Monday, 08 April 2019
From a compelling ‘About us’ page on your website to social media chats telling your tale, customers will appreciate this intuitive connection. We ask the experts how SMEs can best deliver their stories.
In marketing and advertising circles, the word ‘storytelling’ is bandied about a lot – but it means different things to different people. Chris Hewitt, CEO of communications agency Berkeley Communications and also founder of its Storytelling Academy, which teaches business leaders to use stories to connect with customers and boost sales, says that many interpretations are wrong.
“I was talking to a company recently who told me they were interested in storytelling, but when they presented their story to me all they did was tell me about their product and list its features and benefits,” he says. “I think there’s some confusion about what makes a story a story.”
For Hewitt, nothing could be clearer: business owners should lean on the best traditions of moviemaking and great literature to develop a story arc that helps people to make an emotional connection with their product or service. “Storytelling is not just self-congratulatory puff,” he says.
Hewitt suggests that something as run-of-the-mill as a plastic desk tidy can be made more attractive by applying some of the basic rules of storytelling. “It’s a plastic box that sits on your desk, but the problem it solves is untidy desks. So now you ask a second question: what is the consequence of an untidy desk?” All of a sudden, he says, you have the beginnings of a story. “If you have an untidy desk you’re unproductive, and now there’s a possibility for a headline that could be about how untidy desks are to blame for a decline in productivity in offices.”
Good stories, he says, are about how your product fits into – and improves – someone’s life. “By nature,” he says, “we’re hard-wired to look for problems. If a business focuses on the problem, then the natural next step is a resolution and this is where companies start to weave in their message that helps guide the customer towards a solution.”
Hewitt’s approach suggests that good storytelling is most effective, and most likely to drive sales, when art and science intersect.
Manchester-based Urban Splash has been regenerating unloved and disused buildings around the country for a quarter of a century. This has given the business a powerful voice in the story about urban regeneration, which it uses to tell stories in a social, economic and political context. "When storytelling," says marketing director Orla McGrath, "it is helpful to look at the bigger picture – to see how you fit into a wider conversation, which, for us, is the way in which so many of our schemes have been shaped by the mood of the country at the time we developed the buildings. That gives you relevance – you are part of a living, breathing story, rather than just trying to find your own story for the sake of it. I would encourage brand owners to consider a similar approach, especially if you are a small fish in a large pond. If you make IT software, might you be part of the solution to the global story about productivity? If you sell handmade jewellery, it could be that your story dovetails into a wider narrative about the joys of craftsmanship."
The channels Urban Splash uses are varied: it has released its second book; has a short film about the brand on its website and an exhibition touring the UK. Naturally, social media plays a big part, too – it can connect with more than 40,000 people that way, as well as another 15,000 via its monthly newsletter.
Social media has become one of the most popular ways for brands to tell their story, but Laura-May Coope, director and co-founder of social media specialists Social Life, cautions that it’s important not to try to hoodwink audiences with woolly tales. She cites a recent report, which found that the majority of people considered less than half of brand-generated content to be authentic.
“When storytelling, it is helpful to look at the bigger picture – to see how you fit into a wider conversation”
Orla McGrath, marketing director, Urban Splash
To address this, she deliberately pairs up members of her team with clients that match their lifestyle and interests. “By doing this, it means a brand can speak the same language that resonates with the desired audience,” she says.
In terms of storytelling, Coope says that people are psychologically wired to enjoy stories because they appeal on an emotional and empathetic level. “By placing a product or service at the heart of a story it will help promote it in a more compelling way,” she says. “Social media is perfect to facilitate this as it is composed of highly accessible, fast-moving, short-form content that’s easy to digest.”
Emily Mathieson, founder of Aerende, an online store selling homewares and gifts that have been handmade in the UK by people facing social challenges, has found that having a strong story woven into the very fabric of her brand helps customers to make a connection. “People respond to human stories,” she says, “and there’s a human behind every product that we sell. That connection makes everyone feel more positive.”
Mathieson finds Instagram to be the perfect vehicle for her message, but she’s also fortunate that newspapers and magazines have been keen to pick up on it, too. While she doesn’t view the ethical aspect of her business as a marketing tool – “I just think this is how business should be,” she says – she does concede that if she were starting a new business from scratch she would be thinking of the story first. “I don’t think you can launch a business without a story now,” she says. “You have to have something that makes you stand out, and your story is the thing.”
Chis Hewitt of the Berkeley Storytelling Academy shares his tips: