The first rule of storytelling, and also one of the greatest assets of the craft, is that a story shows more than it tells. In fact, storyshowing makes a lot more sense as a term. But that’s beside the point I want to make.
Stories maintain our interest as members of an audience with their intuitive structure, and they pluck at our heartstrings as a conduit of empathy. This makes story a natural tool for engaging audiences. It’s no surprise, then, that storytelling is often hailed as one of marketing’s secret weapons.
Stories convey their messages through the way they represent change in the course of their telling.
When you stop to think about it, The Three Little Pigs isn’t trying to convince us that 2 out of 3 pigs are shoddy architects. It’s about the value in being prepared and not taking shortcuts in life. This theme is only given shape because of how the story changes around the third pig.
But let’s bring this back to marketing. Stories are one of your company’s first assets, whether they’re actively being leveraged or not.
Since every company has one or three of these assets (though they may be unpolished and buried somewhere in the past), businesses can benefit from mining their story, cleaning it up and bringing it into the light. There are at least three reasons why:
- A company story can be a timeless way to differentiate your brand in a competitive market.
- A company story can tie your brand to an idea or personality better than a catchy slogan.
- A company story can be the core of your brand’s identity from which you derive your marketing messages because — and here’s the best part — your story actually happened!
Oh, and here’s a 4th reason: a company story can make a clean 60-second elevator pitch out of what might be a 5-minute broken escalator mess — an efficient way to convey what your brand is about.
So, why not make the most out of a powerful tool you already own?
But I’m no J.R.R. Tolkien. How do I tell my company's story?
You don’t need to be an author to tell a story. I’m confident that you already understand the structure of a story — at least intuitively.
But to craft a story that your company can use, it helps to learn what the essential elements look like when you break a story down. This helps you understand how a story comes together and what to do with your own.
So, where do we start?
Well, think about how an episode of your favorite TV show usually starts. Unless it’s the odd one that starts in media res — in the middle of a car chase or exciting scene that hooks us instantly — most stories start with a pretty average day.
Step 1: Establish a status quo
How many times have you heard a story that began with, “So, I was walking down the street and…” before the teller jumped into what happened?
We do this because we intuitively know that in order to tell a story we need to establish a status quo or “the way things were before." Think of this as the “Once upon a time...” of your story. Without this, it’s not clear whether you’re telling a story or regurgitating an event.
The set-up is important. It introduces the setting or circumstances that give your story some context.
A story requires — no, revolves around — change. Unless you establish point A, your point B is not going to be able to pick up enough momentum to make much of an impact.
For companies, this can be what the founder was doing before his or her big “eureka!” moment or a simple description of the industry at the time.
It’s good to look at this first step as a way to set the audience’s expectations before introducing something that shatters it. Don’t worry about how boring or mundane it seems. This part of your story can (and should) be brief for what comes next.
Step 2: Introduce the Inciting Incident
The inciting incident introduces the motivation or catalyst for change that moves the protagonist, or the company/founder in this case, in a different direction. It’s an event that causes a departure from whatever was happening before — the status quo.
It doesn’t have to be the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents that motivates him to fight crime, or a naive hobbit receiving the One Ring that forces him to flee from Sauron's army. It can be a stroke of inspiration, a personal crisis or a paradigm shift within your industry. Whatever it is in your case, it needs to spring from or be tied to the status quo you established prior. It needs to drive your story forward.
Step 3: Portray Challenges, Highlight Achievements
Don’t take this as a chance to brag, because this is really an opportunity to humanize your brand. Challenges are relatable; the underdog story is endearing to audiences, because we can see ourselves in those same shoes.
Your company has obviously faced challenges, but that’s no reason to treat them all like the blemishes on your brand. These are the moments of imperfection that let your audience see that you struggled. Struggles illustrate your effort. Struggles also highlight your achievements, which you now have the opportunity to include as part of the natural flow of your story.
Step 4: Create a new status quo
I’ve outlined a simplified marketing-oriented version of the story structure that I've been taught, because your company story doesn’t need to be as complex as, say, Christopher Nolan’s Inception. However, it does require rising action that culminates in a new status quo.
Your company story ends on a cliffhanger. And you know what? That’s a good sign. Stories about companies that go under and business ventures that flop provide real closure. And that ending isn’t likely to be a “happily ever after."
At best, this new status quo should set up your company’s place in the industry or its vision of the future. The important thing is that you're going to continue this story off the page and in the real world.
So, now that we’ve got an idea of what the story structure looks like and the function of each element, let’s take a look at a couple of quick examples of real company stories.
Velcro: From Inspiration to Innovation
Whenever “great inventions” enter the conversation, I recall the story behind Velcro. I’m sure many of you already know it. But if you haven’t heard it yet, allow me to tell you how it goes:
George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, often enjoyed hiking through the woods with his dog as a companion.
One day, as he returned home from one of these hikes, he noticed several burrs that managed to cling to his clothes and cover his dog when they brushed past the plants. As an amateur mountaineer who would frequent the wilderness, this had likely happened to him before.
However, in that specific moment he bothered to ask two simple questions: how did these burrs attach themselves to surfaces, and is there a real-world application for this phenomenon?
Eight years passed during which he researched, studied the burrs under a microscope and experimented to discern how they worked in order to create a fabric that could emulate their adhesive ability. Thanks to the privilege of living in the present, we know that he succeeded.
However, De Mestral’s brilliant invention was met with ridicule at first. What would you expect from an idea that sought to replace knots and zippers?
Thankfully, Velcro found its first big commercial application with NASA that launched its popularity to new heights.
Today, we use Velcro in shoes, clothing, tools and many everyday items to provide a swift way to attach, detach and reattach surfaces. Velcro was a big idea that has seen countless applications since. More will surely follow from the seed of this idea.
As you can see, this story lends meaning to Velcro, a product we might write off for being mundane.
Here’s another story that’s a little closer to home at Uberflip.
Uberflip: The Story Behind Hubs
The story of Uberflip doesn’t start in content marketing, but rather in digital publishing.
Yoav Schwartz, founder and CEO of Uberflip, initially created Flipbooks to empower publishers to turn the PDF into something better suited for reaching audiences that were spending more time with digital media.
Flipbooks did well, but the quickly changing landscape of publishing also provoked a movement in marketing towards content.
Marketers became writers, journalists, bloggers, graphic designers and vice versa. In a short period of time, content marketing went from a buzzword formed around an old idea to a popular alternative to traditional marketing and advertising.
The scene was set and Yoav saw an opportunity there. However, Flipbooks weren’t enough to properly seize it.
Flipbooks rendered the standard PDF obsolete as the “Portable Document Format” became the “Plain Document Format” in the face of a solution that brought an interactive design and true mobility to eBooks, brochures and magazines in the cloud.
If the PDF could be improved by focusing on the experience of the creator and the reader, why couldn't the same be done for all content as a whole? The more traction Flipbooks gained, the more the question of where to put them — and the rest of people's content — came up.
Thus, the idea for Content Hubs was born and the Uberflip philosophy around content experience was adopted.
Despite the challenge of conquering the status quo with a new way of doing things, Hubs has since helped Uberflip grow as a company that’s making a name for itself in the marketing world.
Even so, Hubs is in a state of constant improvement. Just as the idea of Flipbooks evolved into Hubs, Hubs will continue to evolve and roll out new features built around the experiences that marketers and their audiences have with it. The vision: to create engaging experiences out of content, and bridge the gap between content marketing and marketing automation with content marketing automation.
Find your story and tell it
Again, every company has a story worth telling. So why not tell it?
Traditional methods of branding (slogans, logos, company colors) might help others identify who your company is in a crowded market, but story enables people to identify with your company.
So, ready to peel apart the pages of your company's history and start crafting your story?