Updated: May 3, 2022
Storytelling has become a staple of marketing and communications in recent years, and with good reason. Unfortunately, many firms still struggle to tell stories that work. They settle for generic, superficial narratives that do nothing to forge connection and credibility with stakeholders, and in some cases do the opposite.
What Might Have Been: Starbucks
Take Starbucks. Though the global coffee chain has long used stories to put a human face on capitalism, it seemed to lose the plot with its 2015 “Race Together” initiative: a well-meaning response to the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri that nonetheless met with scathing criticism.
Starbucks did little better three years later. Faced with widespread outrage over the arrest of two Black men in a downtown Philadelphia Starbucks in April 2018, the company issued a public apology, and later shut down its stores nationwide for an afternoon of racial-bias training for its 175,000 employees. Even so, it was hard for Starbucks to shake the impression that when it came to race, the company just didn’t get it.
Now imagine what Starbucks might have achieved by reframing the conversation around a different narrative: its own.
Founded in Seattle in 1971, Starbucks rose to prominence in the late 1980s, after Howard Schultz bought out its original owners and launched a national expansion. Recognizing the chain as heir to a centuries-old tradition of coffee houses as centers of community and debate, Schultz dubbed Starbucks a “third place” distinct from home and work, where people could meet to exchange ideas on the issues of the day.
Had Starbucks led with this narrative, it could have substantiated its claim that what happened that day in Philadelphia did not reflect its values. What’s more, it could have linked employee volunteer initiatives with grassroots activists combatting racial injustice, with its coffee shops as centers of civic participation. Instead, it got stuck in the “now,” wasting a chance to put itself ahead of the curve when the racial-justice movement gathered steam in summer 2020.
Starbucks’ stumbles over race underscore a central lesson from our consulting and research: Great business storytelling, the kind that can shape purpose, brand, and reputation, begins with a firm’s strategic narrative—its unique identity and heritage. Stories like these hold uncommon explanatory power. They reveal what makes a company or brand distinctive. They speak to something enduring that will remain the same, making even transformational change easier to embrace. And they have the depth and dimension that helps them rise above the noise of the moment.
Consider what three leading firms gained by tapping into the power of their own strategic narrative, and what another one lost when it did not.
Building an Enduring Brand: Burt’s Bees
Every company has an origin story, but few have made it quite as central as Burt’s Bees, the maker of natural personal care products. The company’s two co-founders, Roxanne Quimby and Burt Shavitz, met when Quimby, who was hitchhiking the back roads of rural Maine, caught a ride with Shavitz in his yellow Datsun. The two became business partners—and, for a time, romantic partners—as Shavitz sold honey at a roadside stand and Quimby peddled candles made from his beehives’ unused wax.
More than a source of narrative color, Burt’s Bees’ origin story is fundamental both to the brand’s aesthetics (hippie, rural Maine, close to the land) and to its social purpose: protecting the environment by using only natural ingredients. The story has become a cornerstone of the company’s digital and social media presence, with a website full of images and artifacts and Instagram posts of lighthearted memes and video clips.
Easy to grasp, the Burt’s Bees story is nonetheless sophisticated enough to have survived two crucial tests. One was the brand’s acquisition by Clorox, the consumer products giant, in 2007. Customers and activists complained that Burt’s Bees had sold out. In fact, learning from Burt’s Bees’ “green” philosophy was one of Clorox’s stated reasons for the acquisition. Sure enough, Clorox soon announced sweeping changes, including the launch of Green Works (a line of naturally-sourced, biodegradable cleaners) and a partnership with the Sierra Club.
The second test came with the release of an independent documentary film in 2014. Though it delved into the complex relationship between the company’s two co-founders, the film could not help but reinforce the authentic, fact-based founding story that had been at the heart of the Burt’s Bees brand all along.
Activating Purpose: Rolex
An authentic narrative becomes even more important when firms without the same squeaky-clean image as Burt’s Bees embrace a higher purpose or weigh in on political controversies—because high-minded words without a track record to back them up invariably come across as self-serving.
For Rolex, the Swiss watchmaker, the answer lay in a single theme drawn from its early history. Founder Hans Wilsdorf, eager to test his intricate chronometers under extreme conditions, began to supply watches to aviators, mountaineers, and deep-sea divers in the 1930s. Ever since, Rolex has been synonymous with exploration.
In 2019, this identity became the basis for a new, forward-looking campaign devoted to climate change. Dubbed Perpetual Planet, the initiative took its name from the Rolex Oyster Perpetual, the world’s first self-winding wristwatch. Its real debt, though, was to the Rolex story itself. Among the programs it sponsored was an Everest expedition to study how global warming is impacting the glaciers of the Himalayas, a critical source of fresh water to a billion people. By drawing a through line from exploration for discovery’s sake to exploration as a means to preserve the world’s environment, Perpetual Planet established sustainability as a core part of the Rolex brand.
Taking a Stand: Budweiser
Anheuser-Busch InBev, meanwhile, turned to its founding myth in a bid not only to revitalize the flagging Budweiser brand but also to speak out on the brewing immigration debate. “Born the Hard Way,” a 60-second spot that aired during Super Bowl LI in February 2017, celebrated Anheuser-Busch co-founder, Adolphus Busch, a German immigrant, and his arduous journey to St. Louis in 1857 at the age of 18.
Despite its cinematic qualities, the ad derived much of its emotional power from the way it linked past and present. Hardship, prejudice, the fear of failure—these are all elements of the immigrant experience; they are also familiar to any American who has ever had a dream. By embracing these aspects of its co-founder’s story, Budweiser, which had struggled to be seen as relevant to consumers, associated itself with those “who live life on their own terms and never back down.”
The ad also showed how history can become a catalyst for the discussion of difficult issues. By taking the co-founder of one of the most American of all brands and reminding us of his immigrant roots, it helped audiences see a contentious issue from a fresh perspective, again to Budweiser’s benefit. The ad ranked first in digital engagement in the run-up to the game, with 36 million unique online views, and earned top honors with the Advertising Research Foundation’s David Ogilvy Award.
A Reputation Squandered: Wells Fargo
For brands tempted to distort or dumb down their story, Wells Fargo is a cautionary tale.
The nation’s third-largest bank has suffered a string of reputational crises, most recently the 2016 fake accounts scandal and its earlier decision to fund the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). In response, Wells Fargo tried to turn the page with a new brand campaign: “Established 1852. Re-established 2018.” Although the campaign drew on images from the bank’s past (including the iconic stagecoach and galloping horses), the story it told was hopelessly simplistic: We were trustworthy until we weren’t. The reaction was withering.
Instead of treating its storied past as a distraction, Wells Fargo might have used it to rebuild trust. It could have emphasized how it had learned from past mistakes—as when an earlier generation of Wells Fargo executives drew on the bank’s experience of 19th century financial panics to navigate the Great Depression. And while it responded to the DAPL controversy with a $50 million fund to aid tribal communities, the bank might have launched a public reflection on its own role in fueling America’s westward expansion at the expense of Native Americans.
Ironically, Wells Fargo had plentiful resources to tell this redemption story: The bank boasts an entire history department that operates 12 museums nationwide. But by keeping its history siloed away, management failed to realize its potential—not only to restore its reputation but also to cultivate a stronger culture and avoid further ethical lapses.
Writing the Next Chapter
A firm’s strategic narrative, in short, is the essence of great business storytelling. Stories that go to the core of a brand stand up to scrutiny because they’re true. They stand out from the crowd because they draw on experiences no competitor can match. And because they speak to hearts as well as minds, they stay with the audiences they need to reach long into the future. Even as firms go on to write their next chapters.
John Seaman is Saybrook’s founder and CEO, while Arielle Gorin is a Saybrook Senior Consultant. Both are currently engaged on a research study for a global beauty company as well as an impact analysis for the Ford Foundation.