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5 Successful Companies that Tell a Story that Sales

Executive Summary

The biggest gaps in business are usually between the entity and audiences ranging from investors and employees to customers and potential prospects. Kindra Hall believes, and has seen, stories work to fill those gaps.

  • Companies including Warby Parker, Apple, and more tell a story to increase the reach of their message and improve brand perception.
  • By focusing on the benefits of features instead of the features themselves, these powerhouse companies have connected with people on a different and primal level - both ideal to standing out from the waves of businesses entering every market.
  • Don't worry if you don't have a clue where to start with your story. Just start.

No matter where you turn, behind every corner and from every angle, there are always obstacles. In fact, getting past them is what defines successful business. I find it more helpful, however, to think of those obstacles in business not as daunting, immovable blockages but rather as gaps. It is the space between what you want and where you are. The gap. The most obvious gap in business is the void between the customer and the company. How does a company get its product or service into the hands of the people who need it?

The answer is stories. Through my research and experience, I have found that the companies who can tell a good story are the companies that attract more thrilled investors, engaged followers, and loyal customers.

1. Warby Parker

In 2017, I needed a new pair of glasses. I’d heard of Warby Parker. It seemed like what all the cool kids were doing, so I thought I’d give them a try. Ten days after my appointment and choosing my frames, the glasses arrived at my home. I opened the box, opened the case, and there they were: a beautiful new set of frames and a little Warby Parker-branded hanky to help keep the lenses clean. The hanky wasn’t branded with the Warby Parker logo but rather their story. A real story:

Warby Parker in 100 Words

Once upon a time, a young man left his glasses on an airplane. He tried to buy new glasses. But new glasses were expensive. “Why is it so hard to buy stylish glasses without spending a fortune on them?” he wondered. He returned to school and told his friends. “We should start a company to sell amazing glasses for non-insane prices,” said one. “We should make shopping for glasses fun,” said another. “We should distribute a pair of glasses to someone in need for every pair sold,” said a third. Eureka! Warby Parker was born.

There it was. An actual, rare story. The day the young man left his glasses on an airplane and faced the cold, hard, soul-crushing reality of the cost of eyewear was the moment Warby Parker’s cofounder said to himself, “There has to be a better way!”

If you have ever had that same realization, that same moment when you realized the way things have always been done is not the best way, you could have the beginning of a founder story.

Result: Increased their affinity among customers

2. Extra Gum

In 2015, Extra launched a two-minute video about a boy and a girl, Juan and Sarah, but the names didn’t really matter. The gum didn’t even really matter. What mattered was the story...Not really thinking about it, I pressed play and was immediately transported into Juan and Sarah’s world. Two minutes later, I had tears streaming down my cheeks and sniffed uncontrollably.

That thing that Extra, if it wanted to affect net-positive sales, had to connect to your emotions in order to interrupt your unconscious purchasing habits. So how do you emotionally connect people to gum? You tell them a story. The story of Juan and Sarah. And you subtly drop your product into the story. A piece of gum shared at the beginning and—oh, I forgot to mention it, because I barely noticed it—all of the sketches in that final scene are drawn on the inside of Extra foil wrappers. Yes, gum is there. But the story is about so much more. When you tell a story, it always is.

Result: The two-minute video has been viewed over one hundred million times, and more importantly, Extra reversed their declining sales.

3. Workiva

I had the honor of working with the exceptional team at Workiva to help bring their true value to life through stories, and the stories they found were as remarkable as the product they sold. One story was designed to illustrate the value of a particular feature of their product that guaranteed data consistency in critical documents, something that, prior to Workiva, was only possible via endless hours of manual checking and rechecking. The accountants hated the process because it sucked the life out of them and basically meant they had to sacrifice all nonwork passions and commitments. The companies hated it because they had no choice but to pay for hours and hours and hours of backtracking and double-checking that really should have only taken a fraction of the time and cost a fraction of the payroll.

Again, the Workiva solution seemed like a no-brainer. And yet logic wasn’t getting the job done. So, instead, they learned to tell a story. It was the story of an investor relations customer who, not willing to let middle-age damn him to a dad bod for eternity, decided to focus on fitness. And not just any fitness. Being a goal-driven man, he set his eyes on a triathlon.

The man begins training, but quickly realizes that late nights and early mornings at the office are getting in the way. Unfortunately, he can’t retrieve those hours, either, because he needs the extra time to ensure financial reports were accurate and consistent across teams. Without an automated process, he was chained to his spreadsheets and the old, manual way of doing things. Of course, that is, until he found Workiva. In a classic “turn your feature into a benefit” message, Workiva told a story that showed its solution as helping the customer achieve something more than what was tangible. The investor relations executive got his life and his goals back. And he significantly improved his company’s reporting mechanisms in the process.

Result: The story turned a bullet point in a sales deck into an emotional moment in the customer journey.

4. Apple 

If you represent or have created a product, service, or company, and you have a passion for spreading the word about this superior product to the world, you’ve probably said, or at least thought, those very words: “Yes, this is a [insert name of product/service here] and it does X, Y, Z, but it’s so much more than that.” The challenge is, what typically follows is more words, information, and attempts to justify when what this situation really calls for is a value story to illustrate the value and usefulness. Perhaps one of the greatest executions of this “so much more” exercise was by Apple during the 2014 holiday season with their commercial titled “Misunderstood.”

Apple had a choice, just as we all have a choice. A choice to simply focus on the features of the phone. You can imagine what that commercial would look like because they’ve done itInstead, because Apple chose to tell a story, we get an opportunity to see what the product could actually mean in our lives. That it could bring us together. That it could create moments we cherish.

Result: The ad campaign ended up winning the 2014 Emmy Award for best commercial.

5. Unbounce

The people who might use your product are your customers and prospects. And they’re humans, not data. And that means they respond to storyThe Unbounce “You Are a Marketer” video is simple, effective, and, best of all, it worked.

The story opens with a black-and-white closeup of two expressionless eyes. As the narrator speaks, we pull back to discover the eyes belong to the typical Unbounce customer: a marketing professional in front of his laptop. He remains expressionless, and as the camera slowly pulls back, his problems are revealed: little budget, no technical experience, and more than anything, no power to take control of the marketing process. In the words of our Steller storytelling framework, that’s the normal for this poor guy, and it’s where we learn about the pain. The explosion arrives when he finally blinks, and we hear that Unbounce has a new conversion tool coming. When the marketer opens his eyes, he’s in the new normal: the world is in color, not black and white. As we pull back again, he’s a changed man, smiling and sipping a cup of coffee.

The Unbounce story never shows the product. In fact, other than mention that a product was coming, the ad barely even talks about it.

Result: Unbounce added 12,000 new subscribers to its platform.

So, how do you tell a story? You begin.

I realize that storytelling can be daunting. Sometimes we don’t have a single idea. At other times we have so many that the paradox of choice keeps us frozen in place. It’s easy to be intimidated by the blank page or the full auditorium. There are days when even the best storytellers freeze. But the way forward is always the same. The way forward is simply to begin.

Adapted with permission from Stories that Stick by Kindra Hall, copyright Kindra Hall.

Bring It Home

What is the best story you have ever heard? For me, it was an audio story called "Easy Love." The story begins with a lonely man flipping the Yellow Pages to find an escort. He called one. She came over. He chickened out. Over the course of the interview, you discover the man's motivation: he had recently lost a woman he loved in a car wreck, and this moment was him grasping for someone, anyone to share in his loneliness. I heard this story well over five years ago, yet it sticks out because it was about something bigger. You may work for a company or maybe you just launched a new product. We know what it does, but how does it make a user feel? Share your story in the comments! ~ HarperCollins Leadership Essentials

Kindra Hall

Kindra Hall is a keynote speaker and award-winning storyteller. She has been published at Entrepreneur.com and Inc.com, and as a contributing editor to Success magazine. She speaks for and works with brands of all sizes to help them harness the power of storytelling.

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