What Justin Bieber can teach CEOs about storytelling
Coinbase’s recent IPO was hailed by the New York Times as a “cryptocurrency coming out party,” but you won’t find anything about the groundbreaking company’s founding on its website. Good luck digging up Steve Jobs’ story on Apple’s website. You won’t discover Jeff Bezos’ story on Amazon’s consumer or investor sites, either.
As a matter of fact, 13 of the top 50 Fortune 500 companies—including AT&T, Berkshire Hathaway, Raytheon and United Healthcare—don’t have company timelines or posts about their founders.
Most megabrands walk through their histories with sterile timelines of milestones and old yellow photos. McKesson even uses a horse and buggy graphic to link to its “Our History” page. State Farm has no timeline and barely covers its founder’s story in two paragraphs.
Even worse are the lackadaisical efforts by the hottest small businesses: 38 of the top 50 fastest-growing private companies on the Inc. 5000 have neither timelines nor stories about themselves on their websites.
It seems emotional connection and entrepreneurial inspiration takes a back seat to mission and value statements and leadership photos.
However, there’s an old public relations credo: If you don’t tell your story, somebody else will—and it may not be the story you want told. While press coverage is highly credible, you’re still not in control of your story. So why aren’t some of the biggest and hottest public and private companies telling them?
Perhaps they should look to family-run restaurant Babe’s Chicken Dinner House in Dallas (originally called Bubba’s and located in a converted 1927 Texaco station), hardware store M. Maselli & Sons in Petaluma, California, (launched by two broke brothers who almost lost the business after 13 years) and sweet shops Donnells Candies in Casper, Wyoming, (started in 1956 by Don and Elma Stepp making homemade chocolates). They understand better than all those prestigious list winners that you shouldn’t leave your history pages blank.
Simply put: in the long run, consumers bond with a brand but follow the people behind it. Even Plato said: “Those who tell stories rule society.”
Here is some counterintuitive advice: don’t follow the examples of these story-depleted Fortune 500 and Inc. 500 companies. Executives who share their personal and business journeys are likely connecting better with potential and current customers, possibly incorporating them into marketing campaigns, fostering unique corporate cultures, delivering relatable keynotes and appearances, engaging in more personable networking, and hiring more committed talent.
It helps to know that a good business story is a personal narrative about the transformation that took a founder (or founders) and their company from one point to a better one.
There are three important storytelling tenets if you want to do it right:
Bad things make good stories
Justin Bieber is more forthcoming about overcoming his pop star struggles and past drug use in the new issue of GQ than most CEOs are willing to discuss the challenge of their last product launch. Is it any surprise that nearly every corporate timeline I’ve seen is scrubbed of even the slightest mishap ever occurring?
What does Justin Bieber know that everybody else doesn’t? Being authentic coaxes people to your side. Living in a fantasy world where nothing bad happens begs disbelief from peers and journalists. Describing how you faced difficult moments, devised solutions, and bounced back is what draws admiration and makes your brand stronger.
That’s why FUBU’s Daymond John talks freely about being turned down for 27 business loans, Warby Parker co-founder Dave Gilboa admits it was a mistake to outsource critical business components and Spanx founder Sara Blakely shows Instagram posts of her most embarrassing moments.
A story can start and end at any point in time, as long as there is transformation to a better place
Turning points can happen at any time in a company’s existence. Look no further than handling the pandemic’s challenges. You want inspiration? Listen to “Life Is Good” apparel founders Bert and John Jacobs tell NPR’s Guy Raz how they salvaged their $100 million business when retailers canceled their orders, or any of Raz’s “How I Built Resilience” podcasts. Or read Gravity Payments CEO Dan Price’s Washington Post op-ed about his staff voluntarily taking pay cuts instead of layoffs mid-pandemic that resulted in the company outperforming its 2019 numbers (founded in 2004).
Your story is not your mission statement or a list of awards
Bareburger, Sharp Healthcare, Allsteel, and Fresh & Co. all have mission statements, value declarations and vision pronouncements on their “Our Story” pages, but not an actual story in sight. Fresh & Co. mentions they are “a family-owned restaurant group founded in 2010” – a golden opportunity for a colorful account—but that’s as far as it goes.
A “mission statement” is your purpose for being in business and it is not a story. Values and visions belong in sections of their own. A list of awards and citations, or even what you serve on your restaurant menu, are nothing anybody can get emotionally behind. Statistical and data bullet points make a great PowerPoint deck.
A story is a tale with a beginning, middle and an end.