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What's Your Story?: Storytelling to Move Markets, Audiences, People, and Brands

In this introduction to their book, the authors assert that mythology, the aggregate collection of ancient stories from cultures around the world, can and should play a critical role in helping resolve many of the complexities and crises associated with the world of twenty-first-century business and society.
This chapter is from the book

Successful companies know that more often than not in business, it really is the same old story.

Or, to be a bit more accurate, it’s all about understanding how to use the elements of stories and storytelling to drive business improvement. There isn’t a business in the world today—large or small, high or low tech, public or private—that cannot improve performance, internally and externally, through the study and mastery of the basic element of storytelling. One of the most basic applications of this principle is borrowing characters from well-known stories and naming your products or services after them. It works for Paul Bunyan breakfasts in diners across America. It worked for the Atlas missile and Hercules Powder. And, once upon a time, it also worked for a struggling runningshoe company in Eugene, Oregon.

In 1964, Phil Knight was a fledgling athletic-shoe salesman whose career high point had been selling $8,000 worth of imported Tiger running shoes out of his Blue Ribbon Sports store in Eugene. Seven years and $992,000 in annual sales later, Knight unveiled the Nike name and its “swoosh,” and the rest, as they say, is history. We’re not sure how many of the runners who poured into Blue Ribbon Sports knew that Nike was the winged goddess of victory in Greek mythology, but we’re pretty sure Knight knew the power of the story of the original Nike and was trying to tie the critical elements of that story to his brand.

Scott Bedbury, brand guru and Nike’s former head of advertising, explains:

  • The sneaker was just a sneaker, in every way pedestrian, until Phil Knight and Nike came along and connected the aspirational and inspirational rewards of sports and fitness with world-class innovative product performance like that of the Nike Air shoe. Nike could have spent millions of dollars preaching the value of encapsulated gas trapped within a thin, pliable membrane in the middle of the shoe, encased by a molded foot frame and attached by a dynamic fit system. Instead, it not only simply showed the product but also communicated on a deeper, more inspirational level what the product meant within the wider world of sports and fitness. It transcended the product. It moved people.1

That, in a nutshell, is exactly what great business storytelling is all about.

The Nike story is more than a story of effective branding—it’s one of the tens of thousands of stories about how businesses use stories every day to launch brands and enhance the image of existing brands; to train new hires and invigorate seasoned employees; and to help CEOs position themselves in the eyes of Wall Street and aspiring managers position themselves in the eyes of their CEOs. Walk into any Home Depot, and you’ll discover brand names such as “Husky” and “Rigid”—frankly, kind of ham-handed branding attempts aimed at men who are either overimpressed with or unsure of their own masculinity. That’s branding, arguably at its “best” and “worst.” But tying your product or service back to a myth like Phil Knight did is more than branding—it’s a rudimentary form of storytelling.

Storytelling isn’t just about selling products. Effective storytelling can launch industries. Let’s go back to nineteenth-century Vienna, where a young physician by the name of Sigmund Freud is trying to sell, first the scientific community and then the world at large, a new theory to explain all human behavior. He populates his theory with concepts such as the Oedipus and Electra complexes that, like the name Nike, echo back to the ancient myths of Greece. We suppose he could have given these conditions proper Latin names, but if he had, would we have the multibillion-dollar mental health industry today?

Maybe so. Maybe not.

Freud’s success proves the ability of a great story to change mass behavior. Sadly, it was a lesson learned all too well by another Austrian—Adolf Hitler—who attempted to weave the future of the German people out of the fraying strands of near-forgotten stories found in the pages of arcane ancient Nordic and Vedic mythologies.

Storytelling has the power to change the destiny of a company, an industry, a nation, and—ultimately—the world. It’s a force as powerful and universal as gravity and, sadly, often almost as invisible to the people it impacts. What would you say if we told you storytelling was the most underutilized weapon in most companies’ strategic arsenals?

What if we told you that, with very little conscious effort and practice, you could become an effective corporate storyteller? Our bet is that—sooner rather than later—you’d demand a little proof. Fair enough. That’s why we wrote this book.

Beyond the Business Case

The Da Vinci Code could have been a fast-selling summer beach book, but it turned into a billion-dollar industry. Why? Because it is a story tied to an even bigger story.

As aging Baby Boomers begin to consider the next stage of their collective lives, dozens of industries from financial services to pharmaceuticals are trying to tell Boomers a story they can relate to. The music—and more important, the spirit of the 1960s—is being invoked in advertising spots for everything from retirement planning to Flomax, a drug designed to improve urinary flow. But it was Da Vinci author Dan Brown who, consciously or unconsciously, understood the power of retelling the oldest story of them all: man’s relationship to God. It might be easy to dismiss The Da Vinci Code as a footnote to American pop cultural history, until you remember it’s a billion-dollar brand that represents the tip of a multibillion-dollar industry—an industry every business in America should be paying more attention to. Take a walk around your favorite bookstore, and you’re likely to find sections that didn’t exist 20 years ago or that have expanded radically over the past two decades. These include Religious Fiction, the Religion section itself, New Age, a radically democratized Philosophy section, and the old stand-by Self-Help titles.

As National Public Radio (NPR) correspondent Martha Woodroof of member station WMRA reported in an “All Things Considered” broadcast on July 5, 2005, “The American reading public is spending lots of dollars looking for meaning in twenty-first-century life.” In 2006, the Book Industry Study Group released figures indicating that the Religion category had an 8.1 percent increase in net dollar sales from 2004 to 2005 (to $2.3 billion) and that category sales were expected to increase 6.5 percent in 2006 and 6.3 percent in 2007, sales the industry rightfully views as miraculous in this age of digital entertainment. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the sale of religious books is what’s keeping U.S. publishing healthy.

Why the success? Simply put, an aging population—and a younger population facing mass global and domestic instability—desperately wants to be told a story with a happy ending. Religious-flavored stories—whether the apocalyptic visions of the Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s 17-volume and counting Left Behind series or the gentle ethical messaging of renowned storyteller Andy Andrews—hit a nerve with tens of millions of people who find themselves confused, lost, unhappy, afraid, and—perhaps above all—mortal. The simple story of “believe and you shall be saved” has never played before a more anxious and receptive audience, but it’s only one of literally thousands of successful stories you could use to grow your business.

We’re not, by the way, suggesting that you need to stop selling trucking equipment or restaurant supplies and begin selling Bibles and fictional accounts of salvation or rename your corporation after an obscure Nordic god of success. Instead, we are saying that understanding an audience, learning what stories they respond to, and then using those stories to “sell” your product or service is an effective positioning tool for any business.

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