We spend a lot of time talking about what makes a story, but what is not a story? For over two years I became intrigued by the power of storytelling applied to strategic messaging. The difficulty of defining what is not a story become a serious conceptual problem. I had many patient discussions (well, not always patient!) with my daughter Jennifer, a Stanford GSB professor, who has done extensive research and teaching on storytelling.

What Is and Is Not a Brand Signature Story?

We found a conceptual breakthrough: a set of facts is NOT a signature story. That idea broke the dam and allowed our work and my newest book, “Creating Signature Stories”, to proceed. A signature story as we defined it is a “Once about a time” narrative that portrays actual or fictitious events or experiences with a beginning, middle, and end (not always portrayed in that order) that provides an organizing framework for its components and implications. The signature story often has explicit or implied emotional content and detailed sensory information as well.

A signature story as I define it here is not a description of facts. It may incorporate or communicate facts but does so in the context of the narrative. The facts might be integrated in the narrative and must be deduced by the audience. Facts could appear after the narrative to add elaboration and credibility. Or the narrative could be used to add depth and meaning to facts already presented. But facts by themselves is not a story.

To illustrate the problem, think of executives that eagerly tell you their brand story. What they usually mean by that is to address questions like:

  • What does the brand stand for?
  • Who are its customer targets?
  • What is its value proposition for each segment?
  • What is the point of difference?
  • What organizational values or core programs or polices provide substance and clarity to the brand?

Brand Facts Do Not Communicate a Brand’s Signature Story

Answers to such questions almost always involve lists of facts. These fact lists should be perused, as they provide a solid underpinning for a brand vision and business strategy that will drive success. They should be crystal clear and communicated. But communicating a list of facts, efficient thought it may seem, is difficult and sometimes impossible as people are simply not interested. In fact, such a fact set is often perceived as boring rather than intriguing, as conveying puffery instead of authenticity, and is too similar to comparable lists from other organizations to be engaging. Even if an audience’s attention is obtained, they will perceive the communication to be biased and self-serving.  

Brand Signature Stories Make Strong Statements

Suppose a firm with quality issues asserted to employees and customers about their “new quality” priority. It would be likely greeted with disinterest and skepticism. Compare with the power of the following true story that is now a signature story: Zhang Ruimin was promoted in 1984 to lead a then-struggling Chinese refrigerator manufacturer that would later be renamed Haier.

After a customer brought in a faulty refrigerator, Zhang and the customer went through his inventory of 400 refrigerators –only to find that nearly 20 percent were defective. A defining moment. Zhang promptly had the 76 bad refrigerators lined up on the factory floor and asked employees to destroy them all with sledgehammers. A dramatic decision that led to a change in firm’s culture and reputation. It also became a platform from which Haier become a leading appliance maker in the global marketplace. The story was and is a big part of Haier’s success and one of the original sledgehammers is enshrined at the home office.

Final Thoughts

The astute executive should strive to develop a sound brand story, a set of facts that describes how the brand differentiates, resonates with customers, and inspires employees. But then recognize that to communicate and gain buy-in to those facts, turn to a set of signature stories—intriguing, authentic, involving narratives with a strategic message. A signature story perhaps about a founder, employee, or customer that illustrates and provides credibility to the brand story and makes it clearer, interesting, believable, and persuasive in part because it gains attention and diverts people from counter-arguing.

For more details, check out my new book “Creating Signature Stores”.


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