Unicorn or Mule? Why brand stories will determine your startups' future

Businesses, brands need a story to connect with consumers. Without one, they are simply in labelled commodity game. Tell an engaging story and watch supporters, investors, and consumers rally for your success.

Updated: Mar 12, 2021 10:21:26 AM UTC
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Last month, I happened to meet two super successful entrepreneurs who are regarded to be sure shot ‘soonicorns’. But to my surprise, both did not have a narrative that would explain how they were serving their customers uniquely and how the business model was geared to eventually turn a profit. They spoke gushingly of change and disruption but it wasn’t a narrative of inspired storytelling when it came to why it was going to last. I was not clear about their business story—its plot, protagonists and intended conclusion. They seemed unconcerned about ‘what next?’, and how to make it a real, paying business model. ‘The party is on’ is how one of them put it.

I think it is important for them to think differently about the importance of their purpose and its narrative. A business can be read by its story better than its balance sheet. This story has many parts. Firstly, the ‘storybuilding’, which comes closest to an unfolding of a business' strategy. Next, the ‘storydoing’ reveals its operational excellence. Finally, ‘storytelling’ tells you what transpired and what the future holds for both internal stakeholders and the external world. A good story creates links, inspires more action and builds brand value. A hero's quest lies at the heart of every enduring myth. Brands need stories or else each business is merely in the labelled commodity game.

Not having a brand story is a missed opportunity. A story creates value for customers, employees and investors. One can get started in no time. There are known basic story plots that run over and over again, be it in fiction or in business. They are the same in their generalities but may differ infinitely in the specifics.

What are the acknowledged commonalities among great business stories?

  1. Simplicity – All these stories are lucid and impactful but they are delivered without complication or distraction.
  1. Credibility – The stories are real and for all to see. The reality test is embraced not avoided. The plan is not speculative and hence the story is not fictional.
  1. Scalability – The results become a game-changer. The impact is deep and horizontally extensive. The Before-After shift is the reason for the story to be told with pride.

There is something about storytelling that levitates beyond mere facts. This is not just my hunch, there is a neurological basis for this. Our brains are hardwired to make sense of elaborate stories. Paul Zak, the father of neuro-management, identified a neurochemical called oxytocin, in the hypothalamus of the human brain. When a person listens to a powerful story, the brain releases oxytocin. It causes engagement and powers post-narrative behaviours. The brain, in response to stress, also releases cortisol which is an enabler in focusing. When inspired and gratified, the brain’s reward mechanism is wired to release dopamine.

The human brain is a monkey brain. We are, neurologically speaking, shaved and better dressed primates. To lose focus is our natural state. We daydream, flit from an impulse to impulse and our mind wanders when awake.

Why do great stories get more creative license? In his book ‘Tell to Win’, author Peter Guber claims that critical filtering gets diminished when greater identification is achieved. In other words, we believe stories that gratify us emotionally. We also remember such stories. This is why, historically, most gratifying facts are encoded as stories. That has been the story of civilisation. Those who command storytelling wield enormous power.

In business, the evidence is the gratification and the lure of success is hope.  Every investor is a recipient of a story and great wealth is the happy ending.

How to tell a better story?

  1. Speak of the steadfast vision – the ‘what’ can vary but not the ‘why’.
  2. Serve the audience – Explain how your product or service will serve their needs and what they will have to pay in return.
  3. Give facts – Fat-free makes one lose weight. ‘Fact free’ loses audiences.
  4. The story unfolds with the plan – The story must be able to clarify who are your customers and competitors? What will it take in time, money, personnel, environmental variables to make this story come to life?
  5. Position the story as a sneak preview, not a prayer – The narrative must be confident. Why will your products and services work and why will your vision transform into reality?

Successful businesses deserve great stories—immersive, relatable, tangible, memorable, and yes, emotional.

The writer is Global Head, Marketing at Royal Enfield. He writes regularly on brand building, social trends, history, technology, and politics. Views expressed are personal.

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