What would you do if you were evicted from your home? Faced homelessness? Had a young son to care for? No prospect of earning a living? To top it all off, your partner also left you?
This is the story of Chris Gardner. In a seemingly hopeless situation where many of us may have cracked and capitulated, Chris got his act together and slowly worked it out. Little by little, he clawed his way out of his hole. He got an unpaid internship at a stockbroker. Inspired by a random dude’s expensive car (which of course means “good job”) he competed with other interns for the top prize: a well-paid job. He kept himself above water, managed to pay for his son’s child care whilst he hustled. There were occasions where he slept in shelters and public bathrooms, but in the end he makes it.
Based on a true story, “The Pursuit of Happyness” is incredibly moving. It’s the classic comeback story that is so well epitomised in sports movies: A small scrappy team faces an impossible situation. It overcomes all odds to become the champion and beats the best team of the championship at the last minute.
Stories are everywhere in our lives. It’s a major way humans communicate experiences with each other (tacit knowledge flashback 😉).
How companies adopt storytelling
Companies are well aware of the impact storytelling can have on how customers and would-be customers perceive them. Stories humanise companies and brands. They help communicate the values a brand stands for. Companies know this. In fact, Storytelling for brands is a massive industry.
Amazon UK has over 29 pages of books to show you if you type in “storytelling brands”. A quick online search will return tons of articles hyping storytelling for brands. Everyone seems to be an expert (including me! 😉).
Rather than professing that “storytelling is the future”, I’ll show you three popular types of corporate origin or transformation stories that occur over and over again. Some companies even combine elements of all three.
Brand story archetype #1: The Comeback
This type of story follows the same path that Chris Gardner faced. The Comeback story is very powerful because people love seeing a “nothing” who is at their lowest point turn into a “something”.
Tesla and SpaceX, both companies at least part founded by Elon Musk, are a good example of comeback stories. I mention them both as they are inextricably linked through their charismatic CEO (yes, incredibly he’s the CEO of both companies). In 2008, whilst the financial crisis was raging, both SpaceX and Tesla were on the verge of bankruptcy. Elon Musk himself also nearly went bankrupt when he ploughed the last bits of his wealth into both businesses. It’s inspiring that someone believed so strongly in the fledgeling businesses and then saved them both. In fact, the story is probably partly responsible for the quasi-religious fervour that surrounds Musk, SpaceX and Tesla. I suspect the army of Musk ‘fanpeople’ is also partly responsible for Tesla’s sky-high stock price.
Apple has many similarities to Tesla. It’s another company that was at the brink of bankruptcy. It has also got an army of fans that adore Apple (and are also corpo-religiously minded). And finally it also used to have a charismatic CEO in the form of Steve Jobs who rescued the company from certain oblivion when he returned to run it. The CEO of late has been a bit meh, but the Comeback status is still there.
Brand story archetype #2: The Zealot
Zealots are companies that are driven by a mission above all else. Often even above profit. They often carry a social or environmental cause that they are fighting for. Their customers often believe in the same values and mission.
The term “zealot” has a negative ring to it, so you may label them as ‘mission-driven’. Though I think ‘mission-driven’ is even worse a term since it’s overused in corporate speak. Zealots represent an almost fanatical belief in something. Patagonia is a perfect example of this.
Patagonia’s love for the outdoors and the environment is all over their product and marketing strategy. Coats are made from sustainable or recycled material. This jacket is made from 70% recycled polyester and 100% recycled down. Most of the materials are fair trade as well. This perfectly fits their environmentally and socially conscious image.
Their marketing reflects this zeal too. Many of their videos are documentaries in their own right, running over an hour long and featuring incredible outdoor shots. They don’t feel like commercials despite their products being shown. The brand lives and breathes its mission in everything it does. Patagonia also serves a lesson for marketers in providing valuable content that your core customers appreciate.
Brand story archetype #3: The Davids
I call these companies the Davids because they symbolise the small company that fights against the Goliaths. At first glance, you may mistake a David company for a Zealot, but Davids are distinctive in that they primarily see themselves fighting against the big incumbent companies of their industry. Often you’ll hear them rail against “high prices”, “cost-inflating middlemen” or how the Goliaths “offer a poor customer experience”. Davids often claim to represent the new way of doing things.
One famous David is Brewdog. The Scottish brewer argued over a decade ago that commercial beer was watered down and tasteless. The very first beer they sold was 55% alcohol and then garnered the award of being the world’s strongest beer. Since then, Brewdog has made a name for itself by being ‘punk’ and starting a “revolution against stuffy ales”.
“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain”
Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight said the above and it rings true for many former Davids and Zealot companies. If these companies grow big enough or become sloppy, they are at risk of being perceived to be the big baddies themselves. We revert to Brewdog who are a good example of acting like a baddie now that they are a big brewer.
In 2017, Brewdog initiated legal action against a local pub because it had adopted the name “Draft Punk”. Brewdog alleged the pub was confusing customers and infringing upon its ‘punk’ trademark (many of Brewdog’s beers have the name “Punk” in it). After a public backlash, the company withdrew the action and apologised. In another case, the company was accused of stealing ideas from marketing agencies and marketing job applicants. It allegedly executed on those ideas and did not credit their creators. It’s hard to tell what is truth and what is fabrication, but as we have already seen, the public loves to side with the underdogs (in this case the agencies and job applicants).
An even better example of a hero who is today seen by a majority of people as a villain is Google. They even used to have a “Don’t be evil” tagline. I guess their PR department thought it was safer to not be seen as hypocrites.
Good storytelling > A thousand marketing images
There you go. You got three 😉 out of me in this email. Company storytelling can be a powerful tool and addition to the marketer’s toolbox. It can electrify a fanbase and help convey what a brand stands for better than any other marketing collateral can.
I’m not at all suggesting that any company with a story like this will succeed. There are plenty of other factors, marketing or otherwise, that go into making a successful company. But some of the best companies have a cool story that is easy to remember and fun to tell your friends.
If you know of any other companies that have a story that doesn’t seem to fit the above mould, please do let me know. I’d love to dig a bit deeper into this topic. And if you want to hear more incredible company stories, I’d highly recommend “How I Built This”. It’s a podcast that has grown by telling the origin stories of companies really well.
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