How marketers can exploit the full power of stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —September 18, 2005
Filed in Anecdotes

Story-telling is a hot topic in marketing. There is a growing and well-founded belief that legendary brands, such as Apple, Nike, and Harley, have been successful by building great stories around their products-stories in which people want to share. Books are appearing by people such as Seth Godin and Laurence Vincent, which instruct marketers in how to build a company’s brand by using stories.

But this is only half the story! Everyone is focused on story-telling, while neglecting the huge potential of story-listening.

For some time, marketing professionals have recognised the power of collecting stories. For example, Dupont collected stories about women’s thoughts on wearing pantyhose, and eventually discovered (after first hearing nothing but disdain for these garments) that wearing pantyhose made women feel more sensual, sexy, and attractive to men. Dupont modified its brand image to match these feelings. Similarly, Kimberly-Clark collected stories from parents who were toilet-training their children, and discovered that parents experienced tremendous stress from having children ‘still in nappies’. ‘Pull-ups’ were introduced, and a new $400 million-per-year product was born (Leiber, 1997).

In both cases the marketeers understood that they were unlikely to discover the telling factors through formal interviews and focus groups. Stories provided a natural way of expressing (and hearing) what was actually happening. The stories provided the context for getting to the heart of the issue.

Listening to stories is one of the best ways to understand what is happening in a complex and dynamic situation. Analytical methods are effective when an issue can be divided into logical components, but much of life is not that simple. The issues faced by marketers often involve ill-defined problems, unpredictable outcomes, and intuitive action. Stories clarify the emerging patterns upon which effective interventions can be formulated.

Three essential skills are required if marketers are to become effective story-listeners. They must be able to:

  • elicit stories from those who have relevant stories to tell (including customers, staff, stakeholders, and shareholders);
  • make sense of the information contained within and across the stories they collect; and
  • formulate interventions that take account of the complex nature of the issue being tackled.

Consider the specific example of aligning brand promises with customer service. Companies spend millions of dollars in developing a brand image, but this image can be significantly eroded if staff members misunderstand the brand, and consequently deliver service that contradicts its image.

Dave … saw an ad by Tweeter that emphasized its staff’s “boatload of knowledge”. He needed a minidisk player and walked into a Tweeter HiFi Buys store wanting to take advantage of that knowledge. “Hi, I want to buy a minidisk player and accessories if someone can show me how to use it.” He was told, “I don’t know how it’s used, but they’re supposed to be really easy.” Dave says, “The boatload of knowledge just capsized.” (Barlow and Stewart 2004: 49)

Imagine the effect of this scenario occurring in your organisation hundreds (if not thousands) of times. The result would be complete erosion of your brand image-an image in which you have invested heavily and on which you have pinned the future of your company.

The appropriate response to a case like this is to go out and collect anecdotes from staff members-anecdotes which they believe are illustrations of ‘on-brand service’ and ‘off-brand service’. These stories can then be used in a workshop environment to extract the key themes, values, and archetypes of the problem. Workshop participants (the organisation’s decision-makers) are thus exposed to new perspectives, and can use these insights to develop appropriate interventions to improve the alignment between brand image and customer service.

Narrative is a powerful technique. But many marketers are currently utilising only half its potential power. Become a story-listener as well as a story-teller-and reap the rewards.


Barlow, J.and P. Stewart. 2004. Branded customer service: the new competitive edge. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.


Leiber, R.B. 1997. “Storytelling: A new way to get close to your customer.” Fortune 135(2):102-106.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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