Storytelling for E-Commerce

by Giovanni "Gio" Thermot on December 9, 2019

"To me marketing is about values...The best examples of of the greatest jobs of marketing the universe has ever seen is Nike. When you think of Nike you feel a certain way...They honor great athletes and honor great athletics...that is who they are and that is what they are about."
- Steve Jobs

The holiday season is one of important time for retail businesses - eCommerce is no exception. That also means that your brand is competing with millions of others for customer’s attention. This is especially difficult as 96% of consumers don’t trust ads according to the American Association of Advertising. Being able to cut through the noise and build an emotional connection with your would-be customers is paramount to capitalize on the holiday shopping season. Storytelling is one of the most effective ways to do that. No. not the worn-out “Once upon a time” of our childhood, rather the creation of a narrative around your company and the goods / products it sells.

Consider this: John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, very much enjoyed playing cards, but also enjoyed snacking while doing so. He needed a way to play cards while freeing up a hand to snack. He came up with the idea of eating sliced beef between slices of toast. And thus was born the sandwich, “Britain’s greatest contribution to world gastronomy” - meat between two slices of bread- was born. You’re more likely to remember that story than the content of the powerpoint slides from last week’s team meeting. It is because stories are wired into the fabric of our humanity.

Since the first cave paintings were discovered, some 27,000 years ago, storytelling has been one of the fundamental ways we communicate with one another. It is so deeply woven into who we are that we often create narrative where there aren’t any. Have you ever “seen” faces in the clouds or in the knotted tree trunk? This phenomenon is called Pareidolia - that is, the imagined perception of a pattern or meaning where it does not actually exist.

mars face

Ponder on that for a second - our need for narrative is so important that we create it when it does not exist. Stories frames how your offerings are used, why you created them, the mission behind your company, and much more. According to Uri Hasson, Associate Professor at the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences (CIMeC) at the University of Trento, “By simply telling a story, [a person] could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.” When it comes to purchasing, a good story can be the difference between us falling in love with a product, and ignoring it altogether. Everything you tell someone or want them to know about you and your company is storytelling. Below we’ll share three tips on how to craft a compelling narrative for your products and brand.

One of the most interesting pieces of storytelling came in the form of a commercial, Apple’s The Surprise. In 14 days, it has been viewed ~24 million times.

Set against the backdrop of a family coping with the a recent loss, two children are inspired to create a presentation on an Ipad as a gift for their grandfather. It brings the family together and ends in “Make someone’s holiday”. Apple tapped into a narrative that is all too familiar - personal loss and grief. It uses that to tell a story of being together even when we lose people we care about. And of course, Apple can enable us to do so by buying an ipad. This is not new for them. Apple has had a rich history in advertising excellence, from 1984 - arguably one of the greatest pieces of storytelling in advertising history- to Think Different and now The Surprise it has managed to create strong emotional bonds between the brand and its customers. While you and I may not have access to able budget or creative talent, studying their advertisements offers a formula in three steps to craft meaningful stories for our brands in the minds of our customers.

If we break down every story to its most basic components, it’s fundamentally a causal relationship around a hero’s journey to navigate an obstacle and achieve a desired outcome. For marketing purposes, this can be broken down into four key components: the hero, the obstacle, the goal, and the enabler.

1) The hero: Your customer

All great stories are about someone - a fictional character, a historical figure, or even an animated character. To be successful, you have to know your customers or prospective customers as well as you can. The biggest mistake businesses make is thinking that their business is the hero of the story. And what is a hero? The hero of the story is the one who is transformed as the story progresses, from an ordinary person into someone extraordinary. By interviewing existing customers, performing surveys, or even engaging with them on social media, you can get a keen understanding of what matters for your audience and craft a narrative around that.

This example below from illustrate the customer as the hero well - notice the “Your”.

2) Goal: Your customer’s heaven

The goal is your customer’s desired end state or nirvana. Focus on how people feel or what they experience when using your products (see The Holiday commercial referenced above does that really well).

To hone in on what that is, you might want to start with these questions:

  • What challenges / pain do my customers want to be saved from?
  • What is nirvana for my customers?
  • What will she / he be able to do that she can’t do now?
  • What will she / he have?
  • What will she / he believe?
  • Who will she / he be?

Pura Vida, a retailer of artisanal bracelets founded in Costa Rica, does this particularly well. You might think it does not get as banal as selling bracelets from the guy in Chinatown, NYC to your local subway vendor, bracelets are all pervasive. Pura Vida sells a connection to something bigger than the self as the crux of its story. The challenge for its customers is a life without meaning. It empowers its customers to make an impact with every purchase.

Muse, the meditation headband manufacturer and retailer, focuses on the nirvana that it delivers to its customers:


3) An Obstacle

If there isn’t an obstacle, your customers do not need your business. Obstacles are what make stories interesting. The gap between where your hero is today and where he wants to go is the meat of your storytelling. To identify those, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What’s keeping your customer-hero from attaining his goal?
  • What external elements are standing in his way?
  • What emotional and psychological roadblocks has he / she created himself?
  • What limitations- internal and external - must be overcome to achieve his / her prized goal?

In 1984, Apple narrated the story of an oppressive and conformist world. Against that dystopian backdrop, Apple, the symbol of rebellion stands out as a way to meet the challenge of conformity. If you - apple’s customer - don’t think you fit in or don’t want to ‘be another brick in the wall’ then, buy Apple! Join the rebels, those that think differently. This boils down to one key marketing concept that is often overlooked: customers don’t fork over cash for a product, rather they do so for a chance to actively partake in the story. By offering a way for rebels to identify themselves and now belong in a community, Apple created an identify or a way of thinking of oneself that can be affirmed via the purchase of a product.

1984 won countless awards and led to ~$4m in sales in the day after Superbowl XVIII. Stories sell.

4) The enabler: Your Product or Service

This is where your business or offering comes in. Its existence is to enable the achievement of that the hero’s goal. You guide customers to help them transform into a better version of themselves. Jonah Sachs, in his book Winning the Story Wars, highlighted the importance of emphasizing that the hero’s journey is the result of his / her own efforts and work. Your business does not solve all of your customer’s problem, rather its job is to guide, mentor, and help the hero through his journey of self-improvement. To go back to Apple’s The Holiday commercial, it’s ultimately about a family coming together and coping in the face of grief tied to losing a loved one. Apple helps them achieve that via giving them the tools - an Ipad in which a presentation was created.

Storytelling is essential to the human experience. To quote professor Hasson, “a story is the only way to activate parts of the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own ideas and experiences.” Telling the right story can empower you to capture attention, entertain, and persuade your customers in a matter of minutes. Whether you are a new emerging brand or a decade old institution, it is never too late or too early to leverage storytelling to build an emotional connection with your customers and stand out from the pack. By focusing on your hero and his goal, and the obstacles that he / she faces, you can craft a powerful narrative positioning your product as an enabler to your customers’ successes.

I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed researching it. Should you want to stay abreast of the latest in eCommerce, please give us a follow: LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.