Once upon a time, storytelling was something business professionals did when they got home from work if they had children to lull to sleep. Today, however, it is being touted as a core skill that everyone across the company—including HR professionals—should master.
And with good reason. Storytelling has earned such attention because, quite simply, it works. Stories stimulate and engage others, and people will recall what they find interesting—which is critical if you want them to share your message. You can’t repeat something you don’t remember.
That’s why we need to use compelling stories to talk about our companies. Some business leaders will argue that storytelling is nothing more than fluff, but savvy executives know that best-selling author Seth Godin had it right when he said, “People do not buy goods and services. They buy relations, stories and magic.”
And it’s not just customers who buy our stories. It’s also the employees who work for our companies, as well as the job seekers we’re trying to woo.
Brochures Aren’t Stories
I ask hundreds of people in all kinds of roles to tell me about their companies. In nearly every case, I hear responses such as “Well, we have our corporate brochure” or “We just updated our website to reflect our new branding.”
Yet they can’t answer my basic question: What does your company do?
That’s where brand storytelling comes in. When done correctly, a brand story isn’t like a brochure that outlines what you sell. Rather, it’s a short sentence that articulates the difference your company makes in the world. It’s audacious. It’s authentic. It’s succinct. And it’s memorable.
Consider these examples:
- “To champion positive social change that will enhance the quality of life for all as we age.”—AARP
- “Helping people be better in the moments that matter.”—Motorola Solutions
- “To develop leaders of character dedicated to serving the greater good.”—Texas A&M University
Start with the Back Story
Companies were started for a reason. The founder was passionate about solving a problem or believed he or she could do something better than anyone else. Just like family stories that get passed down through the generations, corporate stories tie people together, give them context for what they do and provide guidance for making decisions.
As companies age, the excitement that accompanied their origins can fade. We’re heads down with day-to-day demands, and we lose sight of why our work matters. No one seems to have the time or energy for stories. Yet such times are exactly when they matter most. We need to remember the original purpose of the business in order to revitalize ourselves and translate that enthusiasm to current employees and prospective new hires.
For example, the leaders at Emerson, an industrial manufacturing company in St. Louis, recently found themselves struggling to bring cohesiveness to the company’s 33,000 employees and 35 autonomous sub-brands around the world. They arrived at the answer to the problem through storytelling.
The company began in 1890 when two brothers born in Scotland saw a business opportunity in developing a reliable electric motor. In reviewing the company’s 125-year history, Emerson’s executives discovered a common thread that stretched all the way back to the company’s beginnings—that its employees are at their best when solving tough industrial problems, whether building a new motor or the more modern challenge of transporting perishable food items over long distances.
Emerson’s can-do spirit became the foundation for its “Consider It Solved” branding campaign, in which company leaders shared story after story about how their employees successfully tackled global challenges. Recounting and celebrating those accomplishments served as a tremendous inspiration for everyone at Emerson.
Empower Employees to Become Storytellers
The 2013 Gallup State of the Global Workplace report highlighted that more than 40 percent of employees globally don’t know how to talk about what their company does or what makes it unique. It’s no wonder that the same report points out that only 13 percent of employees are engaged in their work. Why should they be? They don’t understand why it matters.
By articulating our organization’s brand story, we gain clarity about what our shared purpose is. That understanding streamlines recruiting and adds transparency for workers around rewards and recognition. When we have the courage to tell our story authentically, we inspire employees toward a common goal. This reduces feelings of friction between individuals and replaces them with a greater sense of collaboration and comradery.
7 Steps to Developing An Employer Brand
- Know the organization’s business, vision, mission, values and culture. Understand the company’s business objectives and the talent needed to accomplish them.
- Conduct internal research to understand how the organization is perceived. Learn what current employees and potential new hires think about the organization and what they want from it.
- Define the employee value proposition. Clearly communicate the brand that the organization is developing; it should reflect what is special about the organization and must be aligned with the brand it is promoting to customers.
- Conduct external research to learn the organization’s positioning relative to competitors. Use applicant surveys, Internet searches, social media or firms that offer reputation monitoring.
- Develop a marketing strategy. Create a recruitment strategy to communicate your brand on careers sites, social media and elsewhere. Consistently communicate the value proposition to current workers, and use employee testimonials to support the brand.
- Ensure that the organization’s policies and practices support the brand. Training, coaching, compensation and other HR-related practices should reinforce your branded identity.
- Track success with metrics. These may include quality of hire, brand awareness, employee satisfaction, employee referrals, turnover rates and more.
Source: SHRM HR Knowledge Center.
HR professionals can help everyone in an organization see how each employee works for a common purpose by reinforcing the brand story. When people feel they are contributing to the greater good, they become more innovative and more engaged in their work.
In marketing, storytelling takes the focus off what we sell and spotlights the difference we want to make in the lives of our customers. In HR, it reminds us that the work we do isn’t just about recruiting employees to do a job. It’s about creating a workplace where people want to be.
And that, my friends, is no tall tale.
Carla Johnson is president of Type A Communications and vice president of thought leadership for the Business Marketing Association. She also serves as an instructor for the Rutgers University Executive MBA Program and the Content Marketing Institute. She recently co-wrote Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing (Content Marketing Institute, 2015).