March 17, 2011, 10:00 am
Trying to Connect With Customers? Tell a Story
By MP MUELLER
The best part of writing for this blog is getting to talk to lots of successful business owners. Recently, I was reflecting on the companies who really capture my imagination and heart. They have in common an important ingredient for successful companies, large and small. It’s not nice packaging or a good product at a good price or passion or exceptional service — although those things are all important. It’s that they all have a company story, told well.
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I’ve already mentioned some of these companies in previous posts. There was Vineyard Vines, which was started by two brothers who sold ties out of the back of a station wagon in Nantucket, and there was Sweetgreen, which was started by three college friends who craved quick, healthful food near campus. Big brands recognize the power of a story as well. This past holiday season, Whole Foods grocery bags were printed with “Every Meal Has a Story. Celebrate Yours.” Starbucks offered point-of-purchase material that read “Share a cup, share a story” and bags that read “Stories are gifts. Share.”
Americans live on a steady diet of stories — including those presented on reality TV shows, talk shows and in countless magazines. Charlie Sheening may become the verb for stories that go too far. We regularly circle round that flat screen, high-definition campfire with the zeal of kids hoping to char the last marshmallow. Color me sappy, but I must admit the first things I turn to in the Sunday New York Times are the Modern Love and Weddings pages for real stories about couples and relationships.
Strong company stories reflect human traits that we love to champion: humble beginnings, hands-on schlepping of products or services, creating a better workplace and world. And we root for these companies because their story gives us hope that we, too, can make it and make a difference. For example:
Sweet Leaf Tea puts its story right there on its back label — the picture of their people making giant teabags out of pillow cases and hand bottling their product. While politicians have long understood the power of humble roots and the I’m-just-one-of-you ethos, business has been slower to learn.
Pink Kisses is a Web site where girls can go to get support and sass after the breakup of a relationship. The site offers packages of flowers, chocolates and daily e-mail messages that can be soothing or scathing. Naturally, the most trusted advice comes from those who have walked the walk, so the owner, Ellie Scarborough, details her own breakup story that led to the company’s start.
Maine Root got its start because Matt Seiler, then working at a pizza place in Portland, Me., didn’t like any of the root beers the restaurant sold and decided to formulate his own. Now, less than five years later, Mr. Seiler and his brother Mark are selling Maine Root All Natural Sodas in all 50 states.
When a company highlights its story, it soon realizes its power. If consumers like a company’s story, they are often willing to give its product or service a try. If they also like the product or service, they will move easily from brand consumer to brand champion.
If your company has a story, put it out there; if it doesn’t have one, get one. Here’s a checklist to help you do it:
• What was your inspiration for starting your business? What ignited your passion for your company? Did you have an “aha” moment that propelled you into entrepreneurship?
• Did you face rejection? Start from nothing? Struggle? Achieve success against the odds?
• Who helped you along the way? Mentors? Siblings?Former bosses? Who was your first customer? When did you get that initial big client or order that catapulted you from mom-and-pop to multiple outlets? When was it clear you had something special?
• Talk about a nonprofit organization or cause that your business supports in a big way. What does it mean to your brand and why?
• Tell it in the form of a story style — not necessarily once upon a time, but conversationally, the way we all like to hear stories. You can make it lean in length, but be sure to include fun and unusual anecdotes. That’s what gives it life — and prompts people to repeat it.
• Highlight your story on your Web site — place it right on the home page. Make sure your employees know it by heart. Put it in your boilerplate language on your social media sites, at the bottom of press releases, in all of your internal and external marketing material.
And if it turns out your story just isn’t that interesting, share anecdotes about your employees and customers and their experiences with your brand. We’re sitting around the fire. We’re ready for s’more.
MP Mueller is the founder of Door Number 3, a boutique advertising agency in Austin, Tex. Follow Door Number 3 on Facebook.