Your customers are your heroes. Do you acknowledge them?

Powerful advocacy demonstrates cognitive business

By Nancy Pearson, VP Marketing, IBM Cognitive Business

A year ago we embarked on a project to employ more emotional storytelling for IBM and the markets we serve. Little did we know where this would lead.

The focus was on our customers and how we can innovate on how we tell their stories. Often in marketing we claim that we’re transforming the lives of our clients and helping them run their businesses more effectively. We really wanted to put this to the test and explore these transformational kinds of stories. And we wanted to employ show-don’t-tell strategies.

The first story produced was around Runkeeper, a mobile fitness app used by 50 million runners. Runkeeper use IBM’s cloud storage to keep track of the running patterns of their users. In this case, we focused on one particular app user: Simon Wheatcroft, a marathon runner who just happens to be blind.

The story earned a number of accolades, including a shout-out from Fast Company:

As I transitioned into a new role helping the market understand the latest developments in cognitive computing and AI, there was new-found vigor in exploring this form of storytelling. After all, what better way to explain these new technology advancements than through the lives they are transforming?

Over the course of this year, we’ve produced a number of pieces including a focus on the USA Women’s Olympic Cycling Team, the Medtronic solution for helping those with diabetes, Bee2B: a virtual reality story on the impact of weather insights, and Woodside Energy.

In the development of these stories, we applied some key principles:

The hero mantra

We call these stories hero stories because we focus on the lives who have been transformed. In the case of Woodside, the hero is Dean: an offshore platform engineer who can now make better decisions with the aid of a cognitive app on an iPad, which unveils the knowledge tied up in millions of pages of engineering reports.

We employ Joseph Campbell’s notion of the hero’s journey to show how a protagonist overcomes challenges to succeed. You can see this in evidence in Philip’s story for Medtronic and how technology helped him fortify his own resolve.

Show-don’t-tell

We used high-production video to tell this story. The Barbarian team who produced the Woodside film actually went onto the rig itself to capture the story in-situ (involving some pretty heroic training on surviving underwater in the process). The footage is real and intended to put you directly into Dean’s shoes.

In the case of the Bee2B story, the VR experience immerses you in a beehive to understand the impact of the weather on this crucial part of our food system.

According to a survey conducted by Google, the Woodside hero content was twice as effective compared to a recent ad campaign at changing the perceptions of young professionals towards IBM.

A digital story package

The core asset produced for Woodside was a 2-minute video showing what Dean knows thanks to cognitive computing. The landing experience around the story explains how cognitive technologies find insight in the data and can present this in a simple chat-based format.

Given the focus on the end client in the video, the Woodside team actually incorporated the video on a link off their homepage. It’s rare that we get this kind of customer advocacy for our more regular talking-head testimonials.

For Medtronic, the in addition to a video, we produced two additional photo montages and infographics.

The assets around this story were shared in blogs by the Medtronic team.

Overall, assets from the stories we produced in the second half of 2016 have received over 40m social impressions: making this one of our most successful organic campaigns!

An experiential rendering

Going beyond digital, we built out the experience of standing on a helipad for our major World of Watson event. We had over 10 representatives from the Woodside team come over from Australia to Las Vegas to explain the story from their perspective. We had a theater showing the video, but also iPads showing off the cognitive app.

For the Medtronic story, we featured a photo gallery showcasing pictures of the people whose lives had been touched by the Medtronic app.

For the Bee2B experience we had VR headsets on hand so attendees could experience the story themselves.

The experiences around the hero stories at World of Watson garnered over 600 leads — way above average for a normal installation at one of these events.


Overall, we’ve been excited about the results we’ve seen with our experiments in emotive hero storytelling. We know we ourselves are on a journey and look forward to continue to innovate the model in 2017.

One key takeaway I would leave you with is that the digital age has redefined the worlds of marketing and media. How we express customer advocacy has changed. As Deborah Bothun and John Sviokla from PwC point out, we all now need to think of ourselves as media companies:

“Native advertising, or content marketing, became a US $10.7 billion business in 2015, up 35% from the previous year, according to BI Intelligence. Given this simultaneous redefinition of what it means to be a media company and the rekindled investment by many, many companies in new content and in direct audience relationships, it’s not too much of a stretch to say every company is a media company — or will be one soon.”