Storytelling should be companies’ bread and butter

Pretty much every food and drink brand worth its chips has a story to tell these days.

Peruse the websites of giants like Bacardi, Innocent and Jack Daniel’s, or relative small-fry like Brew Dog, Higgidy and London Pride, and you’ll come across the tale of how they came to be. Here’s another one you might recognise:

Back in ’66, in a school gym class, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were brought together by a special bond... they both hated running but loved food. Years later in ’78, Ben had been fired from a series of McJobs while Jerry had failed for the second time to get into medical school. So, armed with a $5 correspondence course in ice cream making, they opened their very first scoop shop in a dilapidated gas station in downtown Burlington, Vermont.

If you take a closer look at the food and drink stories, they’ve all got two basic things in common.

1. Their story tells us why they are the way they are.

Take Jack Daniel’s, for example. They’ve put Mr Jack at the heart of their brand – and it’s his old-time values that direct how they do business: making whiskey in the same buildings, by the same method, as they did 150 years ago.

2. Their story tells us something tangible about what they make, or how they do it, that shows their values in action.

Like independent pie-makers Higgidy. Founder Camilla is a pie evangelist, and her word is gospel.

You cannot make a perfect pie with a machine. Everybody who truly loves pies knows that. So no matter how many people want their pies they still just make them by hand – even if it means staying up all-night.

It’s a structure that serves these firms well. We’re increasingly concerned about where our food comes from (what with the horsemeat scandal, worries about the environmental cost of long-distance haulage, and so on). So if you can show you make things the right way – as opposed to mass-produced, battery-farmed, GM-infused stuff – we’re more likely to feel good about it, and trust that you’re not topping up the vino with antifreeze.

But this storytelling trend doesn’t stretch to, say, financial firms. Or tech brands. Why not? What’s stopping those kinds of companies from using the power of stories to tell us about themselves? Well, nothing really.

At heart these are all stories about the people behind the business, and why they do what they do. That’s something every company has in common. And as professional storyteller Nick Hennessey told us, the stories of real people in your organisations are the ones we want to hear – and the ones we trust.

In a small corner of networking giant Cisco’s website, for example, there’s a story about how Cisco started in part because a husband and wife wanted to keep in touch in different parts of Stanford University campus, but didn’t have the technology to do it. For a company that’s all about connecting people with technology, what better story to show their values in action? Why not put that front and centre?

General Electric has a history full of fascinating people and world-changing inventions. They tell the story of founder Thomas Edison, but end up talking about ‘a stream of powerful company-wide initiatives that drive growth and reduce cost’. That feels like a missed opportunity to link Edison’s philosophy to GE’s culture of innovation.

You don’t have to hand-bake pies to have a personal touch to the way you do business. And you don’t have to have been in the same building for 150 years to still be guided by your founding values. Just find the stories of your people’s failures and successes, their passions and pet peeves. And tell them.

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