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Corporate Storytelling

By Deirdre Campbell | Mar 10, 2008

Building an enduring business reputation by capturing and telling your stories.

If you are in the retail trade, this story is legendary. About a dozen years ago, a guy walked into an Alaskan Nordstrom store and wanted to return two faulty tires. Although Nordstrom does not sell tires, the previous property owner did. Nevertheless, Nordstom provided a refund without question.

The Nordstrom story has been cited in hundreds of articles and told millions of times, helping build the store’s reputation for outstanding service to mythical proportions. Who cares what Nordstrom actually sells: you just want to go there and experience this level of service first hand! This and other Nordstom service stories, spread by word of mouth, are examples of how a company can build its reputation through the telling of stories that exemplify its vision and core values.

As a public relations practitioner, there is no doubt in my mind that the most powerful tool a business has to sustain its success is creating an enduring and authentic reputation. This means a reputation for doing an outstanding job, for caring for people and the community, and for running a good business. While advertising can tell the marketplace about what your company does, your commitment to great service, your outstanding workplace environment, and how you give back to the community, building a reputation is truly where your actions speak louder than words. However, companies struggle with talking about their “good works” and successes because they don’t want to seem boastful. So the question becomes how do you profile your company’s mission, vision, and core values in a way that is compelling and enduring? Perhaps more importantly, how do you get others to tell your story?  

You start by capturing your company stories — from your employees, your customers, and even your suppliers — and making them part of your regular communications. These are “legends” that exemplify your company’s core values, your organization’s essential and enduring guiding principles. In Peter Gruber’s recent article in Harvard Business Review (December 2007, “The Four Truths of the Story Teller”), he writes how the use of stories not only to entertain but also to instruct and lead can be traced back thousands of years to the days of the shaman around the tribal fire. This is where the oral history of the tribe was recorded, and people were taught beliefs, values, and rules through tales based on truth. Vern Harnish, in Mastering The Rockefeller Habits, writes that a company needs to reinforce its core values regularly and encourage employees to tell stories of how they have recently lived up to the company’s guiding principles through an internal interaction or working with a client or supplier. These stories can be retold again and again as examples of how your employees are actively living your company’s core values. And they are even more powerful when your clients tell them.  

What is the biggest stumbling block for businesses in creating their own stories? Many companies struggle to describe what it is they do in simple language and few words, and core value statements are rarely written down. Remember the dot.com years of the elevator pitch? Being able to describe what you do in two or three simple sentences is critical to building your story. People, including your employees, clients, and suppliers, have to understand clearly what you do before they can provide you with “stories” of how you have done it well. Spend some time with your team to discover how each of you describes your company and exactly what it does. Are your messages similar and consistent? Do they encapsulate exactly what you do? When you think you have come up with your core value statements about your company, add “for instance” and add a corporate story:

Core value statement: We build and protect reputations for our clients in enduring and creative ways. For instance, last year we pitched “glamping” or glamourous camping as a trend for one of our clients and not only was glamping chosen as one of the top ten trends in 2007, our client was named the number one “glamping” destination in North America by Michele Sponagle for Canwest News Media and by Lori Rackl of the Chicago Sun Times.  

Your “for instance” stories are also invaluable when working with media, who need validation when profiling your business.

Here is another example. Go to Monk Office Supply’s website and you will see the simple tag line “The Helpful Office People.” Are they? Well, here’s my story. We recently leased more space so we could have a boardroom. A key customer was coming into town for a meeting and we needed a table right away. We knew we didn’t have time to shop around for a deal, and we ordered through Monk hoping it would come in time. A Monk salesperson called us back upon seeing the order and said she had a table in stock that was less expensive and the same size and quality, which she could get to us right away. I’d say that was helpful and that story has been told to everyone who comes into our new boardroom and admires our new table.  

Which brings me to another point. Your stories have to reflect the reality of how you and your employees conduct your business. They have to be authentic. While some question whether the Nordstrom tire story actually happened, no one questions Nordstrom’s legendary service ethic and, along with the tire story, there are hundreds of other Nordstorm outstanding service stories. Granted, some are not as compelling as taking back merchandise you don’t even sell; however, they speak to how a customer is made to feel when shopping at Nordstroms, from receiving personal thank you cards, to hand-delivered items and phone calls when there is a sale on favourite items. These stories are believable and enduring because the commitment to service actually exists. And they make this commitment come to life.

Can you create a positive story from a bad service experience? Yes, because it is how you respond to client or employee concerns that builds the legend. One client of ours responded to a letter written by an upset guest by driving to the guest’s house, introducing himself as the owner, and asking how he could make it up to the disgruntled guest, including offering a complimentary stay. That story is now known within the organization and highlights to employees just how important responding to guest feedback is to the business. You can also bet the guest has told the story to his friends.

In the recently published book, Firms of Endearment: How World Class Companies Profit From Passion and Purpose, the authors give many examples of authentic corporate storytelling. Jim Sinegal, co-founder and CEO of Costco, tells a story that embodies the company’s focus on giving back value to customers. When a smart Costco buyer was able to get a lower wholesale price on Calvin Klein jeans that were already selling briskly at a higher retail price, rather than pocketing the extra dollars, Costco still passed the added savings on to the customer. While this happened over ten years ago, this story is a corporate legend and one that exemplifies to employees one of Costco’s most enduring tenets with more impact than simply handing them a written policy.  

As Peter Gruber points out about story telling, “It is this oral tradition that lies at the center of our ability to motivate, sell, inspire, engage, and lead.” So go on. Gather around your “campfire” or boardroom table and begin by telling your stories. Ask your clients and suppliers for their stories on how you conduct business with them. If you get negative feedback, then your story will be how you helped to turn that relationship around. If you get positive stories, you can use them as endorsements for building your business. And by asking them to put into words how you have demonstrated your core values to them, you will have helped clients to create their own stories about your company, which they most likely will tell to others. And the building of your corporate legend will have begun.

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