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The Power of Story Marketing: 4 Case Studies Revealed

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Regardless of how you feel about their politics, Invisible Children made Joseph Kony famous.  Their heart-string tugging, albeit controversial, YouTube video has garnered more than 88 million views.  Their goal was to build awareness.  They succeeded.

What was the secret behind their success?

To pinpoint one element would be over-simplifying a brilliant marketing scheme.  To achieve that sort of viral success, a lot more than luck is at play.  They knew what they were doing.

One of the biggest criticisms of the video, however, was also one of these contributing factors – the perceived narcissism of Invisible Children’s co-founder, Jason Russell.  Two of the the first five minutes of the short-form documentary features Russell’s five-year-old son, Gavin.  In it, Russell says, “…but he [Gavin] was born into a complicated world, and as a dad I want him to grow up in a better world than I did.”

In an attempt to take down the world’s top criminal (according to the International Criminal Court), KONY 2012 dedicates a significant amount of time to Russell’s personal story – during a crucial part of the documentary – hook the audience now, or lose them forever.  A humanitarian crisis in Uganda, Africa, and Russell directs the spotlight back to San Diego, California, onto himself and his perfectly safe son.

On the surface, this may come off as the PR fail of the century.  But let’s ask the question: Is this the result of an over-inflated ego – or is this a revealing truth on how to build an emotional connection?

I have 88,000,000 reasons why it’s the latter (or at worse – both).

From Cabins to Grammys

There is an above average chance that you’ve heard the music of Bon Iver.  I’m guessing you’ve at least heard the name.  That’s what happens when you win the Grammy for “Best New Artist” and “Best Alternative Music Album” in the same year (2012).

There’s no taking away from the robust singing and song composing talent of Bon Iver’s founding member, Justin Vernon, but to go from total obscurity to Grammy award winning in five years requires more than just talent.  Through the explosion of music blogs and services such as Pandora, Spotify, and Last.FM, there are endless avenues for musicians to gain exposure.  It’s not like Vernon had any advantages - Bon Iver’s breakthrough debut album was recorded independently.  How in the world does that happen?

It’s not the how but the where that seems to hold the answer.  In a cabin in the woods of northern Wisconsin.

After a breakup with his band and girlfriend as well as being dealt a case of mononucleosis, Vernon decided to isolate himself in his dad’s cabin in the small town of Medford, Wisconsin.  Originally, he had no intentions of recording an album; he was there to recuperate.  Eventually however, Vernon turned to music as a means to purge himself of the negative emotions.  Through the winter months Vernon wrote and recorded For Emma, Forever Ago, which broke the Billboard Top 200 albums (#74) and built the foundation for his impending Grammy award winning self-titled LP.

Still, I can hear your skepticism.  “How do we know his story played any role in his success?”  It’s a fair question.

First, look at his Wikipedia page.  The first sentence explains what Bon Iver is.  The second tells who is in it.  The third introduces Bon Iver’s first album.  The fourth sentence talks about Vernon’s time spent recording the album in a cabin.  In essence, the cabin is the first non-essential piece of information offered.

Still not convinced?

Let’s watch his interview with Stephen Colbert:

The first 1:50 of the interview speaks of the legend that is Bon Iver.  Even Colbert, an interviewer famous for interrupting and crafting questions around one-liner responses, seems enthralled by the story behind the musician (at least until Vernon tells it).

Where’s the Story in Sales?

Okay so maybe story is an appropriate tactic when you’re dealing with a humanitarian movement or art.  It’s hard to be a musician without a story.  How does this apply to your business?

Let’s think of product.  Something boring.  How about a car?  Nope, too exciting.  It needs to be way more boring than that.  How about a microwave?   Are you kidding?  Look at all of those buttons.  It turns a frozen Hot Pocket into a brick of lava in less time than a Bon Iver track.  Still way too sexy.  Okay, how about a mattress?

Now we’re talking.

Every business has an inspiration, Essentia Mattresses is no exception.

“A family member of mine had cancer.  The doctors told me that it could likely have been from exposure to everyday toxins in electronics, carpets, couches, mattresses, etc.,” says Essentia’s founder and CEO, Jack Dell’Accio.

And that was it.  A heart-wrenching, although all-too-common story, and the motivating force behind the creation of their organic mattresses.  Instead of simply positioning themselves as the first and only company to offer a natural memory foam mattress, Dell’Accio made a conscious decision to include this story into their brand, as you will see in their video below.

“I tried a few different paths but it all changed once I shared my story. People related to Essentia’s purpose and it transformed us into something bigger.”  Dell’Accio continues, “We went from a being a small online business to selling millions per year online and having eight brick and mortar stores with five more in the works in just five years.”

You Are the Story

Okay, so you didn’t lock yourself in cabin for months and your product wasn’t a reaction to a loved one getting cancer.  Certainly you have a story, but is it compelling?   The question is enough to make you hesitant.

Nicole Antoinette, co-creator of Paper’d, a wallpaper app for the iPhone, would argue every day has a compelling story to tell.  Antoinette, “a 20-something” blogger, has amassed a large following on her personal website through telling honest stories of her life; “a life less bullshit” in her own words.  She isn’t curing cancer.  She isn’t fighting crime.  Although she’s founded a 60+ person conference, co-founded a design firm, and co-created Paper’d, the majority of Antoinette’s content is about the every day (e.g. teaching her mom how to use Facebook).  “I’ve always believed that a good story must be relatable above all else.  I write about how things really are versus how I want people to see me,” explains Antoinette.

And despite having ample competition in the wallpaper world, the Paper’d app has achieved huge success in only a little over one month.  Through mobilizing her impassioned following, Antoinette has successfully leveraged her social capital to make her product take off.  “We’ve reached almost 200,000 downloads and have 500+ reviews in the App Store, many of which mention us by name and praise the personalized customer service experience.”

The Takeaway

We live in a low-to-no barrier to entry world.  You likely aren’t the first person to execute on your idea.  You definitely aren’t the last, especially if it’s any good.  The competitive advantage is shifting camps – away from the tangible and into the intangible.  People don’t want products or services, they want experiences.  Experiences are made through the connections.  Connections are made through stories.

So ask yourself, what is your story?  

Tell it.

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About the Author

When Zach Davis isn't getting lost in the mountains, he is hustling from Boulder, CO as Tech Cocktail's Director of Marketing. He is the author of Appalachian Trials, a book chronicling the mindset necessary for thru-hiking all 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a feat he accomplished in 2011. Zach is a green tea enthusiast, die-hard Chicago sports fan, and avid concert-goer. Follow Zach on Twitter: @zrdavis.

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