Stories are a hot topic in marketing because they have been shown to be superior to facts in getting attention, being remembered, in changing opinions, in stimulating social activity, developing emotion, and curiously, even in communicating facts. Many firms have added journalists, editors, and filmmakers to their staffs to create or find meaningful stories and present them in a compelling way. Stories are often thought mainly to support tactical short-term communication objectives. But there is also a role for “signature stories” that represent some form of strategic statement about an organization’s mission, values, brand, customer relationship, or strategic intent.
Consider L.L. Bean, a firm which would like to communicate its innovation culture, its passion for the outdoors, its commitment to quality, its concern for the customer, and the functional benefits of the Maine Hunting Shoe. Stating such facts is unlikely to create interest, credibility or even a connection to L.L. Bean.
In contrast, consider the following story: Leon L. Bean, an avid outdoorsman, returned from a hunting trip in 1912 disgruntled because of his cold, wet feet. With little resources but a lot of motivation and ingenuity, he invented a new boot by stitching lightweight leather tops to waterproof rubber bottoms. The boots worked so well he offered them for sale via mail order as the Maine Hunting Shoe, using lists of nonresident Maine hunting license holders. Unfortunately, most of the first 100 pairs sold had a stitching problem and leaked. Mr. Bean faced a defining moment! His response? He refunded the customers’ money even though it nearly broke him and fixed the process so that future boots were indeed water tight. This story communicates the L.L. Bean brand far better than any presentation of facts.
So what is a signature story?
A signature story is an intriguing, authentic, involving narrative (as opposed to a stand-alone set of facts or features) with a strategic message that enables growth by clarifying or enhancing the brand, the customer relationship, the organization, and/or the business strategy. It is a strategic asset that can be leveraged through time providing inspiration and direction both internally and externally.
A signature story must:
- Be intriguing if not fascinating, some combination thought-provoking, novel, provocative, interesting, informative, newsworthy, or entertaining to the audience.
- Be authentic – the story’s audience cannot perceive the story to be phony, contrived, or a transparent selling effort. Further, there should be substance behind the story and its message in the form of programs, policies, or transparency that support it.
- Be involving – the audience member should be drawn into the story (which usually, but not always, precipitates a cognitive, emotional, or behavioral response).
- Be strategic – the story should have a strategic message linked to the brand that enables growth by clarifying or enhancing the brand, the customer relationship, the organization, and/or the business strategy.
A signature story is an asset with enduring relevance and capacity to inspire and provide direction over a long time period. As it gets retold, signature stories gain authenticity, traction, and influence. The principle targets for signature stories are employees and existing and potential customers. Signature stories can provide employees a source of inspiration and a cornerstone for organizational culture and values.
The L. L. Bean story supports a higher purpose around innovation, the passion for the outdoors, quality, and the customer. Millennials, in particular, are attracted to firms that are aiming for more that sales and profits; a signature story can help with making that purpose authentic and clear.
Customers are also a valuable target because there is a segment that will find a brand’s values, customer relationship, and strategy important to them as they develop loyalties to brands and firms. Advancing the strategic position of the brand and organization in the eyes of this audience is challenging because of message clutter, media dynamics, growing customer ownership of context, and the complexity of social media. Signature stories can be an answer providing the ability to not only to provide break-through visibility but to communicate the basic essence of a brand and organization.
The Secret to Signature Stories
To find or create signature stories, look broadly for story heroes. Stories around customers, programs, suppliers, offering are often employed to motivate customers. Four more: the employees, founder, a business revitalization strategy, and a future business revitalization strategy are usually oriented to inspiring employees.
The customer as hero can be effective because there is no “my brand or product is better than yours” connotation and the customer story is likely to be closely linked to either the organizational values or the brand’s value proposition. LinkedIn has a series of professionally created one minute stories around “Creating Your Own Success” that involve leveraging LinkedIn. Dr. Chavez told about his dream of getting pets off of processed foods – and used LinkedIn to share his big idea. Jenni was laid off during the financial meltdown and several months of intense networking led to a marketing position and, ultimately, supported to decision to be on her own.
The employee as hero can be a source of a strong and memorable signature story because employees are on the front lines. Zappos.com, the online shoe store, has a set of signature stories around its ten core values. One of which is to deliver Wow customer service. One such story involves a Zappos.com call center employee who at 3 a.m. received a call from a customer who could not find an open pizza store. Instead of gently turning the customer away, the employee actually found a pizza store open and arranged a delivery.
The business revitalization story can clarify and motivate a new strategy and inspire employees and customers. Consider Zhang Ruimin who became the CEO of a troubled Chinese appliance manufacturer, Haier, in 1982. Early in his tenure he needed to replace a customer’s faulty refrigerator and found that twenty percent of his inventory was also defective. Zhang promptly had the dud refrigerators lined up on the factory floor and destroyed them with a sledgehammer in front of the whole staff to tell them and the world that poor quality would not be tolerated any more. From that point on, the story served to define a new strategy and culture that ultimately led to Haier becoming a global leader. The story can work at the outset when the strategy is being implemented and over time as the strategy becomes an ongoing operation.
Not all stories are worth elevating to signature status. There needs to be an evaluation process to identify the strength and promise of candidate stories. When candidate stories emerge, make sure that they are not just a list of facts (or features) but, rather, a narrative that appears intriguing, is perceived as authentic, engenders involvement, and has a strategic message. And make sure that they are managed like the asset they are. For more detail see my article co-authored with Jennifer Aaker on signature stories published in the Spring issue of the California Management Review.