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Once Upon a Time... Storytelling for B2B Marketers

Great consumer brands are great storytellers. Nike tells the story of striving to overcome our limitations and laziness. Harley Davidson tells the story of personal freedom and a spirit of rebellion. Nordstrom, Ritz-Carlton and Zappos tell stories of legendary customer service. Storytelling is becoming even more importance in a digital and social media world, as stories can be told, shared and cocreated in new ways.

Business marketers tend to view storytelling as a consumer marketing phenomenon. As one business marketer told me - “We don’t sell emotionally engaging products like sneakers and motorcycles. Our customers are rational decision mak- ers. They focus on functionality and price. Our products are complex and boring - not good subjects for storytelling. So I’m not sure that storytelling is relevant for us in market- ing communications.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Business custom- ers are not heartless robots whose only goal is to maximize utility in making purchase decisions. They are human beings who respond to emotion, meaning and purpose just like consumers do. Further, businesses don’t buy anything – people within businesses do! Business Marketing is not B2B marketing. It is really H2H marketing – Human to Human marketing. Business marketers can harness the power of storytelling to increase customer engagement and to drive brand preference. After all, everybody loves a good story.

Consider how General Electric uses storytelling to commu- nicate their corporate brand positioning of “Imagination at Work”. In a very engaging television spot called “Childlike Imagination” GE tells the story of a wide range of GE businesses including turbines, 3-D printing, locomotives and aviation through the words of the daughter of a GE employee. The girl talks of “underwater fans that are powered by the moon,” “airplane engines that can talk,” “hospitals you can hold in your hand,” and “trains that are friends with trees.” The video has been viewed over 2 million times and was recognized by Ad Age as the best B2B Integrated campaign for 2015.

Cisco Systems is another master B2B storyteller. The story that Cisco tells focuses on a single question: What will the future of the Internet look like? By telling this story, Cisco wants its audience to see the company as a thought leader in building networks of the future. For instance, Cisco’s “Circle Story” video tells a fascinating story that follows a family through a day where everything including the coffee machine, the car, the grocery store and the home are connected to the Internet. Cisco has produced similar videos to tell stories of the future of shopping and the future of work. Cisco spreads these stories across their social media channels, to their 510,000 Twitter followers and 740,000 Facebook fans.

To become an effective storyteller, business marketers need to follow these steps:

1. Know your story: Before you can tell your story, you need to understand your story. Ask yourself - Whatis your mission? What do you stand for? What do you believe in? What do you do for your custom ers? Remember that your story cannot focus on your products. It has to focus on your purpose.

2. Pick an angle: Once you know your story, you need to choose the “hook”. You could choose to tell a story about your company’s origins, your people, your social impact, your viewpoint about the future or your customers. You should be creative in coming up with your story, but you need to be authentic. Re member that your story is “inspired by true events”, in the parlance of movies!

3. Decide where to tell the story: Stories can be told through many different channels, ranging from one- on-one storytelling by salespeople to broad reach storytelling over television and social media. The best stories are told across multiple channels, working together to create a rich experience for the audience.

4. Involve the audience: In a digitally connected world, the audience no longer passively consumes stories. Customers want to be part of the storytelling exercise. In fact, the stories that are told by custom- ers and with customers are far more effective. People embrace what they have helped to create.

5. Prepare for the long haul: Stories are not campaigns. They are conversations. So you need to think about a series of stories that you will tell over time, much like a TV producer thinks about a series of episodes. Your story should be rich enough to spawn different threads and evolve over time, while preserving the central storyline.

Business marketers have traditionally focused on conveying their value propositions through logic and rationality. But the marketers who can speak to the hearts and emotions of their customers will set them apart from competition and build powerful brands.

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