Once Upon a Time…There Were Five Kinds of Stories To Build Your Brand

It seems whenever someone mentions the importance of a good story these days, they bring up the Nordstrom Tires Story. As the tale goes, some backwoods guy bought tires at a store, and they wore out before they were supposed to. So the guy takes the tires back to the building where he remembered buying them.

He complains and asks for his money back. The store gives him his money back, no questions asked. The kicker? The tire store he bought them from had closed. Nordstrom had moved into that building (but the guy didn’t notice). Nordstrom has never carried tires, but they gave him his money back anyway.

Research has proven this story to be an urban legend, yet the telling of it continues, as an example of a good customer service story.

Wouldn’t you like to have this kind of devoted storytelling surrounding your brand?
“The Story is the Most Powerful Form of Communication.” – Gary Stein, Directory of Strategy for Ammo Marketing.

So started off this fascinating session called Storyteller Marketing – How the Art of Storytelling Matches Up With the Business of Marketing.

Moderated by Rebecca Lieb, Contributing Editor of ClickZ, the speakers included:

  • Gary Stein, Director of Strategy, Ammo Marketing
  • Sally Falkow, President, Expansion Plus Inc.
  • Larry Lawfer, Founder/President, yourstorys.com/

Gary Stein was up first. Gary has a Master’s degree in American Literature, so he appreciates a good story. Gary hammered home the points about storytelling as the means of communication between humans. We tell stories to each other about the brands, products and experiences we have with them. You may have a brand, but do you have a story?

People relate better to “Once upon a time…” better than to “Thou Shalt Not.” “Once upon a time” is the universal story-introductor. Hearing something like this shifts people. They get ready to hear the story. People LOVE a good story. Think about shows like NPR’s This American Life. There’s a chain of events in a story. Emotions or feelings experienced and shared. Characters. There’s usually a lesson involved, or at least the story ends up teaching you something about the world. A story is retellable. When is the last time you heard yourself repeating an advertising slogan to a friend? For example, what makes more of an impact on you, for example about Peet’s coffee:

  • Peet’s marketing saying, “Peet’s coffee is a blend of aromatic arabaca beans from Southern Peru.”


  • A friend gushing to you, “I just had the most AMAZING cup of coffee at Peet’s!”

People Aren’t Focused on Brand, They are Focused on Benefit

Businesses today are being shaped by stories being told. Think about reviews users post on sites like Amazon.com. They are rarely cut and dried, as in, “This product has x features.” The stories are colorful, and usually start off with something like, “My life was in CHAOS and that’s when I came across Product X and it solved ALL MY PROBLEMS.”  We are reaching a point where people are going to be searching for benefits, not brands. Searches for “dust-free living room” or “pet who doesn’t shed,” are becoming common. If you can figure out the right benefit statements for your brand, stories will propogate.

Five Kinds of Stories

There are five types of stories that can be told (Gary actually gave six, but who’s counting):

  • Origin story: where did the product or service come from. Example: Hewlett Packard was started by two engineers out of their garage. That garage is now listed on a roster of historical places in California.
  • Purpose: Why you are in business.
  • Vision: where are we going? A remote control company thinks of its product as an important component of a home entertainment system. Sell the vision, not the product.
  • Education: Starbucks educated consumers on coffee traditions of the old world.
  • Ethics: Think of a grocery store that gives food away to the homeless. A company shows it can walk the walk.
  • Connection: Saturn invites its car owners to visit the plant. A CEO responds to a disgruntled customer on an online forum.

Of these, Gary said that VISION is the most powerful story type.


Sally Falkow of Expanson Now, Inc. was up next to speak.

Finding Your Brand Story

Sally started by saying that there’s a story in every business, even if you think, “there couldn’t POSSIBLY be any thing interesting about me!” What you may not realize is, if you don’t GIVE your customers a story, there are likely people telling your story anyway.

How do you find out? Start monitoring your online conversations. You need to know what is being said about you, whether it’s good or bad.

The best stories come from the customers themselves regarding  your product. But if you don’t have a story, make one up.

Some great examples of brand stories:

  • Apple: “Hi I’m a PC, and I’m a Mac.” Even without hearing the words, looking at the two characters in the ad you know what it’s all about. Mac is for the creative and hip, PC is for the nerdy and backwards.
  • Kleenex, “Let It Out” Campaign: It sounds too simple to be true. Kleenex goes out into public places, sets out a blue couch, and invites people to sit, have a chat, maybe “have a weep.” Brilliant!
  • Dove, “pro-age” campaign: Dove’s ad campaign in the past has been on “real women” (real women of all shapes, sizes and ages are represented in their ads) and now they are taking on aging. Instead of being anti-aging, (our continual obsession with youth in this country), they are “pro-age.”
  • Nichols Concrete Cutting, “doing the impossible.” : When Stanford sandstone courtyard pillars needed to be earthquake retrofitted, they designed a special drill bit to do the work.

Storytelling Recommendations

Sally had the following recommendations for storytelling:

  • Tell an authentic story: insincere or fake stories WILL be found out and will backfire (Walmart across america)
  • Hone the story: get the story down to a simple, repeatable and memorable one
  • Listen for the story: listen to your employees, customers and suppliers.
  • Connect your brand to the story: all creative must be tied to the story
  • Amplify the story online: optimize press releases for the story (ideally with images). Press releases, images and video items come up first in searches.
  • Don’t just do print: Do audio, do video. Sally showed a great example of an ad campaign for Intercontinental hotels where they interviewed concierges in their hotels around the world. Who better to tell the hotel stories?
  • Write articles to educate: If you are skincare company, write articles on why skin cracks and how to heal it
  • Syndicate your story with RSS feeds
  • Consistency: your story must be consistent with who you are, what you do, what you say or none of it will ring true.

Larry Lawfer of yourstorys.com: Use Storytelling to Engage, Inform, Laugh, and Make Community

NOTE: I asked why Larry chose this name (which the editor in me cringes at whenever I see) and he said yourstories.com was already taken by the great domain assimilator, porn.

Larry started off by telling the difference between advertising, PR and engagement marketing:

  • Advertising: You say you are a good date
  • PR: Your mom says you are a good date
  • Engagement marketing: your DATE says you are a good date

Larry showed lots of great examples of visual ads and videos with the following recommendations:

  • Use pictures + words
  • Use video: if a picture is worth a 1000 words, what is video worth: Video puts images, time, music and action together. Video is the first place on a home page that users will people will click!
  • Be real
  • Be authentic
  • Initiate involvement
  • Listen, respond, repeat: when research came out that showed how bad processed flour and sugars were, General Mills listened, and responded by changing their formulation to whole grains
  • Leave the user wanting to hear more
  • LISTEN LISTEN LISTEN, and follow through with what you’ve heard
  • People are visually sophisticated, make your content top-notch
  • It’s all about results: decide what you want before you start
  • Choose the best person to tell the authentic story

Charlene Jaszewski is head honcho of Smartypants Group, consultants that help small business and technology play nicely together, when she’s not writing articles like these.

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