In films and books, the phrase “based on a true story” is a powerful marketing tool. People hear it and think, ‘Wow, this really happened!’And even if the phrase itself isn’t used, people still sometimes assume it fits—if it’s a story they perceive to have a ring of truth. In many cases, they don’t only read the book or watch the movie; they take subsequent action. They start initiatives, protests, campaigns, etc. centered around the theme of the story they were told.
Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle—which was a novel that was supposed to accurately depict the revolting conditions in the early American meat-packing industry—sparked such outrage that it actually led to legislation that would ultimately create the FDA. More recently, the film Shawshank Redemption—based very closely on a short story written by Stephen King—stirred up a large number of activists rallying against the harshness of prison life. Both of these instances were stories that were made up and yet so compelling that they changed behavior on a large scale. Stories perceived to have an element of profound truth have always prompted action.
The story that your business tells its customers is no different. Do people look at your business and think, ‘What a bunch of hogwash?’ Are they merely intrigued? Or are they motivated to take action? Maybe you ought to start thinking about how true your story is. And, when I say true, I don’t mean factual. People don’t care about the facts; the facts are boring. People care about the things which resonate with them. That’s what I mean by true—important, powerful, and compelling enough for a person to adopt as her own truth. How T.R.U.E. is your story?
The 4 Elements of a True Story
• Trustworthy: Is it credible?
• Relevant: Does it matter?
• Unique: Is it different?
• Enduring: Will it last?
The trustworthy story is one that your customers can believe. You have to be able to live up to your marketing. Your story must have integrity. You have a problem with the legitimacy of your story when you say that your purpose is to promote a healthy lifestyle and you sell chocolate chip cookies. It just doesn’t add up with your customers. Your story will not be realistic if you are in the music business but are unfamiliar with the Internet as a distribution channel. Your customers will not see you as legitimate if they can’t find your music online. Is your story plausible? Does each component of your business line up with the story you are trying to sell? Trust is the first step to telling a story deemed true by your customers.
The relevant story is one that your customers can care about. Your story can have all of the integrity in the world but, if your customers don’t want to read it, it will sit on the shelf and collect dust. Are you selling a product that people actually want? Here’s the rub about your story: it isn’t about you. It’s about your customers. It’s about your readers. Are you filling a need? Is there a market for your story? If there isn’t, you have no business telling it. You are wasting your efforts. Your story must reflect an interest shown by your customers.
The unique story is one that your customers can distinguish from others in the marketplace. If you have a story that both makes sense and matters to your customers, but your competitor has the same exact story, there is no incentive to buy into yours as opposed to your competitor’s. What makes you different? What makes you better? Standing out in a library of great stories is difficult but essential. When your story dissipates into undifferentiated sameness, you become a commodity. You have to do something that sets you apart. Your story must be exceptional.
The enduring story is one that your customers can hold onto. You don’t want to create a fad. You want your story to be sustainable throughout time. When I was in started high school, I found myself wondering why we had to read books in English class just because they were classics. By the time I finished high school, I realized that I had had it backwards. We weren’t reading them because they were classics. They were classics because we were still reading them. In other words, those books had longevity. That’s the way you want your story to be. You want it to last.
Now, think about your specific business. How can you apply these principles directly the story you are telling? What changes can you make to your produce or the way it is marketed? How can you alter your processes to become more compelling? What other markets can you enter into that would make your message ring clearer? Remember, when people come to see a story as true, they don’t only believe in it; they act on that belief.