OPINION27 November 2013

Selling tales


What can the business story learn from the story business? Branding consultant Robert Mighall outlines the key lessons.


‘Storytelling’ is everywhere, and because everyone knows what a story is, the concept has slipped easily into the communications context.

It’s taken a little while, though, for the field of corporate branding and communications to catch up with its B2C counterpart. To help quickly sharpen the delivery of the B2B story, here are some key learnings to bear in mind.

Be human

A well-established genre of brand storytelling from the B2C world is the ‘founding legend’. Innocent smoothies provides a textbook example: how three university friends in boring corporate jobs wanted to make all-fruit smoothies; how they made a batch for the Notting Hill Carnival, and naively asked revellers if they should give up their jobs and make this stuff for a living. The same charming naivety is carried through into all of Innocent’s communications, using the labels to have conversations through quirky humour, and spawning a thousand infantalist imitators thereafter.

Such legends encourage the belief that behind every great brand is a great story, and that sharing such stories is what brand storytelling is all about. But what if your company lacks inspiring origins? Does it prevent you from telling a story? The Innocent story (as legend and continuing conversation), illustrates perhaps the most valuable advantage that story has over the bar charts and business-speak beloved of corporations: its humanity. Know thyself; be thyself.

Storytelling is the universal human currency, practiced everywhere and throughout history as the best means we have to make ourselves understood, and get people on our side. Every company can be a bit more human, embracing the principles and mind-set of storytelling, adapted to their specific commercial and communication needs.

“Corporate stories don’t have to be works of art, but they can learn from them” 

Stick to the plot

A brand’s story isn’t just the one behind a company, but the one that it puts forward to the world. Not just where it has come from, but, more importantly, where it’s going, and where it promises to take others. Stories love journeys, and some of the greatest follow the hero’s quest towards some goal or grail. The business world is similarly restless – eternally seeking new roads to riches and challenges to conquer. A company’s story should be the surrogate for the journey on which it proposes to take its stakeholders.

A story needs a plot, and so does a company (otherwise known as its strategy). A coherent fictional plot delivers a compelling narrative, with a satisfying resolution. A narrative problem solved. A coherent business story also sticks to the plot. The parts hold together (for example, its corporate responsibility and business strategy are the same story), which inspires trust that it has a plan, and can deliver its promises. A business problem solved. 

Only connect

A well-written tale has a beginning, middle and an end – and, of course, a hero. These rules need adapting for commercial purposes: corporate stories don’t have to be works of art, but they can learn from them. 

For one, the hero doesn’t have to be the company itself. Implicitly it should be its audiences, who, like the audiences of fiction or drama, must imagine themselves in the hero’s place. Nike’s Just Do It strapline is the consummate brand story in this respect (and more powerful than any founding legend). It says nothing about the company itself, and everything about the million potential stories it inspires. The American Dream, no less, in three syllables.

Or Google, whose latest ad in India “Reunion” shows the principles of storytelling adapted to the digital age. A tear-jerking tale of two childhood friends separated by partition, and re-united. Happily ever after, thanks to Google. Yet the real hero is the internet, whose potential for storytelling the brand celebrates (and, by implication, owns). An empty search box and a set of algorithms set the stage for infinite narrative journeys, connections, resolutions. This is not just a brand telling its story, but showing how digital technology has given new scope to the oldest human impulse: to connect. And, through connecting, to create or share stories. In the digital, user-empowered age, we are the real heroes.

What about endings? The ‘end’ of a commercial story, in the sense of its purpose and narrative consummation is really only the beginning. The call-to-action ends the communication, but starts the real journey. ‘Find out more’ re-phrases ‘what happens next?’ – the driver of all narrative interest. Like a soap opera, the story a brand or company tells should be never-ending. Its real objective is to keep its audiences/stakeholders with it. To go on that journey together. 

Storytelling is a mind-set and a set of principles. An ethos rather than a formula or dogma. By embracing it the corporate world can simply communicate better. Be more human, more coherent and more convincing.

Robert Mighall is a branding consultant at Radley Yeldar and author of Only Connect: The Art of Corporate Storytelling.