What Hollywood can teach business

Mar 25, 2014

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from Getting Personal About Business, the blog of Zahn Consulting, LLC.

As business professionals, entrepreneurs and senior executives, the movies are more than just a relaxing way to be entertained. Hollywood understands the importance and relevance of the concept of "story" to not only move people emotionally, but also to change opinions, persuade, convince, or get people to take action.

Take some of the recent Oscar nominees.

As much as people were mesmerized by the performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill in "The Wolf of Wall Street," the lessons about honesty, integrity, morality and standing for something real and substantial are very apparent.

"Twelve Years a Slave" presents plenty of opportunities to scrutinize the human condition, the impact of greed on behavior, victimization, integrity, etc. Although a period piece, a closer look at the story makes it easy to see how the very same dynamics occur in contemporary society.

"Dallas Buyer’s Club" and "American Hustle" speak to similar issues of greed, how people can be convinced or choose to pursue immoral pursuits, the impact on the person and others when their behaviors are to be accounted for.

But what does it mean for business?

  • A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. If people (prospects and buyers) can be entertained or taken on a journey that meets both emotional and cognitive needs, the chances of success go up exponentially. Few of the "messages" being imparted would reach the audience if they were delivered in dry commentary.
  • As a business seeking to differentiate itself from competition, the more memorable and distinct one can make the "brand" or company image so that it resonates with shoppers and prospects, the more likely it is to be recalled when the purchase decision is made. Affiliation with what the store stands for can build a following.

Marketing efforts should be supplemented with (if not entirely based on) elements of "story" or context for what the business is truly focused on.

Author and sales guru Mike Bosworth recommends a focus on the following "stories" to communicate a business mission:

  • Who I am/Who we are — who the salesperson is and who the company represents;
  • Who we help — by life circumstance or situation.

In order to build the trust and desire to do business together, it is essential to appeal to the desire to want to do business. Storytelling is the gateway to accomplishing that for Hollywood — and it can be for business.

Does storytelling work better for certain types of retailers? What retailers do you think are particularly effective at using storytelling to engage consumers?

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21 Comments on "What Hollywood can teach business"

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Max Goldberg

Every retailer must have a core story that says who we are, what we do, who we do it for and why we matter. That core story should permeate the business and should be known to every employee, vendor and consumer.

Nordstrom, L.L.Bean and Bass Pro Shops are some examples of retailers who make their core story an essential part of their business.

Zel Bianco

It should be a part of every retailers’ need to truly connect with their prospects and shoppers. In fact, it goes back to better collaboration between retailers and suppliers. Whether it be a promotional effort, an ad or a commercial, the story has to ring true with the consumer/shopper. A retailer must be able to feel the shopper’s pain and help make her life a little easier, by providing meal solutions, convenience, etc. The consumer has to feel that the story relates and is not too far afield from their own lives and experiences.

This concept extends to the data driven presentations and reports that are being generated every single day in our industry. Everyone has data, in fact, we have too much data. Yet, those that are able to use the data help them tell “a more compelling story” are the ones that are effective at the end of the day. Many prospects ask me what makes your software different than all the other BI solutions and dashboards that are available and the answer I prefer to give is what our customers say, “it helps me tell my story” in ways a dashboard usually cannot.

Nikki Baird
This a personal soapbox of mine. I see out there all this commentary about the rise of content marketing, and retailers are jumping into it whole-hog – luring editorial staff away from magazines, blurring the lines between bloggers and eCommerce. How I view it is, story is essential to BRAND. Doesn’t matter whether you are a retailer, a manufacturer, a personality, whatever. If you have a brand, you are making a value promise to a customer. And story is by far the best way to express that value promise. The challenge is, many retailers do not have a true brand identity. Either they haven’t figured out a clear, compelling (and powerful) value promise to their customers, or the promise they make isn’t consistent with what they do, or they think that because they sell other national brands, they should not be strong about what their own brand entails. I maintain that every retailer can and should be a brand. And part of being that brand means telling brand stories. And if you want good examples, look to the vertically integrated retailers – manufacturers that have opened their own stores. As manufacturers, they have long understood the value of brand, and… Read more »
Ron Margulis

On the face of it, it might seem intuitive that the more commodity-oriented the product assortment of a retailer, the less they need to tell a good story. Truth is, those retailers need an even more compelling story to engage shoppers.

Specialty retailers have a built in narrative due to the uniqueness of the product lines offered and the services available. A broad line retailer that is selling everything the store down the street is selling needs to give shoppers a compelling reason to frequent their store as opposed to the competition. It isn’t always going to be price based, although that can be part of the narrative. So can service, quality, history, community service and more.

The key is to keep refining the messaging until it clicks with a profitable shopper base and then keep it fresh, no different than a serialization of a novel.

David Biernbaum

Storytelling is unquestionably a very effective way to help market your brand, or your retail store, or chain of stores, if the “story” is appealing, entertaining, believable, and relatable. By entertaining, I don’t mean to suggest that the story has to be funny, but it does need to hold one’s attention. It needs to appeal to the human element. If you have a good story go for it.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

I agree that successful retailers need stories. Not sure that they should look to Hollywood for inspiration. I find that most of movies are based on story lines filled with cliches.

Consumers quickly sense what is genuine. If the retailer does not CREATE a compelling storyline that resonates with consumers’ experience, they will create their own stories and tell everyone on social media.

Max offers up some retailers with great stories: Nordstrom, L.L.Bean, Bass Pro Shops. You can even add Amazon to that list in terms of compelling customer service.

The most interesting thing about the best retailer stories from the eyes of the consumer is that they are based on the most difficult thing to create and replicate … “knock your socks off” customer service.

Adrian Weidmann

Storytelling is the key for ANY retailer and/or brand. Taking the shopper and customer on a journey whereby they can connect emotionally with you should be THE fundamental objective of any marketer. The challenge is twofold. The first part is to design and tell the story of “you” and the second is to then distribute this story across all of the communication channels available to today’s digitally empowered shopper. GoPro is a great example of a brand that effectively uses their customers to tell their story. User Generated Content (UGC) is used to tell the GoPro story in spectacular fashion.

Bob Phibbs

While I believe storytelling can help sell products, I think many people are kidding themselves on how important story is to customers. People shop at Macy’s for the discounts – not Herald Square or the movie. People shop at Amazon for convenience – not Jeff Bezos. People shop for their stories – not a brands.

That’s because we are really setting out to buy an upgrade to our lives, not a sequel.

Li McClelland
Li McClelland
3 years 5 months ago

I agree that corporate image making through storytelling is important for both companies and customers when it’s based on honesty. I think it’s especially important for the employees of those firms to know it, and believe it, and reinforce that story with customers.

Suggesting the cheesy Hollywood model leaves me a little cold, though. They don’t call it La La Land for nothing.

Gene Hoffman
Gene Hoffman
3 years 5 months ago

Storytelling works best for those retailers with a solid consumer-oriented brand story to tell. Otherwise it might relate to the “B Movie.”

At the moment, I like the story that Starbucks is telling well, even though I am not a Starbucks customer. How many of you remember when a full pound of coffee cost 45 cents? Starbucks reversed that situation and is a king of a brand of coffee.

Shep Hyken

The concept of story telling in business is awesome. It can help shape the customer’s perception of the brand. The customer experiences the story via TV, radio, YouTube, etc. and thinks:

“I want to be like that.”
“I want to feel like that.”
“I want to look like that.”
“I want to experience that.”

However I think the best stories aren’t produced. They are real stories. The Nordstrom story about the customer returning the tires comes to mind. It’s more than just a story. It’s a legend.

And another way of thinking: The company telling the story is one thing. The customer telling the story is even better.

Ralph Jacobson

Stories personalize the product. Whether you’re a software salesperson, a retail advertiser or a CPG brand, story telling creates something more than just the physical product. We encourage our own sales people at IBM to tell stories to build credibility and illustrate our history. I believe any retail or CPG brand can leverage this technique.

Gene Michaud
Gene Michaud
3 years 5 months ago

Knowing your business and the right “story” to tell about your business is very important. However, if a business follows the “make believe” story world of Hollywood, they shouldn’t expect to stay in business very long.

Lee Kent

As with Nikki, this is a personal topic for me. Having a story and sticking with it is essential for success in today’s market.

When a consumer says or hears a brand name, there should be an image that appears in their head. Not a hodgepodge of the products that are carried or an image filled with dollar signs. That image should be reflective of what the consumer experiences when they interact with the brand and that, my friends, is the brand’s story.

Tell it in pictures, in words, in selfies, in video, in digital. Bring that story to life wherever your customer likes to be. And most of all be true to it through ads, promotions and everything you do. That’s my 2 cents!

Martin Mehalchin

As consumers grow increasingly tired of and immune to traditional marketing messages and tactics, brand storytelling is becoming increasingly important to companies in many industries. Retailers in lifestyle segments like outdoor, athletics and fashion have the most obvious source material for storytelling, but good stories can be told about almost any quality product or well run company. Harry’s and Warby Parker have done a great job of building story-centric brands around “mundane” products like razor blades and eyeglasses.

Matt Schmitt

Storytelling can work effectively for all retailers. As for the ones it actually does work for, these are typically brands that have cultivated a brand identity that embraces a story or a clear mission in relationship with their customers and the world.

Also, brands that have a combination of wholesale and direct retail have tended to have better storytelling because they had to embrace branding in a way that reaches customers.

If retailers look to examples of some of their brand partners for inspiration, they can shape some of their own stories based on the success and examples of others.

Lee Peterson

Simply put, retail IS storytelling. Sidney Lumet wrote a book called “Making Movies” back in the 80’s that still holds up today. I would highly recommend that read.

Karen S. Herman

In my opinion, storytelling works to one degree or another for all retailers, and mostly depends on the authenticity of how the 5 Ws and one H of storytelling are utilized in building a customers relationship with the company or brand.

Each story begins with the online experience and really should continue seamlessly through all the channels the consumer engages, especially the physical retail destination, whether it is a short or long-term experience.

Pottery Barn, Abercrombie & Fitch, Ben & Jerry’s food truck, Shake Shack and Spirit Halloween are just a few of the engaging storytelling retailers that come to my mind.

Tom Borg
Tom Borg
3 years 5 months ago

Any retailer who can tie emotion to their product or service can use storytelling to engage consumers. Insurance companies are good at pulling on heart strings to get their message across.

Most retailers with a little help can do this nicely.

Christopher P. Ramey

Narrative is essential in the luxury segment. It’s what drives desire. Consumers generally remember and tell the story – hence word of mouth.

The problem for too many retailers is they assume narrative and word of mouth is enough to grow their business. It is not.

So along with narrative, brands need to focus on brand presence. Without brand presence, the narrative is moot.

Mike Bosworth
Mike Bosworth
3 years 5 months ago

The hardest part of retail selling is approaching a stranger with something better than “Can I help you?” For me, a better approach would be, “There is a funny story about that _____ you are looking at.”


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