How Storytelling Can Add Meaning and Imagination to the Purchase

CMO Spotlight: Darren Marshall, Steinway and Sons

By Published on .

Reprints Reprints

To some, "storytelling" is one of those buzzwords that will define this era of marketing. To others, it's nothing new. Someone who falls in the latter category is Darren Marshall, CMO of Steinway and Sons, a piano maker founded in New York City in the 1850s. The craftsmanship that goes into making a Steinway, plus the emotional connection to the sound it produces, is the stuff of storytelling dreams. A story always has helped and will help your sales, says Marshall, but only if you really know your target.

Telling the Steinway story

Darren Marshal
Darren Marshal

Admittedly, Darren Marshall has a bounty of great material to work with at Steinway, it being an older company with a rich history and beautiful products, still intricately constructed by hand. "To realize that this level of craftsmanship happens in New York City to this day, much in the same way that it did 100 or 150 years ago, is pretty incredible," he says, "particularly in a world where disposability is the norm."

This craftsmanship is a main focus of the Steinway story, as is "the artistic expression that it empowers, and the beauty it adds to homes and lives," says Marshall. The story is told from the artists' perspective, showcasing the music that flows from the product. It's also told from the perspective of the piano owners -- knowing that the two aren't always one and the same. "It's the same story," says Marshall, "but told through different lenses. It's almost like the books of the Bible are the same story, but told from different apostles' perspectives. And so it's the same sort of idea."

Why it works

Storytelling has long had a natural fit with marketing, says Marshall. Stories are inherently engaging, for one. "Bedtime stories are all about captivating someone's imagination and taking them someplace else so that you can relax and calm yourself and go to sleep. That's what any advertising or communication should be about." And while there will always be customers to buy the product for functionality alone, layering the functionality with a human story adds meaning, novelty and imagination to the purchase.

"That's the irrational piece where you can exchange value," he says. "When you think about antiques, it's one thing to say this is an antique revolver, but to say that this was the revolver General Custer used during the Battle of Little Big Horn -- that has a story that goes along with it and there's huge value."

Reading the room

The caveat here is that even a perfect story can't pull on the heartstrings of every audience member. Marshall says that storytelling is effective only when you know your listeners well, and this is especially true for products like, say, a piano. "At the end of the day, we address a very small group of humanity, people who have the buying power to buy one of our instruments and who have the interest in our category," says Marshall, meaning that engagement with Steinway's target needs to hit deeper, rather than more broadly.

"I need to be able to really help them understand what the brand stands for and why it's three times more expensive than other alternatives that may look the same," he says. While a concert pianist would understand, the rest of the target might not. "The value of what we do is not necessarily seen to the naked eye ... You've got to be able to bring that to life why it is different for mere mortals like you and I."

Targeted delivery of a story, and brand positioning, for that matter, involves a great deal of research and strategy -- even more so when your product is a high-value, likely once-in-a-lifetime purchase, says Marshall. As a veteran marketer at Coca-Cola, he says there are certain advantages to dealing with a more specific target and costlier product at a smaller operation. "It's very entrepreneurial," he says. "There's a lot more subjectivity. Although the process is very similar, in terms of just finding the North Star, if you will, or the story arc that is essential to your brand, and then bringing it to life across the various different touch points."

While the resources to measure effectiveness might not be as large, Marshall says it is easier to determine whether content is on-brand or not. "I wish I had more data," says Marshall. "I am glad I have a good story, but I'd love to have a little bit of both. But you know, with the lack of data, then story is where I am going."

Most Popular