Why Your Brand Needs a Signature Story (and How to Tell It)

A step-by-step instruction turning your strategic message into a Trojan horse.

One day, a guest staying at Ritz-Carlton decided to do some standup paddling. While paddling he lost control, plunged into the water and his sunglasses sank to the ocean’s ground. In the afternoon, an employee of the hotel handed him his recently lost sunglasses. The guest was flabbergasted and speechless. Although he hadn’t mentioned anything to the staff, the savvy employee observed the guest’s misadventure and recovered the sunglasses.

This story might be true. Or it might be made up. It doesn’t matter. It tells customers, employees and executives what Ritz-Carlton stands for — and that’s the promise to fulfill every single wish of its guests. Even the unexpressed ones.

Aaker and Aaker call these kinds of stories signature stories: They are a powerful way to communicate a brand’s strategic assets. In the following, I summarize their theory. If you continue reading, you’ll understand how signature stories work, why they beat facts and how they can boost your brand.

What is a signature story?

“A signature story is an intriguing, authentic, involving narrative with a strategic message that clarifies or enhances the brand, the customer relationship, the organization, and/or the business strategy. It is a strategic asset that enables growth, provides inspiration and offers guidance both internally and externally over an extended period of time.” (Aaker and Aaker, 2016, 50).

Signature stories are thus at the center of marketing, branding and advertising. They express why a brand exists, what it stands for and why consumers should choose it. They do so in the most seductive way.

What does a signature story consist of?

Aaker and Aaker identify four key ingredients that make signature stories irresistible:

  1. Intriguing. A strong signature story derives from the consumer’s life-world. It thrills the audience, raises attention and provokes engagement.
  2. Authentic. People love listening to great stories but not to great sales messages. Your story can either be true or fictional but it shouldn’t be phony or contrived. It needs a genuine substance.
  3. Involving. Successful storytelling draws its audience into the plot. Your listeners become one with your narrative. A cognitive, emotional or behavioural response is more likely. And that’s marketing’s ultimate goal, isn’t it?
  4. Strategic. The message of your story needs to convey your brand’s competitive advantage. Whatever that might be. For Ritz-Carlton it’s the “we-do-anything-for-you” service promise. For you, it could be your brand’s image, personality, relevance or value proposition. Or the organization’s heritage, culture, and values. It could even be your current business strategy or future vision.

Types of signature stories

Signature stories come in two distinct forms. With two different management styles.

  1. Stand-alone stories celebrate one complete version of a narrative. They have their own individual entity. Ongoing “reminders”, such as programs, products, events or ads, help to cultivate them. Ritz-Carlton, for instance, tells its sunglass story everywhere: at training days, workshops and even in its service bible of gold standards.
  2. Story sets consist of several independent narratives. All of them contribute to the brand’s story arch. A tagline, an image or a narrative core helps tying these sets together. Blendtec does a brilliant job at doing this. In their YouTube series “Will It Blend”, the brand blends golf balls, marbles and even the iPhone X. Their message: Blendtec blends anything.
Blendtec blends an iPhone X and tells it “Will It Blend” story

Why are stories so powerful?

Stories are one of human kind’s oldest and most effective ways to bring a message across. They leverage some psychological mechanisms every savvy marketer should make use of:

  • Stories beat facts: Which of the following are you more likely to remember? Blendtec runs at 4,080 revolutions per minute or Blendtec even blends an iPhone X? I bet the latter one. Because it’s a story. And our brain remembers stories better than facts. That’s a fact. Stories are a visual web of information that our lazy brain processes more easily than functional arguments.
  • Stories are persuasive: A story doesn’t talk at you but with you. It exposes the listener to a semiotic world that he decodes himself. This active process of sense making is, of course, engaging and convincing. The recipient develops the story’s line himself and is thus also less likely to counter-argue.
  • Stories are sharable: Advertising is the price you have to pay for not being interesting enough. In other words: If you have a great story, people will retell it. Particularly if you give them a reason to do so. Here are some motivations why people retell stories (and share them on social media): It provides useful information (“I learn something”). It makes people care (“It touches me emotionally”). It’s remarkable (“Wow — I cannot believe this”). It conveys insider information (“I know more than others”). It evokes physiological arousal (“I feel amused, excited or angry”).

How to craft powerful signature stories?

The following four-step process helps you to tell a story that matters.

1. Identify

Stories can either be found or created. While established firms can draw on their corporate history, new organizations might need to create narratives from scratch. In either way, story heroes are a great technique to boost your message. They are the candy of your narrative and either motivate your customer or your employees:

Customer-focused story heroes could be: customers, programs, suppliers, and offerings.

Employee-focused story heroes could be: employees, founders, business revitalization strategies, and future business strategies.

2. Evaluate

Not every story is a great story. Great stories need to have a high narrative quality. You can evaluate your story by asking the following questions: Is your story a story worth telling? Does it have a beginning, a middle part and a resolution? Is the story itself intriguing, authentic and involving? Are the story characters empathetic? Are there any meaningful challenges, obstacles, conflicts and tensions? Is there a surprise? Does it deploy unforgettable visual images? Is it detailed enough to provoke goose bumps?

3. Strategize

Harvard legend Michael Porter defines strategy as the creation of a distinct offering that your customers prefer over the existing ones. So, find and celebrate your sweet spot. Why should a customer buy your offering? Why do you exist? What is your strategic message that meets your customer’s needs?

Your executives can tell your story internally. It orientates your employees, cultivates organizational values and implements your strategy. Your company can also communicate your signature story externally. Traditional mass media is a great way to do so: articles, books, blogs, websites, media appearances, interviews, public relations, paid advertising — you name it!

4. Manage

You must maintain, foster and feed even the best story if you seek long-term success. Depending on the type of your narrative you can apply different storytelling techniques.

How to manage stand-alone stories?

  • Use companions: A web of micro-stories helps you to raise attention for your message. For Peace Day 2015, Burger King launched the Mc Whopper: a combination of McDonald’s Big Mac and Burger King’s Whopper. The brand did not only sell the remix-burger but also deployed a range of integrated activities: It ran a NY Times ad, changed the packaging, redesigned the staff’s uniforms, launched and interactive website and even motivated vLoggers to create their own Mc Whopper.
  • Use symbols: A physical symbol could remind everybody of your story. HP, for instance, still honors the garage where its founders have built their very first computers. It’s an expression of the company’s entrepreneurial spirit.
  • Use events: Events are a great platform to vitalise your brand’s story. Apple knows that as well. It held a party for the Mac’s 30th birthday. Employees could see the legendary 1984 Superbowl commercial and also a film demonstrating how people use the iPhones to enhance their everyday life. This occasion retells Apple’s identity: We create products for creative geniuses who want to change the world.
Apple’s legendary Super Bowl commercial (1984)

How to manage story sets?

  • Create always-on-content: Continuously add new stories to your story arch. Since years, Blendtec executes its “Will It Blend” challenge. And they do it in the exact same way every single time: They take an everyday object, blend it and celebrate the results.
  • Create break-out-content: Instead of always adding new stories to your set, you could put a ding in the universe every now and then. Red Bull just did that literally with their incredible Stratos Jump. This story – of exceeding physical limits and achieving the unbelievable – is now eternalized in the holy grail of human knowledge: Wikipedia. And that’s the kind of appreciation you’re looking for, aren’t you?

Stories benefit all stakeholders

Last but not least, signature stories have the power of an organizational North Star. They orientate a company’s major stakeholder groups: employees, executives and customers. First, stories inspire and motivate employees. They also visualize how to apply an abstract business strategy on an everyday basis. Second, stories assist executives to communicate and cultivate what the brand stands for. Third, stories explain to your customer who you are. They enable an easy yet emotional attachment.

The guide to signature stories © pascal fiedler

Summary

Just like the Trojan horse, signature stories are an unfair strategy to get your brand message into the mind of your target audience. They exploit the power of human interaction and spread your brand in the most intriguing way. Signature stories thus function as a powerful tool of persuasion. They affect different kind of stakeholders and are able to bring across different messages. Yet they follow a clear structure and are easy to deploy. You just have to start. Best, today!


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