What’s Your Story?

by Patricia Fitzgerald

You have a business. But you also have a story. So why aren't you telling it? A growing number of companies large and small have discovered the power of storytelling in connecting with their customers in very personal and meaningful ways. In this week's post, we take a look at some examples of effective business storytelling and offer up tips on how you can begin crafting and sharing your story with the world. Believe us, it's worth telling.

Story-telling vs. selling.

So what do we mean by storytelling, anyway? The best way to explain is to see it in action. Let's start with a few real-world examples. Over the holidays, we came across an understated, incredibly touching series of short TV commercials by the Norwegian electronics chain store Elkjop. Each spot focused on a very specific moment in time, the exchange of a gift, lasting no more than 30 seconds. But each one told a rich and multi-layered story about human connection, empathy, and the power of gift-giving to say what we often can't express in words.

In "The Teen," a tough-looking dad gives his transgender daughter a curling iron in a simple gesture that speaks volumes about acceptance and love. "The Mother" features a husband and son giving their bald, cancer-battling wife/mom a hair dryer in a moving testament to humor and grace in the face of life's most gut-wrenching challenges. In "The Old Man," a fellow nursing home resident gifts his lonely neighbor a Playstation gaming console, making a powerful statement about friendship without saying a single word.

This campaign, titled "A Gift Can Say It All," packs more into a few seconds than 100 pages of a catalog promoting Elkjop's electronics. It's storytelling at its most potent. And you can bet their holiday sales skyrocketed as a result of these lovely little ads.

Building a story one brick at a time.

When working with our own clients, we always try to uncover their stories. Because they have incredible ones to share. In past years, we've had the pleasure of working with Arto Brick, a Southern California-based manufacturer of brick veneers, tiles, pavers, and flooring crafted by people, not machines. Owned and operated by two brothers, Arto Brick has a great backstory which they've successfully integrated into their overall brand.

Arto Brick's roots date back to 1966, the year industrial designer Arto Alajian began firing brick veneers in his small studio using a single kiln. Arto immigrated as a young man from Egypt to Venice, CA, where he was swept up in the avant-garde ceramic art scene, rubbing elbows with the movement's most provocative artists. An entrepreneur with an artisan's eye, he began selling ceramic brick veneers to businesses out of the back of the delivery van he was driving for his job.

From these scrappy beginnings, Arto grew his studio into a bustling manufacturing facility with over 100 employees, creating beautiful products for architects, interior designers, and homeowners nationwide. Arto's sons now run the company, but they've stayed true to their father's passion for craftsmanship.

Arto's story is an essential part of the company's identity and appeal. And the company does a fantastic job telling this story in their marketing materials, social media efforts, and in person. Walk onto the floor or into the back offices of Arto Brick, and you can feel the palpable presence of their founder.

But most of all, you sense that history in each individual brick, tile and paver they painstakingly make. As Arto's son Armen, now the company's CEO, likes to say, "Every brick we craft tells a unique story." And it's true. Because their products are human-made, no two are alike. Their products' imperfections and variations are what make them beautiful, and so loved by their clients.

Over time, their bricks and tiles take on unique patinas — a stain from a spilled glass of wine or discoloration from a family's foot traffic — that make them a living, breathing part of their client's homes. Arto bricks tell the story of the spaces they inhabit and the people who use them. But they also tell the story of Arto Alajian, the young man from Egypt who fell in love with ceramic artworks and the artisans who create them. And that's what we mean by powerful storytelling.

The story behind the smile.

Arto Brick is a great example of a company telling its own story to connect with clients. Now let's look at a one of our clients who is doing a bang-up job of telling their customers' stories. Over the past year, we've produced a series of videos for Rowntree Gardens, a not-for-profit senior living community owned and operated by members of the Quaker faith.

Rowntree Gardens differentiates itself from other retirement homes by focusing on the above-and-beyond personalized care and compassion they dedicate to the people who live there. Their staff — many of whom have been with the community for 10, 20, 30, and over 40 years — genuinely love what they do, and the people under their care. For them, it's not a job but a calling with a higher purpose.

We wanted to demonstrate this extraordinary level of devotion in Rowntree Gardens' marketing materials. We realized the best way to go about doing this is to tell the stories of the seniors who call Rowntree Gardens home. So we created videos highlighting the life experiences of some of Rowntree's most remarkable community members.

We filmed Vince, a WWII vet who flew bombing missions over Japan (one of his jobs was to crawl into a tiny space under the plane and pull the pins that released the bombs), and his wife Mary who's also a pilot. We shared the story of a Jim and Betty Rose, a couple who began competing in racketball in their 50s and both went on to win gold medals at the Senior Olympics. We featured Jim, a brilliant nuclear physicist who developed the radiation shield technology that protected the Apollo astronauts on their first missions into orbit and to the moon. And we wrote the story of Colin, a Purple Heart recipient who survived Pearl Harbor then escaped a POW camp, running five days on foot until he found American troops.

Sharing these stories through print, radio and social media campaigns has allowed us to shine the spotlight on these incredible seniors' lives. But these stories also demonstrate how Rowntree Gardens recognizes the individual accomplishments, dreams, talents, and courage of older people who are often overlooked and discounted by society. Our "Stories Behind the Smile" campaign has proven to be Rowntree's most successful to date.

So what's your story?

You may not realize it, and you may not think it's worth telling, but you do have a story. Figure out a way to share that story with your customers, and you'll strengthen the connections you make with them.

To help our clients in identifying and crafting their own stories, we typically start with some basic prompts to get the story-telling juices flowing. Try answering these questions yourself.

Why did you start your company?

Think about what compelled you to start doing what you're doing. Maybe there was a specific problem you kept encountering, and no good existing solution to solve it. So you came up with a fix yourself. Or maybe you've always had a secret passion for your line of business, and finally decided to act upon it.

Perhaps you saw a serious need for the product or service you provide, and stepped up to meet that need. Could be you're following in a parent or grandparent's footsteps, the next generation building on the previous ones. Whatever your reasons for getting into business, share it with your customers. They genuinely want to know.

What's important to you?

Sure, you're in business to make money. But there has to be another reason you're working 60 hours a week, pouring your heart and soul into what you do. What is that reason? Is it personal? Altruistic? Do you want to improve the world, and if so, how? The "why" you do what you do is just as important as the "what" you do or sell.

How are you affecting people's lives?

Whether you're selling life insurance or linoleum, pet-walking or plumbing services, identify and articulate the ways you're helping make the world a better place. Better yet, tell the stories of people whose lives you've affected, whether in small or large ways. Take your sales pitch beyond selling a product or service, and show the broader impact of what you do.

What are your customers' stories?

If you still feel that your story isn't that compelling, or are struggling with how to tell it, then turn the spotlight on your customers. Share their stories — of their struggles and triumphs, dreams come to fruition, passions you've help them pursue.

By concentrating on your customers, you’re opening your storytelling possibilities to a wider range of experiences and perspectives. When you shift the focus away from you, you’re also showing your audience that you're paying close attention, that you care about people's lives, and that you're interested in them as individuals and not just customers.

We're listening.

We'd love to hear your story. And if you're not sure how to tell it, or what that story even is, we can assist with that. Advertising is, after all, largely about good storytelling. Just ask original Mad Man David Ogilvy. More often than not, a great story starts with a simple word: Hello. We'll help you with the rest.

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