One of the best times to see storytelling in a promotional context is during the Super Bowl. One of the earliest standout examples of this, for me, was Apple’s “1984” commercial, which launched the Macintosh dynasty.
Steve Jobs believed that this computer—friendly, accessible, intuitive—would put personal computing into the hands of ordinary people everywhere, “freeing” them from “control of technology by the few.”
They could have simply shown the product and made promises, as everyone else was doing. “Look at our computer. It’s easy to use…for anyone. It’s personal computing for the rest of us.” Some people would have bought it. The rest would’ve left for more guacamole as soon as it came on.
Instead, they embedded the messages in a story:
It’s dystopian future. The enormous power inherent in being able to use and understand computers for knowledge has come under control by a controlling elite. We are all screwed, but don’t even know we’re screwed because we’re brainwashed into complacency…we don’t even know we should have that power. But here comes our heroine: She breaks the spell with her act of rebellion, and people wake up and see the truth: We have a right to this.
Macintosh was thus introduced to the world as a completely new animal: A way that everyone, everywhere, could possess the power of personal computing to improve their lives.
So…even though I’m not a football person, I watch for the ads. Or to be more precise, I mute the game and watch the ads. I want to see who can tell me a good story. (Many of them are also very funny, so I get a laugh in the bargain)
This year, there wasn’t a lot of storytelling compared to previous years; advertisers seemed to think we needed to lighten up and not take ourselves so seriously this year. But one good one, from perennial story champ Anheuser-Busch (puppies? Clydesdales?), stood out for me. Their “Stand By You” ad reminds us about our neighbors in the American cities that experienced natural disasters in 2017. It weaves a story snippet showing how the company pitches in during emergency situations by switching up their packaging facilities to can water instead of beer.
Again, they could have simply TOLD us with data: “We help communities. We have sent 79 million cases of water to help people savaged by natural disasters. Aren’t we great?”
But telling us a story, through the eyes of a tired AB plant supervisor who helps make it happen, is what made the difference between a great time for a bathroom break, and a story that will stick in your heart.
You may or may not be impressed by these kinds of corporate efforts to toot their own horns. I’m a little bit immune. But here is what sticks for me:
Big businesses have the ability and the capacity to be of great help during times of great need. I prefer to support the ones that do, rather than the ones that don’t.
How does this translate to a small business?
In my book Storytelling for Small Business, I talk about the type of story I call “who’s helping the helpers.” The media is full of stories of conflict, sadness, and fear. People are anxious to hear good stories, hopeful or helpful news. I invite everyone to talk about their pro bono work, volunteerism, charitable giving. Tell us what you believe in. Show us another dimension of your character and values. Good people like to support, buy from, and do business with other good people.
Help people to know that you’re part of something bigger. Here’s a thought-starter list:
Donating a portion of profits to a specific charity
Hiring interns and students to give them a start
Bringing your skills, labor, or knowledge to local social programs
Supporting efforts to squash something patently evil, such as child trafficking
Teaching free workshops or classes in your community to help people learn a valuable skill or perspective
Supporting immigrants and refugees escaping dire situations, to help them get on their feet
Setting up internships for new college graduates
Hiring locally even when outsourcing to South Asia is cheaper
Offering your product or service as a ‘reward’ for those who are giving of themselves in some way in the community
We know you’re good people.
Show us how, and make us feel better about the world…and about you.