When Steve Jobs leapt onto the stage at MacWorld in San Francisco on 9 January 2007, millions of people held their breath. The fanboys, the retailers, the tech journos: all of them were hanging on his every word. Jobs had been building the suspense for months. Having set the scene with his usual theatrical aplomb, he unveiled the iPhone - and the world fell to its knees like it had just seen the second coming.
Jobs was a bespectacalled bloke in a turtle neck and unflattering jeans who liked computers. How did he hold such command over vast swathes of people?
The answer is simple, says Ed Woodcock, strategy director and co-founder of storytelling agency Aesop: Jobs was a great storyteller.
'Apple is a heroic brand par excellence,’ says Woodcock. ‘Consumers get a very strong sense that the company is on a mission to make technology both beautiful and human. At one time, they even had an obvious antagonist: the clunky and ugly world of PCs.
‘Their sense of mission manifests itself in everything they do: from the design of their products and stores to the simplicity of their advertising. Apple has such a strong narrative that it takes on aspects of religion to some consumers. Even the rest of us who are less evangelical are always left asking, "What are they going to do next?"’
In fact, according to a survey by Aesop, when it comes to spinning a good yarn, Apple leaves other brands behind.
Now admittedly, 'storytelling' is a bit of a marketing buzzword (in an industry based on, well, buzzwords). But Woodcock reckons that when it comes to building a brand, it's what differentiates the wheat from the chaff. Storytelling is about providing a consistent narrative behind a company, it paints a compelling picture of what a brand is about and what its goals are. This helps consumers to empathise with brands and align its goals with their own.
This technique is, of course, nothing new, but it has exploded with the onslaught of social media, which has given brands a plethora of platforms and opportunities to tell their tale.
A narrative also helps to ingrain a brand (and its 'heroic' motives) in the minds of consumers. Stories have a knack of sticking in people's heads long after any other marketing spiel has left the building.
For example: Apple claims it wants to make consumer technology beautiful. This resonates with its style conscious fans. It set itself as opposed to the competitors in the market: 'think different', said its motto – something which its leaders, Jobs in particular, extolled through this own story and public speaking. This created legions of loyal customers, or fanboys, who are willing to camp for weeks on end outside Apple Stores all over the world to be the first to get new products.
Cadburys, the historic British chocolate maker (now owned by American group Kraft) is another brand with a strong narrative. It uses the tales of its heritage to make it the 'go to' chocolate brand for Brits and those beyond our shores who admire British dependability and dedication to quality. Its slogan, ‘a glass and a half of milk,’ has remained untouched for over a century. Cadburys comes in second place to Apple in Aesop's survey.
‘Storytelling is important on a number of levels,’ Woodcock tells MT.
‘Creating a narrative helps people to see what a brand is about and share its goals. There is external storytelling, which is for customer benefit and can really give the brand a shape and a purpose in people’s brains. Once a brand and its story is understood it can create a real affinity between itself and the customer.’
‘Internal storytelling can be just as important. It can be used as a leadership tool, giving people a sense of where a brand is going and what they are up against. It can increase efficiency and create better morale – people will really want to work for a company that has a strong story.’
Behind Apple and Cadburys in the poll were Walkers, Coca-cola and McDonalds. These brands have all used storytelling to really lodge their company in the minds of consumers. The proof of the success of such can be seen in the ubiquity of these consumer names. These are some of the biggest players in the world.
But it doesn't have to stop with the business behemoths; smaller brands can give their brands a boost by creating a narrative also. Scotch whisky company Glenlivet turned to Woodcock and his team at Aesop for help with its storytelling.
‘We went through their archives and saw that they had loads of different stories relating to the brand but all pointing in different directions, it needed focus,’ says Woodcock.
‘We created a more clear narrative, which linked the company’s past to its future, based on founder George Smith creating the company against the odds. It became a tale of a hero, turning the director into a raconteur. It is used in all the brand’s marketing and global tastings: by mentioning it at each tasting, it aids people’s memory of the brand.
Woodcock adds that among the bottom-ranking companies in the poll were utilities - which have the storytelling skills of Dan Brown on a bad day.
‘One of the most important elements of a story is a hero’s sense of mission or purpose - the nobler the better,’ says Woodcock.
‘Even though utilities could be said to have a noble mission (say, bringing light and warmth to every home), perhaps the story the consumer tends to hear is ‘fat cat utility rips off defenseless consumers’.
Maybe it’s because the press loves to hate utilities – the epitome of the faceless corporation – or maybe because actions can tell a story as loudly as words.’