“facts” alone. The scholars cite research
showing that signature stories have more
impact with customers than simply listing
and highlighting “features” or facts about
a particular product or service.
Looking for “story heroes” is the first step
to finding a signature story, the researchers
write. Stretching one’s imagination
a bit, these heroes may be discovered in
customers, programs, suppliers, employees,
the founder, business strategies, and even
the actual offering (product or service).
But coming up with compelling
signature stories is only part of
the strategy, Jennifer Aaker says. The
challenge is to efficiently leverage them
on behalf of a company’s brand vision,
growth goals, customer relationships,
and business strategies.
Internally, she says, executives and
employees should communicate these
stories in their activities, whether at
workshops or when dealing with partners,
Externally, the challenge is greater,
according to David Aaker. A concerted
program must connect stories with target
audiences. This can involve articles,
books, blogs, websites, media appearances,
interviews, public relations projects,
Increasingly, he notes, social media
play a highly valuable role by circulating
signature stories online and getting
customers and supporters to spread those
stories and their messages to friends and
contacts — a multiplier effect, of sorts.
But when many signature stories
exist, company spokespeople may not
immediately understand which one
works best, whether for a speech,
advertising campaign, or commercial,
Jennifer Aaker says.
To solve this, the coauthors recommend
that firms use a “digital story bank”
that is well structured and easy to use in
categorizing different signature stories.
“When good, effective stories become
part of an active library, they do not have
to be rediscovered again and again,”
David Aaker says. Δ
Illustration by Simone Massoni
Jennifer Aaker is the General
Atlantic Partners Professor of
Marketing at Stanford GSB.
An engaging narrative can sell
products and clarify corporate strategy.
BY CLIFTON B. PARKER
Storytelling is a great tool for businesses
seeking to connect with their customers
and employees, a Stanford expert says.
Some stories in particular — signature
stories — are extraordinarily powerful
in shaping a company’s brand, culture,
and future. A strong one can transform
customers’ experiences, re-envision
products and services, and spark new
Such inspiring, clarifying narratives help
people relate to a company and typically
include “heroes.” They may be even more
important than many people realize,
contributing to a company’s overall strategic
planning, and not just advertising.
Marketing professor Jennifer Aaker of
Stanford GSB has co-written a paper with
her father, David Aaker, on the power of
storytelling to advance a company’s brand.
“The development of signature stories
can be a vehicle to understand what
a brand or organization should stand
for at its core,” writes Jennifer Aaker in
an article published in the May 2016
edition of California Management Review.
“Signature stories get beyond functional
benefits by providing a perspective in which
other richer concepts can have a voice.”
Examples of signature stories include
a young John Nordstrom agreeing to refund
a customer’s two “well-worn” snow tires
— he later went on to build the Nordstrom
company on such a “customer first” policy,
according to the paper. Another was when
the Molson Canadian Beer Company showed
how it shares a passion for hockey with its
customers by building a hockey rink in
a remote part of the Canadian Rockies and
flying in customers for a game there.
Then there is L.L. Bean, who in
1912 launched a boot company only to
discover that a stitching problem in the
first 100 boots caused them to leak. His
response? He refunded all his customers,
though it almost bankrupted him.
Signature stories, she says, may be
stand-alone stories like those of Nordstrom,
Molson, and L.L. Bean that have a single,
complete narrative. Or they may consist of
several stories based on similar messages
and themes. Either way, they can inspire
both customers and employees.
Beyond their clear communication and
marketing value, such stories can drive a
company’s brand vision and emphasize its
organizational values, she says. As a result,
the best signature stories actually take on
a conceptual role in creating a company’s
core business strategies.
POWER OF STORIES
Stories and storytelling are hot topics in
marketing communication today, says
David Aaker, co-author of the paper,
professor emeritus of business at the
University of California, Berkeley, alumnus
of Stanford GSB, and current vice chairman
of a branding consulting business.
“There are many studies in psychology
and elsewhere that document that facts
are much more likely to be remembered if
they are part of a story,” he says.
The power of stories has been
demonstrated throughout the ages, he
added. Consider Aesop’s Fables from the
ancient world, or the impact of Uncle
Tom’s Cabin, the 19th-century novel that
arguably affected the outcome of the
Stories are persuasive, studies show,
because they can change attitudes and even
counter arguments. In fact, stories may beat