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Andrea Newell headshot

Seth Godin: Using Story to Connect Consumers and Brands

What do a marketing guru, an animation studio, a car company and a retail space have in common? All use the power of storytelling to promote their brand and connect with consumers.

At the 2013 Go Further with Ford trends conference, speakers from Pixar, Ford, and Story came together to present a cohesive, compelling session about how story plays a big part in design, marketing and even the physical act of buying.

Bringing your personal story to every buying decision

Seth Godin is the creator of Seth Godin's blog and author of 17 books. Godin moderated the session, which was a hit among conference participants. Titled Return to Your Senses, these speakers reminded us that underneath message and advertising, purchases are inspired by emotion.

Godin says that our purchasing decisions are made as a result of the sum total of all our emotional baggage. We bring our memories, our history and our hopes for the future with us when we make purchasing decisions. "Think about how Apple goes to market with its new computer - it doesn't look like a computer, it looks like a story."

Godin explained that no longer can we make something twice as good for a quarter of the price anymore, and cheap, poorly constructed products are not capturing anyone's imagination. Now, quality products and a great story must spark consumers' interest and, combined with their own memories and interests, entice customers to purchase them.

The story we tell ourselves is actually what is being sold. The challenge is not how to be successful, but how do we figure out how to matter. And the way we matter is by connecting with people with a story. A story that resonates, a story they care about and a story they'll tell other people.

Story is king

Pixar's Jay Ward had an easy argument to make. After all, animated movies rely on story, and Pixar has had uncommon success. Ward's role is actually to safeguard the integrity of all things Cars, along with authenticating automotive details in all movies. So when a toy company wants to make a Lightning McQueen branded toy, Ward is there to ask, "How does this toy further the story?"

Part of Pixar's success is tied to its relentless insistence on authenticity and story. When the audience meets characters like Lightning McQueen or Buzz Lightyear, they are first and foremost, characters, and then a car and a toy. Every aspect of the film is geared toward transporting the audience into a believable world with characters they can care about. Ward says that he has kids come up to him all the time and ask where Radiator Springs (the setting for Cars) is on a map and what state is it in, even though it's a fictional town.

The three things that Ward believes are crucial to every film and product are: quality, innovation and storytelling. Ward also gives Apple design credit, quoting Steve Jobs, "I only want to make good stuff, and I want to make less of it."

Apple has a small line of products, but they are all painstakingly designed. Even their packaging is beautiful. "They don't have a huge line of products, but they have a GREAT line of products," Ward says.

When Ward works with a company to develop a Pixar toy, he sees it as a collaboration and likes to be in at the beginning so they can work together to create a product he can be proud of. At the start of each project, he asks, "What's the story behind the product?" He does not greenlight any product just to sell it, it must enrich the Pixar brand. It shouldn't just be a toothbrush with Merida's picture on it, it should have red bristles like her hair, it should be pointed like an arrow. It should engage the user and not only call the story to mind, but further it in some way.

"How does it impact the customer? How does it draw them into the story? Is it innovative, high-quality and tell a good story?" Ward asks. And at the end of the day, "It's not done until we both agree that it's right."

How design tells a story

J Mays is the group vice president of design and chief creative officer for Ford Motor Company. He explains how design tells a story.

Design captures people's attention and imagination, just as catching a glimpse of an attractive person across the room does. "It starts with seduction," Mays says. "It's visual communication as opposed to verbal communication. Becoming a good storyteller is at the heart of being a good designer."

Designing a car is years in the making, so Mays and the team at Ford spend a lot of time considering the customer they are aiming to captivate.

We connect with people through design. As we become more technically driven, the emotional connection becomes even more important. We utilize who our customers are, who we are, where they work, how they play, what their history is, who their parents are, what's their cumulative memory and all of that has a lot to do with how they connect with design.

Each car speaks to a different audience, but the overall effect Mays and the Ford team strive for is the ultimate driving experience, and that boils down to the emotion a person feels when they drive the car. From the Fusion to the Escape to the Mustang to the Fiesta, each design will impact customers differently.
People purchase products because they are prepared to spend part of their life with them. It's an emotional decision that has nothing to do with logic. Done correctly, every element we design and every design we generate creates some sort of emotion, some reaction from the customer. We create experiences that hopefully have meaning for that customer.

Reimagining the buying experience in a physical space

So much of our purchasing experience takes place online these days, it's easy to forget about the experience of going to a store and browsing the shelves. But even for those who have maintained their brick-and-mortar loyalty, Rachel Shechtman points out that "despite innovations in marketing and digital media, there have not been that many innovations reimagining the physical retail experience."

To that end, Shechtman created Story, a 2,000 sq ft store in Manhattan on the corner of 10th Avenue and 19th Street (stop by anytime, she says).

She calls her space, "Retail media."

"It's a space that has the point of view of a magazine, it reinvents itself entirely every 4-8 weeks like a gallery, and it sells things like a store. So we set out to create a brand that was constant, but always changing. We called it...Story."

The logo itself tells what story they are telling at any given time. The "O" separates to show the name. For example: St[his]ry. Other stories include, Love story, New York story, and Art story, each with their own brand sponsor.

Story collaborates with brands to tell their story in a unique way, and a major part of that is the experience that customers have when they come into the store. For each story the store is completely redesigned, so customers have a different experience altogether each time they return.

Shechtman works with brands to showcase their products even before they are available to the public in creative ways. His Story is a partnership with Proctor and Gamble and Details magazine to promote Brawn Cool Tech razor. Four days a week customers can come into the store and get a hot towel massage from a "barber from a French chop shop on the lower East side." The Color story was a partnership with Benjamin Moore paint, and the Art Story showcased art.com.

Shechtman partners with handbag designers, artists, illustrators, a grandmother from Staten Island who gave pasta-making lessons and anyone else who might add value to her tale and make the experience more memorable.

"In a physical space we ask for someone's time, so let's give them an experience they can't get on their own," Shechtman says. "We're just a dating service and we use storytelling as a matchmaker between brands and consumers."

So storytelling isn't just a way to engage consumers, it's also a way to start conversations and collaborations between brands, as Shechtman and Ward do. It's engaging, seductive, and compelling. No one likes to feel "sold," and storytelling is a way to make them care about the product they have purchased or feel good about the time they spent in a store browsing. The more a consumer cares about a product, the longer they will keep it, and the less turnover there is in goods results in fewer items in landfills, and even fewer items that need to be recycled, broken down or passed onto someone else.

Ed note: Ford covered travel and accommodations for bloggers to attend the Go Further conference 

Andrea Newell headshotAndrea Newell

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

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