The Power of Story

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We live in a commercial culture increasingly transforming itself into an endless series of stories. Disneyland/World. Universal. Woof Meow. Harry Potter World. Those are the real-world entertainment stories. And then there’s the virtual: Roblox, Minecraft, Mortal Kombat. And the social: Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, Match.com. Don’t ever underestimate the power of a story to empower, engage, aspire and, unfortunately, enrage.

We are wired to tell and listen to stories. We’ve progressed from circling the campfire to startlingly realistic digital worlds where we rewrite our own stories and avatars live our aspirational lives. Free Dan, Ryan Reynolds’ new film foray into the seamless and confusing dual realities of virtual and real is a pop culture lark about AI. Its story is about the power of machine learning to transform a videogame character into an independent thinker and live its own story. On the surface it’s clever entertainment, dig deeper and it starts to get creepy that a videogame character becomes untethered from its host and carries on independently in the game, upsetting the entire digital world and its players.

[callout]Consumers, increasingly next-gens, are looking for origin stories, backstories, narratives, all connected to products and brands. The transition from offering things to buy to presenting a storyline of what you stand for and why you sell things can transcend the value of the actual merchandise.[/callout]

What does this have to do with retail? Let’s start with the key question: What is your story? Consumers, increasingly next-gens, are looking for origin stories, backstories, narratives, all connected to products and brands. The transition from offering things to buy to presenting a storyline of what you stand for and why you sell things can transcend the value of the actual merchandise. Just look at the startups, stories are the leads on their websites. Fair trade, sustainability, fantasy, Black-owned businesses, nonprofit partnerships, women’s empowerment, LGBTQ – they put their ethics and ethos squarely on the table. It can be polarizing … or the business-as-usual model for the future. One caveat; the story must be authentic.

Think of the brands that have powerful and credible stories that create loyalist narratives and world building beyond the product. Patagonia. Tractor Supply. RH. Tom’s. Chanel. Apple. Nike. Disney. Rolex. They are all evocative and trigger highly personal emotions, aspirations and feelings. They are empathetic. They believe in their stories. They engender trust. When you think of these companies, you think of their stories indistinguishable from the products they sell.

How do they do it? They, no cliché, walk their talk. Their products are the physical manifestations of the stories they tell. And guess what? Their customers — aka loyal fans — can’t get enough. They believe in these brands almost as missions. That’s why if the brands make one misstep, it makes headlines, and they are taken to task for disingenuous behavior. It takes discipline, courage and commitment to live to a higher principle (too often as defined by your customers).

It’s not all social justice and wokeness. The best stories are the ones that tug at your heart and enhance your sense of self-worth. The Chanel suit (totally revamped for a younger, hipper woman) still stands in the shadow of Coco. Steve Jobs is still reflected in every new piece of Apple ingenuity. Patagonia makes you feel better about yourself and saving the planet. Nike makes you feel you have the potential of a high-performance athlete. Tom’s makes you feel self-affirming by helping the underserved. RH makes you feel like the star in your own movie living in a luxurious stage set. Rolex makes you feel connected to something rare crafted with superb artistry. Tractor Supply makes you feel like you belong. And Disney, the grandaddy of them all, makes you feel just about everything in an idealized state of amazement, wonder, awe, magic.

Why are there so few brand storytellers? Admittedly, there are a lot of wannabes, and it’s a dance with the devil to try telling a story that is pure fiction. Think of the potential to elevate a retail brand into a story that makes people feel better and more confident. You have loyal fans, not customers. You don’t have to apologize because your fans are forgiving. You create a community that you ask for collaboration. You can write new chapters of your story to keep loyalists engaged and coming back for more.

This may sound abstract, philosophical, out of reach. But imagine leading with your story, not price promotions. Reinforcing that your customers are part of a larger vision or mission (hey, it works for cars, boats, sneakers, motorcycles, make-up). We’re not talking about marketing messaging. We’re talking about the essential nature of what you are. It’s why Geri Stutz’s Bendel’s was so successful. It was an exciting marketplace chock full of imagination, new designers and curated merchandise all enveloped in a full range of storylines waiting to be discovered. It was impossible to walk out of her store without buying something. You knew that whatever you bought — from a barrette to a ballgown (there were still balls back then) — you were confident you were on the inside track of chic. Her story was pure individual style.

Tell your story. Believe in your story. Make sure it’s real. And bring back the sense of belonging as a brand, not a utilitarian emporium full of stuff.

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