The situation below is completely true and yet completely fiction:
You’re on one side of a quickly Windexed boardroom table. You had accepted the offer for coffee when you arrived, and it is half-full now, cold, sitting in front of you. Across from you are three to five people. These people are your potential clients. They fit the archetypes you know from being in boardroom situations. There is the boss who makes the final decision, the executive who read some marketing articles that morning in Fast Company, the nay-sayer who will not like any ideas (including his own) and the overworked person who will be tasked with implementing everything you are pitching.
They stare at you cow-eyed while you run through your vision. They look at your proposal numbers. The executive smiles slightly.
“So where does this all start?” says the boss.
“It starts with establishing your story,” you say. “Your brand needs a personality. It must be compelling. It must have vision and inspire others to do something greater.”
You know this because the kinds of brands who would call on you would only do so if they wanted to create vision. And you can see, perhaps better than they can in this moment, there is something more behind what they want to achieve.
“A story? That’s it?” says the naysayer. At this the overworked person stops scribbling notes. “Let me tell ya what. I have been here day-in, day-out for years. The last thing we need to do is waste money on a new fairytale.”
“I hear you. It sounds silly to you to talk about stories when there is product to ship and customers to serve and bills to pay,” you say. “But let me offer this: You are already telling a story right now. From what you told me, your story is, ‘We operate on a survival mentality.’ What would it look like to consciously tell the story – to harness the future of your company?”
All right. Time out.
I really don’t like allegorical business fiction. The idea is that language and, in particular, the story holds a power over us on a human level. I am not a psychologist or a biologist, but I know from hours with humans that loaded somewhere in our psyche is the need to belong. And story is the best way to communicate belonging.
Don’t Buy This Jacket
A shining example of the power of story starts with a few dirtbags in a VW bus headed to the tip of South America. They were dreamers who saw the world as something that could or should be explored. Their destination for this tripthey took back in the 60s was Patagonia, and one of the adventurers, Yvon Chouinard is the founder of Patagonia. (The journey is captured in 180 South, a documentary/startup-legend/brand-advertising-film you can watch on Netflix.)
Today, Patagonia sells everything you need to be an adventure-seeking lover of the outdoors – and you will look good doing it. You will also pay a lot for that privilege. A Patagonia parka will cost upwards of a month’s rent for most – $700. Whereas it’s very similar North Face equivalent is a full $400 less.
But being overpriced is not an issue for the brand. Their revenues have grown 15% per year steadily for the past five years. And the way they sell is with their story. And they tell their story everywhere.
They have a belief that the planet is beautiful. And you should experience every part of it. And that experience should be in the name of preserving the Earth’s beauty.
To this end, they engage in marketing behaviors that are anti-consumerist: They ask consumers to “sit-out” Cyber Monday. Their coveted catalog features actual adventurers – not models – who have trashed beaten up their gear and then recycled it for new replacement gear at no cost.
The loudest example of their story was a 2013 campaign which carried the tagline: Don’t Buy This Jacket. The ads featured the headline with one of their parkas. They asked adventurers to stop seeing themselves as consumers that tear through products and create waste. That year was the year they saw more revenues than ever.
By asking their audience to stop buying things, they compelled their audience to buy it. This was more than a clever reverse psychology. It was witness of their belief. Don’t buy the jacket. Buy the experience. Buy the story that you will tell about what you did when you wore this jacket and the sick views you took in when you breathe mountain air. Buy into being a dirtbag like us. Oh, and, if you would be so kind, please share what an adventure lover you are with your buddies and Twitter following.
Chouinard, the legendary dirtbag himself, was quoted in a recent Inc. article as saying: “I know it sounds crazy, but every time I have made a decision that is best for the planet, I have made money. Our customers know that—and they want to be part of that environmental commitment.”
His first commitment is to his brand’s story. And that commitment generates sales and brand converts.
It’s not a fairytale. It’s not fancy language. It’s not to be cute. The story is more real than your day-in and day-out.