Sandra Stewart | May 31, 2016
How much is a ceramic cat painted with a red chili pattern worth?
Fifty cents if you buy it from a thrift store; $22.72 if auctioned on eBay with a story by novelist Lydia Millet.
The chili cat was part of the Significant Objects Project, a multiphase experiment designed to test the hypothesis that talented creative writers could invest an object with value that it did not previously have. The result: project curators Rob Walker and Josh Glenn sold $128 worth of thrift-store junk for $3,612.
I thought of this project when challenged to break down the value of a brand story. It’s a clever and highly entertaining demonstration of how much of the value we ascribe to things—and experiences—lies in the stories surrounding them. A story is often the X factor that inspires an intense desire to have that whatever. I know I’m susceptible to it—and I’m aware that it’s working on me. (Here’s how a story made me buy.)
So what’s the value of a brand story? There are lots of ways to slice it, but most businesses seek these three benefits.
As the Significant Objects Project shows, people are willing to pay more for something that’s surrounded by the aura of an emotionally involving story. (This is also borne out by celebrity estate sales.) Apple’s success is often attributed to product and UI design, but the company’s ability to sell at premium prices in commodified markets has at least as much to do with Apple’s powerful brand story of creativity, independence and individuality.
Sustainable businesses have always placed high value on communicating their purpose and having employees live it—and more and more businesses that wouldn’t define themselves as sustainable are seeing the light. But merely larding the employee handbook with lists of “our values” and posting corporate mission statements is not going to give workers pride of place. To really engage employees—and get them talking with customers, friends, everyone about how great the company is—businesses need a story that expresses those values naturally, in a way that engages employees’ own values and feels true. (That means the company’s actions need to square up with its story—see this post.)
We’ve seen this work with clients: teams that couldn’t even manage a concise or consistent description of what their company was about were speaking with confidence and excitement once they had a story to draw upon.
Marketing across messages and channels
You can’t have fundamentally different messages about your company and its offerings for different markets and channels and still have a coherent, plausible brand. At the same time, market segments—demographic, geographic and so on—have their own concerns, and a particular marketing channel can dictate a particular style. The answer is a brand story that’s rich and emotionally resonant enough to feed a wide variety of campaigns and communication needs. (For an example of this principle in action, see this Harvard Business Review article on how Coca-Cola has used a story platform to create advertising that’s both global and local.)
When you have an effective brand story, you can tell it many languages—both literally and figuratively—in a way that’s true to your brand and adds value to what you’re selling.
Meanwhile, can I interest you in something from the Thinkshift swag collection? There’s a great story behind our temporary tattoos. …