Stories have the power to sell. They bring your brand to life, get consumers to care, and market your business for you. How do we know that’s not so much hype? In 2009, researchers Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn embarked on the Significant Objects project. They bought $128.74 worth of thrift-store trinkets, had 200 creative writers spin tales about their history, then auctioned them on eBay—alongside their short story descriptions—for a total of $3,612.51. Buyers paid 28 times more than their value, simply because they connected with the story behind the objects. Walker and Glen’s hypothesis was right: stories transform insignificant objects into significant ones, increasing the objective value of the product in the process.
Purchasing decisions are so much more than the product itself. Chanel, Mercedes, and Nike stand out not just as high-end shoes, cars, and purses, but as the story around the lifestyle those goods represent.
Okay, you know stories are important to selling products and services, but what kind of stories should you tell? Scope the following four types of stories businesses use to build their brands and even drive sales. Each story type has a case study and prompts for using similar story constructions for your marketing strategy. Note: Stories don’t have to be long masterpieces. In today’s social media landscape, quick, visual posts and amateur, impromptu videos are the most powerful, but they nevertheless communicate a part of your brand’s story and journey. Let’s dive in:
Story Type 1: The Origin Story, with You as Hero
Why Consumers Care
Origin stories lend a sense of personality and purpose to your business. Customers want to buy from people, not faceless corporations. Hero stories also have the power to grab the attention of the press.
Case Study: J. Rieger & Co.
Consider J. Rieger & Co., a Kansas City distillery that was largely known for its trademark Monogram whiskey. Founded in 1887, this company was a huge part of local Kansas City culture; the Rieger family even built an impressive hotel in their name that was famous for being one of Al Capone’s regular haunts. The Rieger company’s success continued until Prohibition caused them to close their doors in 1919.In 2014, nearly a century after the business was forced to close, one of J. Rieger’s descendants revitalized the business. Kansas City residents greeted the new distillery with enthusiasm, perhaps mostly because the Rieger name was given a second chance, and a great part of Kansas City’s history was restored. The whiskey company aligns its modern brand to the city’s history by showcasing a timeline on the website with photos of the artifacts from the original business. Being rooted in local history and culture gives the J. Rieger name a unique kind of credibility with local residents, and the Prohibition-era origin story creates a mystique that’s almost irresistible to consumers.
J. Rieger & Co. built a slick, professional website, but you don’t need a web developer to create a landing page featuring your origin story. Accomplish a similar scrolling effect, subtle animation, and responsive design with Spark Page, using either free-use stock photography or your own imagery. Or simply post a photo on Instagram of the early days of your business and use Spark Post to brand it with your hashtag Use the hashtags #tbt or #fbf to capture the Throwback Thursday and Flashback Friday franchise.
Prompts to Get You Started
Why did you start this business? How and when did the idea come to you? Did you experience a struggle or life event that inspired you? What’s the history behind your product or service? What drives you on a daily basis?
Story Type 2: Tell Stories About Your Customers
Why Consumers Care
Highlighting customer stories creates a sense of community and connection, fostering goodwill and brand loyalty.
Case Study: TOMS and Modcloth
To date, TOMS has donated over 60 million pairs of shoes to kids in need. For each pair of shoes or glasses sold, the company donates a pair. That’s a persuasive reason to buy those particular shoes. But content marketing is needed to bring that kind of value proposition to life. That’s where the “Stories” blog comes in. Their blog highlights individuals and groups who’ve received donations from TOMS and the impact those contributions made. These real-life moments make the company’s giving side much more impactful to consumers. More than a rising donation count on the website, a purchase becomes a child’s story consumers identify with.
Don’t have recipients of charity to tell stories about? Replicate Modcloth’s model of success and feature consumers in your blog and on your social media pages. The women’s fashion retailer highlights their consumer community wearing their styles in How-To fashin blog posts. The sense of community the women feel to the “fun, friendly spot for style,” causes them to engage and interact with the brand organically via social media. When further featured on the site or in a blog post, those ladies (aka social media influencers) market those posts organically.
Feature loyal customers on your social media profiles and brand the feature with Spark Post to visually set it apart from your other content.
Prompts to Get You Started
Who is your ideal customer? What behavior do you want to encourage in your customers? Who is already showing loyalty to your brand? Identify influencers in your industry to help you get started.
Story Type 3: Tell Stories About Your Products and Craft
Why Consumers Care: Buy-in to the backstory of a product or service creates an emotional connection to the brand, increasing perceived value. A product with a history becomes a treasure.
Case Study: Etsy, Pedal Revolution
Etsy is a platform built on people’s desire to buy one-of-a-kind items over mass-produced goods. The site’s most successful vendors don’t just have pretty photos and elaborate product descriptions, they also provide details about their craft, the unique materials they use, and their personal lives. The consumer identifies with the product from creation to purchase, as well as feeling a personal connection to the creator. The story behind the product gives the consumer talking points about their unique items, so, like the items in the Significant Objects Project, the crafted, upcycled, or vintage goods become treasures.
Similarly Pedal Revolution’s bike sales and donations are built on stories. The non-profit sells new and refurbished bikes while offering job training for at-risk youth in San Francisco. Each bike has a story and becomes part of the youth development mission, which is communicated on their social media as a way to attract socially conscious consumers.
Make an animated video like this one to explain your business’s value proposition.
Make a simple animated video that chronicles the process of creating your product. Tell a story about the impact your product has or take customers behind the scenes with insight into your maker process by showcasing photos of your materials and workspace.
Prompts to Get You Started
How do you make your goods? What’s the process? Is there a legacy of craftsmanship involved? Where are the materials from? How long does it take to create your product? Do you personally use your goods? Where and how do you display them?
Story Type 4: Tell Stories About a Lifestyle
Why Consumers Care
Transform your product from a thing to a desirable quality of life and you’ll become indispensable. The best brands promote a lifestyle that consumers believe in, not just a product. When you align your brand with a lifestyle, you give your customers the opportunity to feel as if your company’s values are aligned with their own. Research shows that millennials are savvy consumers who value experiences over material objects, but even if you sell things those things should be positioned in a larger context to create greater value.
Case Study: Chubbies Shorts
Chubbies Shorts is a small business that makes short shorts for men (and now women). What does a “short shorts lifestyle” even mean? Instead of focusing on the product, the company builds a brand around having fun on the weekend and they now have a social media following 300k strong on Instagram alone. The community is made up of cheeky folks, their loud shorts just one part of an active, fun-loving lifestyle. The company populates their social media feeds with images of their customers having fun (and wearing Chubbies shorts) but lets the product be a subtle, yet omnipresent, component of their customers’ lifestyles. As a result, customers do much of the content generation for them, submitting photos of their epic weekends, and using the hashtag #Chubbies in an effort to get featured and win swag. As a result, consumers have fun engaging with Chubbies social media. To customers the brand means free time, hijinks, and freedom from the work week. The lifestyle portrayed in social media, in the branding, and the marketing copy sells the idea of belonging to a ragtag (Plus, their Snapchat is hilarious!)
Build content around a branded hashtag that epitomizes the lifestyle you’re selling. Keep consistent in your voice through all your social media platforms. Find imagery the evokes your brand, rather than sells and partner with loyal customers or influencers to define the lifestyle you’re pursuing.
Prompts to Get You Started:
What is the passion of your target consumer? What unites your community? What’s an ideal lifestyle or vision your consumer strives for? How can your product or service deliver that ideal? How does your product or service elevate the life of the consumer?
Whether you’re just learning how to start a business or are CEO of a large corporation, crafting a story is crucial to expanding your visibility and appeal. This is an age where customers buy based on personal preferences and connections. Your compelling story establishes a true connection and creates a loyal customer base in the process.
By, Annie Crawford and Amy Copperman