Companies Are Telling The Wrong Story: We Forgot The Hero And It’s Killing Corporate Creativity
Who's the hero of your company's story? Columnist Patrick Armitage explains why great storytelling starts with the customer, not the company or the product.
For many businesses, it’s hard to have a little fun in the workplace. I’ve worked with clients who take themselves far too seriously. And any attempts to have fun get slowly diluted by either too many people (and their two cents) or stakeholders afraid of getting on their bosses’ radar. We’re all working for the weekend, aren’t we?
I’ve seen this story too many times. Save for a few companies, corporate America discourages creativity. Your run-of-the-mill cubicle drones have no financial incentive to put their necks on the line in the spirit of creativity. And for the courageous few who take a risk, the sample size within the company is so small that the cons outweigh the pros every time.
Progressive businesses are getting more creative. And at the center of that creativity lies a story. But whose story? And how do you tell that story?
Perhaps the one company with a track record of great storytelling is Pixar. It’s done a pretty decent job of telling stories, right? So what’s its secret?
The One Rule To Follow For Great Storytelling
Of Pixar’s 22 rules to great storytelling, there’s one that stands out. It’s a simple outline that sets the foundation for every great story.
If Pixar were to tell the story of your company, how would it go?
Without reading further, go back and fill in those blanks. Tell the story. Go ahead.
Now be honest — when filling in those blanks, did you put yourself or your company in this story?
Did you forget anyone? No?
The Element Every Great Story Needs
And this is why companies get storytelling and creativity wrong. You didn’t start with the customer (and if you did, congrats, you can stop reading!).
The company isn’t the hero. It never is. And if you’re an employee or the head of marketing for a company, you’re not either. Because no one likes to see some faceless corporation succeed. They want to see the customer succeed. So many companies want to tell their story at the expense of a more compelling one right under their nose…the story of the customer.
Here’s another quick thought experiment:
Think of a great advertisement. Why did you identify with that ad?
Do you identify with the company in those ads?
No. Because the best ads make you identify with the customer first.
I always like to go back to this ad from Procter & Gamble.
P&G is a massive multinational corporation that makes billions annually. The average consumer doesn’t know which P&G products he or she owns (Gucci cosmetics, anyone?). P&G’s story and products aren’t what’s compelling. It’s customers’ stories told beautifully, and this ad spot is an excellent example.
Another old, but relevant example is Google’s ad in 2009, “Parisian Love.”
The product isn’t what’s most compelling here. It’s the user’s story (as told through Google’s search product). Creative companies don’t think of their products first; they think of their customers.
So let’s deconstruct Pixar’s story line, making our customer the hero. We’ll start with the fundamental notion that every story has a beginning, middle and end.
(Once upon a time there was __________. Every day, __________.)
This is your hero’s everyday, monotonous existence. Like you, he puts his pants on one leg at a time — wakes up, gets his coffee, kisses his wife, commutes, punches in, works in Excel, eats a PB&J, works in Excel, punches out.
People become so entrenched in their day-to-day routines that shocking them out of it is difficult. But you can’t change a behavior without intimately understanding the behavior or environment that needs changing.
What’s the beginning of your customer’s story? Have fun answering this question by getting specific about his feelings, fears or anxieties. Everyday life has creative moments. You just have to take the time to stop and notice them as opportunities.
(One day __________. Because of that, __________. Because of that, __________.)
This is where your hero stumbles upon a problem. Maybe it’s a problem he wrestles with every day. Maybe it’s a singular, one-off problem that changes everything. Whatever it is, the middle of every great story presents a problem.
(One day __________.)
What’s your customer’s problem? How did it start? Keep it as simple as possible. Multifaceted, complex problems only make it harder for people to identify and sympathize with our hero. Complex problems create complex solutions. And the more complex your hero’s problem, the harder the sale.
(Because of that, __________.)
How did this problem affect our hero’s life? Is this a problem that costs our hero time? Money? Success? Has it simply disrupted the everyday flow of his life?
There are some problems that start small and get bigger. Some problems are just small inconveniences but happen every day.
What’s the problem that’s so confounding, so traumatic that it’s changed his routine? How does your hero feel? What new problems arose as a result of this one?
(Because of that, __________.)
This is where your company comes in — at the intersection of our hero’s problem and a solution — albeit subtly.
Smart marketers don’t take credit. They give credit — to their customers. There’s cachet in self-discovery.
My most profound brand experiences stem from the belief that I discovered a solution to my problems on my own. I don’t want a company telling me their solution to my problems. It’s a subtle, but important, shift to creating a stickier brand that empowers customers.
Granted, companies that do their homework know where I’ll go looking for answers. And if they’re in the right place at the right time, I don’t feel marketed to. In fact, I don’t even think I’m being marketed to at all.
To use the Google “Parisian Love” example: Google is fundamentally a search engine. But the ad isn’t about search; it’s about a story. If the hero’s journey is to find love, Google is merely the means to the end. And the end is more powerful than the means.
What’s the end goal of your customer? How do you get him there?
(Until finally __________.)
This is where our hero’s journey concludes. Our hero decides to use your company as a means to an end. He now lives in a world better than the one he left behind. He finds closure and lives happily ever after.
Creative companies today aren’t telling their story. They’re telling their customers’ stories. The customer is the hero — not the product, not the company.
So what’s your hero’s story?