High in the arid mountains of Provence, in southern France, there is a mineral spring known for its health-giving properties. During the Roman Empire, Caesar's soldiers drank from it to quench their thirst and bathed in it for its healing powers. Millennia later, French physician Dr. Perrier rediscovered the spring used for Perrier mineral water and was amazed to find the water sparkling, the result of its high content of volcanic underground gases. He was convinced that the water had therapeutic qualities and decided to bottle it. The little green bottle became his country's favorite mineral water. By telling its story, the French company has over the years been able to explain what gives Perrier a uniqueness that cannot be copied. By appealing to our hearts as well as our heads, consumers have a good reason to pay more for a bottle of water that has a Perrier label on it. We buy not just the product, but the story.
Escaping the price war
Today's traditional brands are under growing pressure as cheaper alternatives and look-alike products invade the global marketplace. A brand is no longer just a matter of top quality or great design. Physical and rational attributes are easy targets for copycats. Companies that want to maintain brand status in the future must justify to consumers what makes them so special. Does your company have an original story to tell? A story that is so honest, captivating and unique, that we are willing to pay a price premium to become part of it?
Consumers in the industrial world are exposed to a staggering 3,000 new commercial messages every day. Needless to say, the story needs to be utterly captivating if it is to cut through the clutter. And as consumers become increasingly informed and ever more critical, brands must build on an honest, authentic story that appeals to consumers' personal values. According to Roger Schank, a professor in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University and a leading expert in cognitive psychology and learning, storytelling is deeply rooted in human nature. This explains why stories are also becoming a tool for businesses to build an emotional bond with customers. "We understand our world through the stories that we have lived and the stories we have been told," Mr. Schank says. "Businesses are defined by their stories in the same way that individuals are defined by theirs," he says.
In line with the basic principles of psychology, storytelling is a way for companies to understand their values and personalities. The critical task, however, is to identify the story that makes your company different from the competition. Without this unique story to build from, your company is exposed to copycats and risks being forced to compete fiercely on price alone.
The power of authenticity
In the face of global competition, telling authentic stories is becoming an integral part of modern branding, used as a strategic tool for communicating brand values. It is no coincidence that the anecdote of legendary track coach and Nike founder Bill Bowerman is written in large typeface across a wall in the middle of Niketowns, the Nike flagship stores found all over the world.
He was on a mission to provide his athletes with the best possible equipment not just to perform, but to win. What happened was this: One morning in 1971 Mr. Bowerman's wife, Barbara, was making waffles. Suddenly it hit Bill: In the waffles' distinctively shaped pattern, he saw the basis for a new breed of strong, flexible running shoe sole. When he got home the next day, he took the waffle iron from the kitchen and locked himself in his study. Here, he experimented by pouring liquid rubber into the waffle iron and developed the magic formula for the new sole. Mr. Bowerman's experiments paved the way for the characteristic Nike "waffle sole" that can be found on many of Nike's classic running shoes.
It's a simple story. But it shows that Mr. Bowerman had belief, vision and the courage to challenge convention. Not only does the message resonate strongly throughout the company, giving employees a very clear idea of the Nike spirit, it shows consumers the depth of that uncompromising winning mentality that they become part of if they carry anything with a swoosh logo on it. "Just do it" is not something they made up at Nike...it's in their blood. And it is difficult for Reebok or Adidas to copy.
Digging for stories
So where do you begin digging for stories that show the unique value of your product or company? A good place to start is to search for people within the company who have made extraordinary achievements. It could be stories about the founder of your company -- like the story of Bill Bowerman or Dr. Perrier -- or it could be stories about outstanding employees. Think of the accidental invention of the classic 3M Post-It Note. This true story is just one of many employee stories showing the innovative approach of 3M scientists who never quit pursuing groundbreaking ideas. As they say at 3M: "You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince."
If your product has a long history, chances are you can dig out stories from the past that can add value to the product in the present. An example is the Parker pen, which played a vital role in world history: In 1945 Dwight D. Eisenhower used his Parker pen to officially put an end to World War II when he signed the peace treaty in Paris; Giacomo Puccini let his Parker pen dance across the paper when he composed "La Boheme," as did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when he created the infamous Sherlock Holmes. So when everyday consumers buy a Parker, we also buy into a story about great people achieving extraordinary things using this exact pen. It allows us to make that connection whenever we pull it out and apply it to our own lives.
Customer stories keep the brand alive
One of the most credible sources for unique stories is to be found outside of your company: among your customers. Some companies are privileged to have customer communities, which supply a continuous flow of personal stories that keep the brand alive. We have all heard stories of die-hard Apple fans, Lego enthusiasts and Harley Davidson bikers that display their affection for the brand to the extreme.
Such communities are rare. However, many companies that do a good job are fortunate to receive letters of praise from customers. The company behind the legendary Mag-Lite flashlights receives many heartfelt letters from people all over the world. One of them goes like this: "I'm a Police Officer in the town of Weber City, Virginia. On May 4, 2001, in the early morning hours of 4 a.m. I found a house engulfed in flames. I entered the side door of the residence and the smoke was so heavy that you couldn't see your hand in front of your eyes. I placed my Mag-Lite on the floor by the door. I crawled down the hall to the kitchen, where I found a person passed-out. I took the person and stood up then proceeded to exit the residence. I lost my bearings and dropped to the floor. I was very disoriented from the heat and the smoke. As I lay on the floor I looked around and there by the door I could see the Mag-Lite showing me the way out of that inferno. I want to take this opportunity to thank you with all my heart for this great flashlight that saved the life of the victim and myself." This personal account communicates the essence of Mag-Lite as a trusted friend for true professionals. By making such stories visible and using them actively in marketing and sales, Mag-Lite has managed to capture both the hearts and minds of its customers.
A strategic tool
Storytelling in a business context is not about telling stories just for the sake of it. Rather, as rational and physical features are becoming easier to imitate, authentic storytelling is becoming a growing source of competitive power. All companies have authentic raw material: genuine, real-life episodes that can be used in the continuous communication of messages and values that appeal to key stakeholders. Little anecdotes, seemingly insignificant at first, may very well be the stories that most effectively show why your company is special -- whether it's the wacky yarn behind the product, a tale about the company founder, achievements of outstanding employees or praise from thrilled customers. As long as they are true, honest -- and, hopefully, unique -- you will have a strategic tool for explaining how your company makes a difference.