The Power of Storytelling

And How Content Strategists Can Use It to Win the Hearts of the Audience

“Story is, quite literally, the retelling of events. And this retelling is often from a single perspective.” (Patrick Moreau, 2016)

So why should we as content strategists care about the concept? What makes it one of the most valuable tools in our content marketing repertoire? Let me give you my view on things.

I’ve learned about the power of storytelling quite early on. During my time at university, I “had” to do an internship of about six months. I decided to apply for one at one of my all-time hero brands: innocent. And luckily, the team considered me a great fit as well and I got the chance to work and learn at innocent Alps (Austria, Germany & Switzerland) for a — in hindsight very impactful — half year in 2012.

Stories make for great content

The thing that innocent manages — maybe better than any other company I know of — is to wave a myriad of bigger and smaller stand-alone strands of stories into one all-embracing umbrella story. The founders understood early on that stories matter and that they can be an important factor in the decision making process of the consumers. Yes, it’s true: The saying “Content is King” seems already rather stale. Still, customers expect great content. And the thing that really connects to them emotionally are stories.

And as a result, the story of how innocent came to be is a legend within innocent and beyond. The magical thing is, however, that the company did not stop there. It understood, that all the members of the team have to be part of the story universe in order to maximise the impact.

I still remember that at one point, our regional office received a visit from the headquarters — but not just from any member: Our guest was Dan, the “number 4”. The first person the three founders hired once their business started to grow. He was the guy jointly responsible for the tone of voice and innocent’s ingenious labels and his is the author of the book “innocent — our story and some things we’ve learned”. Dan started the gathering by once again retelling the innocent legend: The story of how Adam, Richard and Jon had the idea of filling up smoothies. And the tale of how they let the people decide whether they should go for it and quit their jobs or not. He talked to us about the values and goals of the company. But not in a condescending way but by waving them once again into compelling strands of stories. And he finally asked us to share our very own innocent stories. Those could be stories of how we first came in contact with the little bottles or the company. But they could also be stories right out of our everyday work life. And so we talked and Dan listened. He encouraged us to become storytellers ourselves. I, for one, can honestly say that it was not the last time I told my personal innocent story that day — I repeated it many times over and thus became an even bigger advocate of the company than I already have been.

Apparently, this kind of on-site-visit was nothing unusual and happened every few months. By including all the members of the team into the storytelling process, innocent managed the impossible: To create an environment where the stories are lived and in some cases even breached on a daily basis. This ensures that the stories are perceived to be in line with the everyday appearance of the company. No matter which touchpoint, the tone and natural approach to things is always the same. And this in turn leads to a great asset: Authenticity.

Add an authentic tone of voice to the mixture

As an intern, I was responsible — amongst other things — for the community management (answering the phone, mails, letters,…). The goal was to strike down the barriers that naturally exist between an organisation and the outside world. Every day, I would receive countless — often rather formal — messages or calls from customers and fans and it was my job to show them that we preferred to treat to our customers as good friends rather than strangers.

It was during that time that I developed my own personal recipe for brand success:

Authentic Brand Voice + Good Storytelling = Strong Community

Because the magic is that it worked. While our counterparts tended to be the slightest bit startled in the beginning, they without fail came around quickly and adopted the same kind of light banter that innocent became so famous for. Not only did this recipe create loyal customers — it created commited brand ambassadors who were willing to talk about the little bottles to their friends and family and participate actively in the innocent community.

Let the readers form their own opinion

But what specifically distinguishes stories from conventional brand messages a.k.a. advertising? It’s simple. When we are transported into a story, our beliefs of the world actually tend to change. In other words, this means that if we are invested in a story, we tend to be less likely to question the truth behind it. And we are willing to adopt our own beliefs and habits. (Patrick Moreau, 2016) Think about this for a moment. It’s powerful stuff.

Take innocent’s core claim for instance (2017): “We make natural, delicious drinks that help people live well and die old”. On the web page and throughout their communication channels, the company puts an emphasis on how healthy, natural and in general good for you the little bottles are.

But there is little evidence on the page that an over consummation of the smoothies and juices could in fact be counterproductive to your healthy diet because the products still contain plenty of (albeit natural) sugar.

Or even take the implied meaning of the name “innocent”. As John Simmons (2011) put it: “They had a brand, and a way of communicating with consumers, that brought smiles to people’s faces. […] They were the little guys winning against the big guys.” And even when the very big guys started to invest more and more money into the company and eventually took control, the love for the little bottles (and meanwhile bigger cartons) remained unimpeachable.

innocent stayed true to its communication principles and its strong focus on quirky storytelling. It followed the core rules of good stories: Connect to the readers on an emotional level and always incorporate the brand values. (Natascha Ljubic, 2015) It was in large parts the power of the stories that ensured the loyalty of the innocent family. Because a simple fact rang true: The stories did not change much over time and they still sound authentic today. And this is all the smoothie lovers have to know.

There is a lot of competition out there

By now, you’ve probably understood why stories are an important means that helps to form emotional ties with the consumers. But why should you as content strategist or marketeer care? Isn’t it enough that your customers buy your products? Well, the matter of the fact is that a bulk of the consumers nowadays buy products because they’ve formed an emotional attachment with the company.

Let’s come back to innocent. If the company would have tried to compete on the price of the bottles it would have failed miserably. Even today, bottles half the price are standing right next to innocent’s on the cooling shelf. But still the majority of the consumers grab innocent’s products. Because innocent saw another way. It focused on storytelling when that was not yet a thing in the industry and, therefore, communicated to its customers in a novel way.

The new buzzword is, or rather should be, content leadership — backed up by strong storytelling. Because it turns out that consumers don’t always care about price. All the really want is to love the brand they are buying from.

The interesting thing is that the notion of content over price even holds true in low-value, fast moving industries where you would not have traditionally expected it. Because companies like innocent, Red Bull, Ben & Jerry’s and Starbucks prove that there is a very real competitive value in storytelling.

Some closing remarks

Make no mistake — our attention span is not what it used to be a couple of years ago. We are constantly confronted with a myriad of information. As a consequence it’s getting harder for us to focus on one task or one specific message. (Patrick Moreau, 2016) Companies therefore have to fight harder to find a way to stand out from the competition. Strong storytelling is certainly a tool to reach this goal. Because the impact is astonishing: Consumers tend to remember stories easier and for a longer period of time than traditional brand messages. In addition, they are more likely to spread the word if they come across a story they like — for them it is, after all, all about forging emotional connections. (Social Hub, 2014)

Over the last years, storytelling has helped innocent navigate and master some of the biggest challenges a company can face: Rapid growth. Overhyped expectations. New leadership and reorganisation. Changing food & drinks trends. And yet it never really struggled or lost its loyal innocent community.

So I say it is time for other companies to start recognising the immense potential of storytelling as well and finally act on in. But here is a note of caution: Storytelling is not just about telling your counterpart how great you and your products are. It’s about literally spinning a story that your consumers can emotionally connect to. It’s about being human and being authentic. That’s when the magic happens.

Background

The importance of storytelling is a big part of the Content Strategy Master’s degree programme at FH Joanneum that I am currently attending. I was asked to reflect on my experience with and thoughts about storytelling in the scope of the Storytelling class with Hubert Weitzer.

Resources

“3 Storytelling Beispiele Und Wie Man Gute Geschichten Erzählt › Natascha Ljubic — Social Media Für Unternehmen in Wien.” Natascha Ljubic — Social Media Für Unternehmen in Wien. Web. 08 June 2017.

“Die Macht Der Geschichten, Oder Warum Wir Auf Einmal Alle Storyteller Sind.” @SocialHub | Social Media Blog. 10 Sept. 2014. Web. 08 June 2017.

“Innocent Drinks.” Innocent — Little Tasty Drinks. Web. 08 June 2017.

Simmons, John. Innocent: Building a Brand from Nothing but Fruit. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2011. Print.

Patrick Moreau. The Story of Story. Muse Storytelling, 2016