would not even think of this as a story. They might treat the situation as an isolated business problem and relegate it to a sales director or relationship manager. Or it might be treated as a legal problem and handed over to lawyers.

But Cohen and Greenfield were smart enough to see a David and Goliath story in the making. Ben and Jerry’s mounted a PR campaign entitled, “What’s the Dough-Boy Afraid Of?” This campaign, from a small Vermont-based ice-cream maker, brought the company national attention, including broadcast coverage, national news stories and a cover story in Time Magazine. Within months of initiating the campaign, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream was selling nationally, and soon afterwards, internationally.

What tips can you learn from this story to apply in your own businesses?

1. The best stories are about people. Whether it’s Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield or the personification of Pillsbury through the Dough Boy, this story would have resonated much differently if the campaign had been called, “Pillsbury Competitive Practices Unfair.” While the campaign presented a business issue and a unique opportunity to present a frighteningly good ice cream to the world, it was framed in human terms that appealed to business and mainstream media.

2. Story begins when result doesn’t match expectation. In other words, if everything happens as you expect, there’s no story. We care when events don’t go as expected: the experiment yields an unexpectedly good or bad outcome. The boy gets bitten by a spider that’s not an ordinary spider. The beloved football player is a murder suspect. The giant doughboy is afraid of a tiny competitor.

3. Stories are about meaningful change. The Ben and Jerry’s example would have been meaningless if the competition were between two corporate giants fighting over a distributor. But for the small Vermont ice-cream maker, losing the distributor could have meant losing the business, or at least a momentous setback. The stakes were high, just as they were when Steve Jobs introduced the Apple Stores. And when Bill Gates quit college to create Microsoft.

4. Meaningful change is achieved through conflict. When you tell stories around the water cooler or the campfire, you generally don’t focus on how well everyone got along.

The best stories offer meaningful change achieved through conflict. That’s why we care more about how a company solved an angry client’s challenge and made a lifelong customer than a bunch of features and benefits. Business stories, about people and meaningful change, must include conflict. At least, if you want audiences to remember them!

If you run a business, you spend most of your time thinking about unique selling propositions, features and benefits and competitive differentiators. But if you want to create a long-lasting impression with your audience, you need compelling, memorable and repeatable stories. It’s the only way to make up for the sad fact that your differentiator today will be your competitor’s tomorrow.