The Power of a Story
Storytelling is an effective and powerful way of communicating ideas, writes Nicholas Ind, telling the story of the chocolate brand Tony’s Chocolonely.
KRISTIANIA TOOLBOX: Storytelling
Businesses need to do more than just define who they are and what they do. They also need to engage employees, customers and shareholders, by translating their purpose, values and actions into relevant narratives that enable people to express their identities.
Stories then are not simply functional but emotional instruments that create meaning and stimulate ideas by delivering logos (rational argument), pathos (emotional connection) and ethos (moral authority). What does this mean in practice?
Both start-ups (eg bbhugme) and well-established organizations (eg Rapha, Greenpeace, Telenor) create different sorts of narratives: foundational myths, values-based stories and everyday anecdotes. Some of these narratives will endure, but others, that fail to resonate, will disappear.
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Natural way of communicating ideas
From the organizations’s perspective, storytelling is a way to share knowledge and experience by creating a feeling of connectivity and involvement and to link the past to the future.
We hear a story about a brand and it can stir our imagination – we might believe this is a company I want to work for or a product I want to support. Storytelling also enables an organization to communicate an idea of itself that is distinctively different from other organizations.
The reality is that because storytelling is such a natural way of communicating ideas, organizations will be using stories whether they plan and execute a programme or not.
- Read also: Co-creation of Brands
How Tony’s Chocolonely tells its story
As an illustration of the power of stories, take the Dutch chocolate brand, Tony’s Chocolonely. Tony’s Chocolonely didn’t set out to be a brand – it was a protest by three Dutch journalists about the use of slavery in cocoa farming in West Africa.
They built a narrative around the issue, through a TV programme produced by one the journalists and then by one of the journalists handing himself into the police for eating a product that he knew was produced by slaves. When the case went to court he was acquitted, but it made the issue national news.
To make their point, they then decided to create their own chocolate brand, called Tony’s Chocolonely (after one of the journalists, who was called Teun). The brand was an immediate success, selling out its entire first production run in the first day.
- Read also: Why consumers co-create
Bought into the story
Customers bought into the Tony’s Chocolonely story, not least through the wrapper which features a graphic about slave free chocolate and tells the story of how cocoa is produced by slaves.
In 2012 Tony’s Chocolonely also introduced the unequally divided chocolate bar, (to express the unequal nature of the chocolate business) featuring the shapes of the cocao producing countries of West Africa.
Angela Ursem, Movement Maker at Tony’s Chocolonely says, ‘We sold over 40 million pieces last year, and that means that there are potentially 40 million people that get in touch with our mission. So, it’s a super important communication piece. And of course, this is also really where the whole Tony story started and it’s also not that we created a chocolate bar, and then we created the story. No, the story was first, about the mission, that we want to eradicate child labour and modern slavery from the cocoa supply chain, and then we decided to make a chocolate bar. So, it’s first the story, then the bar, and then the branding.’
Today, Tony’s Chocolonely is in many different countries (including Norway) and, as of 2019, it is the largest chocolate brand in the Netherlands. Interestingly, it has never used paid media to achieve this position. Rather it tells its story through its product and encourages its customers to share narratives about the brand and its cause.
Storytelling comes with obligations
While storytelling is persuasive, we should also exercise some caution about its use.
- First, what the organization intends to communicate with a story, is not necessarily how it will be received. As the semiotician, Roland Barthes noted in his famous article, ‘The Death of the Author’, the meaning of something is not determined by the author of a story, but by its receiver. What Barthes noted in his 1968 essay is further compounded by the prevalence of social media, which can sometimes enrich (as is mostly the case with Tony’s Chocolonely) or sometimes confuse the message through different interpretations.
- Second, the credibility of a story relies on how well it is told, but also whether it aligns with other organizational stories and actions. Telling stories – as Barthes also observed – is an editing process. As the writer of the story we choose to both reveal and conceal. Editing can help bring meaning to the fore, but it can also undermine it.
So, while we should embrace the power of stories as an effective way of communicating, we should also recognise that storytelling comes with obligations.
- Roland Barthes (1968) ‘The Death of the Author’.
- Yiannis Gabriel (2000) ‘Storytelling in Organizations.’ Oxford University Press.
- James Geary (2012) ‘I is an other: the secret life of metaphor and how it shapes the way we see the world.’ Harper Perennial.
- Sandra Horlings (2016) ‘Crazy about chocolate, serious about people’in Brands with a Conscience: how to build a successful and responsible brand. Eds Ind N and Horlings S., Kogan Page, 85-101.
This article is written for Kunnskapsmagasinet Kristiania and first published on May 19th, 2020.
Text: Professor Nicholas Ind, Department of Economics and Innovation, Kristiania University College and Holger Schmidt.
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