Just how much is a ceramic cat decorated with a red chili pattern worth?
Fifty cents if you buy it from a thrift store; $22.72 if auctioned on eBay with a story by novelist Lydia Millet.
The chili cat was part of the Significant Objects Project, a multiphase experiment designed to test the hypothesis that talented creative writers could invest an object with value that it did not previously have. The result: project curators Rob Walker and Josh Glenn sold $128 worth of thrift-store junk for $3,612.
I thought of this project when challenged to break down the value of a brand story. It's a clever and highly entertaining demonstration of how much of the value we ascribe to things--and experiences--lies in the stories surrounding them. A story is often the X factor that inspires an intense desire to have that whatever.
So what's the value of a brand story? There are lots of ways to slice it, but most businesses seek these three benefits.
As the Significant Objects Project shows, people are willing to pay more for something surrounded by the aura of an emotionally involving story. (This is also borne out by celebrity estate sales.) Apple's success is often attributed to product and UI design, but the company's ability to sell at premium prices in commodified markets has at least as much to do with Apple's powerful brand story of creativity and individuality.
Sustainable businesses have always placed high value on communicating their purpose and having employees live it--and more and more businesses that wouldn't define themselves as sustainable are seeing the light. But merely larding the employee handbook with lists of "our values" and posting corporate mission statements is not going to turn team members into evangelists.
To really engage employees--and get them talking with customers, friends and everyone else about how great the company is--your business needs a story that expresses those values naturally, in a way that engages employees' own values, feels true and is true. (A company's actions need to square up with its story--see The best way to avoid greenwashing charges: act right.)
I've seen this work with clients: teams that couldn't even manage a concise or consistent description of what their company was about were speaking with confidence and excitement once they had a story to draw upon.
Consistent messages across channels
You can't have fundamentally different messages about your company for different markets and channels and still have a coherent, plausible brand. Consistency shouldn't be a straitjacket, though. Messages must speak to the concerns of various market segments and fit into the styles of particular marketing channels.
The answer is a brand story that's rich and emotionally resonant enough to feed a wide variety of campaigns and communication needs. (For an example of this in action, see this Harvard Business Review article on how Coca-Cola has used a story platform to create advertising that's both global and local.)
An effective brand story can be told in many languages--both literally and figuratively--in a way that's true to your brand and adds value to what you're selling.