Companies & Industries

Is Your Company a Storyteller? Or a Storydoer?


The Red Bull Youth Americas Cup fleet race in San Francisco Bay with 10 teams from around the world

Photograph by Paul Todd/Gallo Images via Getty Images

The Red Bull Youth Americas Cup fleet race in San Francisco Bay with 10 teams from around the world

The old way to market a business was storytelling. Today, telling your story isn’t enough. In the rising number of brands and unending din of social media, it is increasingly difficult—and expensive—for companies to shout loud enough and long enough to be heard through the megaphone of paid advertising. In response, a new kind of company, one with a clear narrative conveyed through action, not communication, is breaking through the clutter.

Today’s most successful businesses are storydoers.

Storydoing companies create products and services that are manifestations of an authentic and meaningful narrative. They learn to organize themselves around this narrative and then express it through product design, customer service, and even how they reward and encourage employees. Whereas in storytelling companies, a brand’s story is the domain of the marketing department, in storydoing companies the story is weaved into all aspects of an organization’s culture.

As a result, storydoing firms are more nimble, adaptive to change, and, growing evidence suggests, more efficient businesses. Reebok and Adidas (ADDYY) are storytellers; they make ads to sell shoes. Toms Shoes, on the other hand, is a storydoer. Through its one-for-one movement (for every pair purchased, a pair is donated), Toms sells more than shoes. It sells a belief system. Similarly, in the cleaning category, Tide and Clorox (CLX) are storytellers. Their ads are designed to sell cleaning products and nothing more. Method is a storydoer that sells more than soap, it sells a worldview: people against dirty.

What makes these storydoing companies so interesting isn’t the fact they’re unique. It’s that they aren’t unique at all. Today, dozens of companies in multiple sectors are building large businesses by pursuing the principles of storydoing: from startups beginning with a new idea and a clean slate, to large multinational corporations beginning to do the difficult but necessary work of restructuring themselves to behave in this new way.

When it is done correctly, storydoing is simply better business. For instance, the best storydoing companies can reduce their cost of paid media. Sometimes to zero. Red Bull is a great example of a company that spends almost no money on paid advertising but instead conveys its story through events and experiences created and owned by the company (Flugtag, the Red Bull Air Races, content like the snowboarding film The Art of Flight).

There are other benefits as well. One core attribute of storydoing companies is that they have a clearly defined purpose, transcending “creating shareholder value” and “maximizing profits.” This characteristic creates intense loyalty among customers and employees alike. Storydoing companies don’t just practice what they preach—they preach by practicing. JetBlue (JBLU), for instance, is a storydoing airline in a business sector full of long-established storytelling competitors. JetBlue’s higher purpose is “to bring humanity back to air travel.” JetBlue “tells” that story by creating better customer experiences at every possible point of contact. Its story has always been spread primarily by word of mouth—it does very little advertising, and it only advertises in cities it flies to or from. This has led to some unusual outcomes. Several years ago, as JetBlue contemplated expansion into new markets, it commissioned a national survey. One of the most notable findings of the survey was that it was the most beloved airline in the city of Chicago. JetBlue didn’t even fly to Chicago at the time.

Fanatical loyalty and devotion like this can have obvious quantitative business benefits, like greater pricing power, lower salary requirements for staff retention, and higher employee morale. There is a qualitative difference to storydoing companies as well, harder to measure, but just as meaningful for the customers and employees who experience it: Storydoing companies have a feeling of authenticity and humanity about them that has been lost at many traditional companies today. It makes them magnetic.

The future belongs to these storydoers. To survive, companies must learn to do their stories, or they will be disrupted and replaced by storydoing competitors.

Montague is chief executive officer and co-founder of co:collective. Co: is a growth and innovation accelerator that helps companies become better storydoers. He is author of True Story: How to Combine Story and Action to Transform Your Business.

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Companies Mentioned

  • ADDYY
    (adidas AG)
    • $40.26 USD
    • -0.20
    • -0.5%
  • CLX
    (Clorox Co/The)
    • $99.78 USD
    • 0.44
    • 0.44%
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