In 1912, Leon L. Bean, an avid outdoorsman, returned from a hunting trip disgruntled because of his cold, wet feet. He decided to invent a new type of boot by stitching lightweight leather tops to waterproof rubber bottoms, marketing the footwear via mail order as the “Maine Hunting Shoe.” Unfortunately, the stitching on most of the first 100 pairs sold was faulty, and began to leak. Bean faced a defining moment. He chose to refund all of his customers’ money even though he nearly went broke, and went on to fix the manufacturing process so that future boots would be watertight. This early commitment to quality is reflected in the legendary L.L. Bean “Guarantee of 100% Satisfaction.”
Bean’s choice marked a turning point in the early history of the company, and this story itself has become a strategic asset to what is now one of the most respected brands in the outdoor industry. The best companies stand apart: not only are their names recognized and respected, but their core values – and even their founding narratives – have integrated themselves deeply into the public’s positive perception of the brand.
Defining Signature Stories
A signature story is an intriguing, authentic, involving narrative with a strategic message that clarifies or enhances the brand, the customer relationship, the organization, or the business strategy. It is a strategic asset that enables growth, provides inspiration, and guides the brand over time.
Not just any narrative can qualify as a signature story. The story must be intriguing so that it commands attention. It must be authentic, so that the audience doesn’t perceive it to be phony, contrived, or salesy. And a signature story must be involving, drawing the audience into the story and eliciting a cognitive, emotional, or behavioral response.
A compelling signature story will be an asset with enduring relevance and the capacity to inspire, enable growth, and provide long-term direction for the company. As they continue to be told, these stories gain authenticity, traction, and influence.
The Power of Stories
Signature stories come in two varieties. They can either stand alone as a narrative (as with the L.L. Bean example) or consist of many stories revolving around a similar message or story arc. Blendtec’s “Will it blend?” challenge, for example, demonstrates the quality of the Blendtec blender, along with the core personality of the brand – confident, fun-loving, and humorous.
But why rely on stories? Simply put, stories are a powerful way to inform, persuade, change behavior, and precipitate discussion. They are almost always far more efficient and impactful than simply communicating facts (or features), for four key reasons:
Stories are Remembered
Many studies have demonstrated that facts are much more likely to be remembered if they are part of a story. Narratives are inherently interesting to people – providing a better sense of connection with the audience, along with a means of organizing information in a more memorable way. Stories also provide more natural links to prior knowledge and thus are more readily embedded in memory than a set of random facts would be.
Stories are Persuasive
We’ve relied on the persuasive ability of stories throughout human history – think about Aesop’s Fables or the parables in religious writings that are used to make a point. Many studies indicate that facts presented in the form of a story lead to greater changes in beliefs.
Stories are Social
When signature stories stand out because of their ability to be thought-provoking, informative, or entertaining, they are very likely to be shared by word-of-mouth or on social media.
Stories Beat Facts
Facts must achieve a much higher level of attention and interest in an audience to inspire people to engage and share that information. Facts like “waterproof rubber-bottom boots, shaped for comfort and stability” aren’t memorable as the story of Leon L. Bean’s early commitment to quality and 100% customer satisfaction.
Developing Signature Stories
Many firms will have signature stories in their history. The task is to identify those that can serve to play important strategic roles. To isolate a signature story, look for story heroes that are intriguing, authentic, and involving.
A story hero might be a customer who achieved something remarkable with the help of your brand. The hero might be a supplier, who lends credibility to the brand: Clif Bar has an ingredient series called “Farmers Speak,” for example. The hero could also be a founder or employee, as was the case with L.L. Bean. In certain situations, a story hero doesn’t have to be a person at all – a program or strategy could also be framed within an effective narrative in order to guide brand perception. T-Mobile effectively leveraged the “Un-carrier” story to communicate the advantages of its new no-contract program over direct competitors like AT&T.
Not all stories are worth elevating to signature status. Stories must be evaluated to make sure that they are intriguing, authentic, and involving. Signature stories should also feature empathetic heroes facing meaningful obstacles, and – like any good narrative – have a conflict or tension that is resolved in a memorable or surprising way.
Once a story has been created, it must be communicated. Companies can choose to integrate the story in articles, books, blogs, website copy, interviews, or simply via paid advertising. Social media also plays a central role in promoting signature stories because stories have a greater impact when they are spread by customers themselves.
A good signature story can guide and inspire a host of stakeholders. When used effectively, a simple narrative can inspire employees, enhance customers’ attachment to the brand, and help to formally articulate the core organizational values of the brand as a whole. Consequently, the best brands recognize the power of signature stories, and work proactively to develop and communicate them.
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