Tomorrow’s Products Will Live or Die by Their Stories

Harvard Business School marketing professor Theodore Levitt famously said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.” Levitt, a revered marketer who popularized the term “globalization”, among other things, advocated for businesses to focus on what customers want, not on what business wants.

Think back to October, when Apple launched iPhone 5s and 5c and Samsung launched the Galaxy Watch. Did you notice that the presentation format was almost exactly the same? In fact, most big tech launches today—from Microsoft to Facebook—mimic the now iconic Steve Jobs keynote setup: gigantic black screen, tiny individual presenter wearing a casual, expected outfit (whether a turtleneck or hoodie, but almost always including jeans). The presenter walks the crowd through the product demo, not by simply enumerating features, but by taking them on a journey, telling the story of the product and, step-by-step, exploring it together.

Storytelling and Marketing

As I’ve said before, storytelling is perhaps the most important skill a 21st century business can develop. This is certainly the case with marketing — stories build deep relationships with audiences in ways advertisements don’t and coupons can’t. But it’s also the case with product.

That’s because today people don’t want a drill — or a t-shirt or a carton of eggs or a television set — they want to know where that drill came from, how it came about, and what the drill-maker is going to do with all the money they’re about to pay for it.

Not all people, of course, but increasing numbers of them.

“I don’t think that companies are going to last thinking that their products just need to be functional,” says Michael Lebowitz, founder and CEO of innovation agency Big Spaceship. Products that “really communicate,” he says, need to “have the narrative and behavior of the brand.”

This is why we’re seeing a rash of mission- and story-driven brands emerge today. Whereas the hippie-dippie Whole Foods and planet-saving Ethos Water style of “conscious” brand used to be the outlier, today’s emerging brands are seeing mission as a must and story as a means of conveying the difference.

I don’t think that companies are going to last thinking that their products just need to be functional.”

Zady, a fashion and home products brand by entrepreneur Soraya Darabi and nonprofit founder Maxine Bedat, launched a web and tablet site this past fall that shows consumers where in the world (and how) its products are sourced, and to showcase the personal stories of the artists and craftspeople who make them.

Their mission, to combat sweatshop-style “fast fashion”, is the reason you’ll be inclined to buy from them; the stories they tell about those indigo skinny jeans and the cute, Henderson, Kentucky couple who makes them are the reason you’ll remember their products.

And as a young company with a smaller marketing budget than the H&Ms of the world, story becomes a competitive differentiator Zady can afford. “We create content because it helps to define us in a competitive marketplace as a brand with a mission and a purpose,” Darabi says. “This pays off in fold for us.”

In a particularly inspiring case of the underdog, watch and bicycle brand Shinola has made the revitalization of Detroit front and center for its company, which lists “Our Story” as the #2 link on its website. After reading Shinola’s story, and its blog posts featuring the individual bike makers who hand craft its products, I’m much more likely to buy from this brand than to pick up a bicycle at Wal-mart next time I’m in the market. (Perhaps an unfair comparison—who buys Wal-mart bikes?—but you get the point!)

When people ask me what my company does, I find more and more that I lead with the story of why we’re doing what we’re doing. If they really want to know about all the tech specs of the drill bit, I can answer those questions just fine. But what makes them remember us — and more importantly, care — is the story of the hole we’re trying to drill in the universe.

What’s the deal with the Content Strategist? At Contently, storytelling is the only marketing we do, and it works wonders. It could for you, too. Learn more.

Image by acaben /

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