The Power Of Signature Stories


Stories are a hot topic in marketing because they have been shown to be superior to facts in getting attention, being remembered, in changing opinions, in stimulating social activity, developing emotion, and, curiously, even in communicating facts.  Many firms have added journalists, editors, and filmmakers to their staffs to create or find meaningful stories and present them in a compelling way.

Stories are often thought mainly to support tactical communication objectives – but there is also a strategic role.  Such stores we call signature stories because they represent some form of strategic statement about a mission, values, the brand, customer relationship, or strategic intent.  And they can do this much better than a recitation of facts, which usually ends up sounding not only boring but also similar to a host of other firms.

Consider the L.L. Bean firm that would like to communicate its innovation culture, its passion for the outdoors, its commitment to quality, its concern for the customer, and the functional benefits of the Maine Hunting Shoe.  Stating such facts is unlikely to create interest, credibility or even a connection to L.L. Bean.

In contrast, consider the following story.  Leon L. Bean, an avid outdoorsman, returned from a hunting trip in 1912 disgruntled because of his cold, wet feet.  With little resources but a lot of motivation and ingenuity, he invented a new boot by stitching lightweight leather tops to waterproof rubber bottoms.  The boots worked so well he offered them for sale via mail order as the Maine Hunting Shoe using lists of nonresident Maine hunting license holders.  Unfortunately, most of the first 100 pairs sold had a stitching problem and leaked.  Mr Bean faced a defining moment!  His response?  He refunded the customers’ money even though it nearly broke him and fixed the process so that future boots were indeed watertight.  This story communicates the L.L. Bean brand far better than any presentation of facts.

So what is a signature story?

A signature story is an intriguing, authentic, involving narrative (as opposed to a stand-alone set of facts or features) with a strategic message that enables growth by clarifying or enhancing the brand, the customer relationship, the organization, and/or the business strategy.  It is a strategic asset that can be leveraged through time, providing inspiration and direction both internally and externally.

A signature story needs to:

  • Be Intriguing If Not Fascinating – some combination of thought-provoking, novel, provocative, interesting, informative, newsworthy, or entertaining to the audience.
  • Be Authentic – the audience cannot perceive the story to be phony, contrived, or a transparent selling effort.  Further, there should be substance behind the story and its message in the form of programs, policies, or transparency that support.
  • Be Involving – the audience member should be drawn into the story which usually, but not always, precipitates a cognitive, emotional, or behavioral response.
  • Have A Strategic Message Linked To The Brand – that enables growth by clarifying or enhancing the brand, the customer relationship, the organization, and/or the business strategy.  It could clarify or advance the brand’s visibility, image, personality, relevance, and/or value proposition.  Finally, it could help articulate not only the current business strategy but also the future vision for the organization with a story arc for how to get there.

A signature story is an asset with enduring relevance and capacity to inspire and provide direction over a long time period.  As it gets retold, signature stories gain authenticity, traction, and influence.  A signature story thus can be identified by its anticipated life as well as its message.  It can be contrasted with tactical stories used to achieve a short-term communication objective, perhaps in an advertisement or on a website.  There is a qualitative difference between tactical and signature stories that affects how they should be resourced and managed.

The principle targets for signature stories are employees, and existing and potential customers.  Signature stories can provide employees a source of inspiration and a cornerstone of organizational culture and values.  The L.L. Bean story supports a higher purpose around innovation, the passion for the outdoors, quality, and the customer.  Millennials, in particular, are attracted to firms that are aiming for more than sales and profits, and a signature story can help with making that purpose authentic and clear.

Customers are also a valuable target because there is a segment that will find a brand’s values, customer relationship, and strategy important to them as they develop loyalties to brands and firms.  Advancing the strategic position of the brand and organization in the eyes of this audience is challenging because of message clutter, media dynamics, growing customer ownership of context, and the complexity of social media.  Signature stories can be an answer, providing the ability to not only to provide break-through visibility but also to communicate the basic essence of a brand and organization.

As to what story content would be useful – it is important to understand who you are, what you do, and where you are going.  Look to your brand vision and value proposition, drivers of customer relationships, your organizational culture and values, and your business strategy.  What are the priorities?  What perceptions and attitudes need to be created, reinforced, or changed to allow the business strategy to succeed?

To find or create signature stories, look broadly for story heroes. Stories around customers, programs, suppliers, offerings, are often employed to motivate customers.  Four more; the employees, founder, a business revitalization strategy, and a future business revitalization strategy, are usually oriented to inspiring employees.

The customer as the hero can be effective because there is no “my brand or product is better than yours” connotation, and the customer story is likely to be closely linked to either the organizational values or the brand’s value proposition.  LinkedIn has a series of professionally created one-minute stories around “Creating you own success” that involve leveraging LinkedIn.  Dr. Chavez told about his dream of getting pets off of processed foods using LinkedIn to share his big idea.  Jenni was laid off during the financial meltdown and several months of intense networking led to a marketing position and, ultimately, supported the decision to be on her own.

The employee as the hero can be the source of a strong and memorable signature story because employees are on the front lines.  Zappos.com, the online shoe store, has a set of signature stories around its ten core values, one of which is to deliver “Wow” customer service.  One such story involves a Zappos.com call center employee, who at 3 A.M. received a call from a customer who could not find an open pizza store.  Instead of gently turning the customer away, the employee actually found a pizza store open and arranged a delivery.

The business revitalization story can clarify and motivate a new strategy and inspire employees and customers.  Consider Zhang Ruimin, who became the CEO of a troubled Chinese appliance manufacturer, Haier, in 1982.  Early in his tenure he needed to replace a customer’s faulty refrigerator and found that twenty percent of his inventory was also defective.  Zhang promptly had the dud refrigerators lined up on the factory floor and destroyed them with a sledgehammer in front of the whole staff to tell them and the world that poor quality would not be tolerated anymore.  From that point on, the story served to define a new strategy and culture that ultimately led to Haier becoming a global leader.  The story can work at the outset when the strategy is being implemented and over time as the strategy becomes an ongoing operation.

Not all stories are worth elevating to signature status.  There needs to be an evaluation process to identify the strength and promise of candidate stories.  When candidate stories emerge, make sure that they are not just a list of facts (or features) but, rather, a narrative that appears intriguing, is perceived as authentic, engenders involvement, and has a strategic message.  And make sure your signature stories are managed like the assets they are.

– Article adapted from a paper published in California Management Review, Spring 2016