Storytelling has played a central role in human communications since times immemorial. Storytelling predates writing. Oral narratives were used by many ancient cultures as a way of passing along their traditions, beliefs and learning from generation to generation. Over the centuries, the nature of storytelling has significantly evolved with the advent of writing and the emergence of new technologies that enabled stories to be embodied in a variety of media, including books, films, TV and the Web.
While contemporary storytelling is mostly associated with entertainment, education and culture, it also plays a major role in business. In particular, storytelling is widely used in the development of brands for products and services as well as companies.
Establishing a brand requires much more than advertising, mindless jingles or assertions that no one believes. It is akin to engaging in a conversation with your intended audience, where you talk about your challenges and aspirations for the product and the company in order to create emotional associations and expectations. In short, you are creating and telling a story about your brand. And, the more powerful, important and complex the messages you are trying to convey, the more important it is that you do so by telling a compelling and emotionally resonant story.
Good storytelling is particularly important when introducing a complex and potentially disruptive offering in the marketplace whose value is not well understood. It’s a good way of explaining what the new innovation is all about in as simple a way as possible. As a concrete example, let me share my experiences with the development of IBM’s Internet and e-business strategy in the mid-late 1990s.
At the time, a lot was happening around the Internet. It was all very exciting, but it was not clear where things were heading, and in particular what the implications would be to the world of business. The dot-com era was famous for its many innovations, but also for its hype. A lot of people were saying that in the Internet-based new economy, startups had an inherent advantage over existing companies, whose legacy assets, including their IT infrastructure, were no longer relevant, would slow them down and make it hard for them to compete.
Even though we did not have a well defined strategy, we could not wait until we did to establish a market presence because our competitors were not waiting and neither were our customers. We had to develop our strategy by getting in the marketplace, figuring out what was going on and working closely with clients around the world. As we did so, it started to become clear that the Internet was going to have a profound impact on business, and every company needed to consider how to leverage the Internet for business value and become what we called an e-business. Given how new all this was, we had to work work hard on how to best communicate in the simplest way possible why a business should embrace the Internet and become an e-business.
As I think back, the aha moment came to us when we succinctly captured our e-business strategy with the simple phrase Web + IT, and developed our story around it. The universal reach and connectivity of the Internet were enabling access to information and transactions of all sorts for anyone with a browser and an Internet connection. Any business, by integrating its existing databases and applications with a web front end, could now reach its customers, employees, suppliers and partners at any time of the day or night, no matter where they were. Businesses were thus able to engage in their core transactional activities in a much more productive and efficient way. But, unlike the prevailing hype, we also believed that the brand reputation, installed customer base and IT infrastructures that companies had built over the years would be even more valuable assets when combined with the new Web capabilities. All companies could benefit, - whether large or small, new or mature.
I was personally closely involved in developing and communicating our e-business market strategy. Not only did we have to explain our e-business strategy to the marketplace, but we had the huge challenge of leveraging our Internet strategy to help re-build the IBM brand, given that the company was just coming out of a really serious near-death experience. The e-business strategy became a way of proving that IBM gets it, and of associating the IBM brand with the future, rather than its once glorious past that almost caused its demise only a few years earlier.
It worked. We successfully established the e-business brand in the marketplace by consistently telling our e-business stories over a variety of communication channels, including press interviews, conferences around the world, IT and financial analyst meetings, Web articles, and lots of client engagements. We worked closely with Ogilvy and Mather, which created a very effective e-business campaign, including memorable, award-winning TV ads that explained the value of e-business in a series of short vignettes. These communication and marketing efforts helped to explain what it meant to do business in the Internet age and closely associated IBM with the Internet. They also helped revitalize and reposition IBM’s brand.
My personal experiences with e-business and similar initiatives have sensitized me to the power of storytelling when introducing a disruptive innovation in the marketplace. Thus, I was quite excited when about a year ago I learned about transmedia storytelling while attending a meeting of the advisory board of USC’s Annenberg Innovation Lab.
Transmedia storytelling is a relatively new concept originally developed in the entertainment industry to tell a common story across multiple media platforms by moving characters and storylines across books, films, video games, comic books, TV series, and so on. The rise of social media and other digital channels makes the concept particularly powerful as a way of engaging the target audience with more depth and over a much longer period of time than would be possible within a single medium.
Transmedia storytelling is one of the major area being pursued at the Annenberg Innovation Lab. More recently, the Lab has started work on transmedia branding, an application of transmedia storytelling beyond the entertainment and media industries.
“Recent advances in Internet and consumer technologies and new practices of networked consumption have changed the patterns of communication between brands and their publics,” writes USC professor Burghardt Tenderich in the introduction to Design Elements of Transmedia Branding. “Everyday people - as individuals and communities - are appropriating, remixing, and recirculating brand icons in ways that are often beyond the control of those who have historically shepherded the brand message: sometimes, in ways which lowers the cost of spreading the word about new products and services, sometimes in ways which challenges corporate claims.”
“Some of these transactions look like user-generated content and others look like piracy or ad-busting. In this atmosphere, corporations need to embrace new engagement strategies, ones which increase the range of possible and permissible meanings associated with brands, ones which open up valid channels of communication with all stakeholders, and ones which play out across the full range of possible communication channels.”
What accounts for the growing interest in the business applications of storytelling? I believe that the answer is closely related to the growing interest in bringing design thinking to engineering and business problem solving, as evidenced by the prominence of university programs like MIT’s Media Lab and Stanford’s Institute of Design, and of design consulting firms like IDEO.
We are turning to both design and storytelling to help us address the increasingly complex world around us. We are looking to complement the rational, analytical, quantitative methods of classic engineering and business management with the more human-centric, holistic, creative problem solving methods inherent in good design and storytelling.
A few years ago I read a short article in The Economist, Design Takes Over, by Paola Antonelli, - senior curator for architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, - that nicely explains the importance of design in our fast changing and complex world:
“There are still people who believe that design is just about making things, people and places pretty. In truth, design has spread like gas to almost all facets of human activity, from science and education to politics and policymaking. For a simple reason: one of design’s most fundamental tasks is to help people deal with change.”
“Designers stand between revolutions and everyday life. When the internet happened, they created interfaces with buttons and hyperlinks that enabled us all to use it. Designers make disruptive innovations manageable and approachable, so that they can be embraced and assimilated into life. And they never forget functionality and elegance. . . Design is moving centre-stage in the eternal human quest to make beauty out of necessity.”
Just like design, storytelling is moving center-stage to help us cope with the world around us. We have to absorb oceans of information. At home and at work we keep having to learn new ways of doing things. And, as soon as we finally get used to our changing environment, something else comes along for us to get used to once more.
Our brains have evolved to help us understand, remember and tell stories. We think in narrative structures. We can best absorb new knowledge and remember new information if presented to us in story forms. It is thus not surprising that, as it has from time immemorial, storytelling will continue to play a major role in all aspects of human communications.