Talking B2B: Brand storytelling

Fact and Faction - Storytelling in B2B

What role does storytelling play in B2B? There is a commonly held belief that businesses are too rational and practical to benefit from abstract tales. A recent study involving Fifth Ring reveals the connections between storytelling and B2B success.

Storytelling has been around for thousands of years. From remembering heroic deeds to reciting religious parables, the ability to tell stories has been central to education and our society’s ability to prosper. At Fifth Ring we believe that the persuasive emotional power of storytelling extends into the modern B2B communications environment, and a recent dissertation supports our findings.

The research

Karolina Czarnecka was studying for an MSc in marketing at Robert Gordon University and as part of her masters thesis she was inspired to find out how storytelling can be used in B2B companies. She wanted to explore whether business leaders understood their own corporate mantra. Any leader who doesn’t will not be able to communicate the company’s values to employees. In common with Fifth Ring, she was curious to know what success can be achieved by using storytelling as a business tool to share knowledge and values.

In her master’s thesis, Karolina looked at the ways that companies can use stories to influence their own organisation, knowledge-management, brand-management and leadership. Conducting 10 lengthy interviews with B2B organisational leaders, The findings showed a direct link between storytelling and B2B success, but an ingrained reluctance among leaders to see the benefits.

Many leaders who were interviewed felt that storytelling was still better suited to the B2C market than B2B. Research participants were concerned that the tool might not be valid when communicating with B2B clients, who are sceptical about marketing initiatives, preferring facts to abstract metaphorical associations. Interviewees did agree that stories told about products and services in the B2B sector had direct impacts on brand perception, as long as they had a solid grounding in facts.

Emotion can be more compelling than pure fact

However, the study also found that oratory skills are highly valued in a business leader, and that emotion can be more persuasive than pure fact in the spoken word. As well as natural charisma, interviewees believed that training is essential to develop the ability to speak in public. While not every leader can be a great storyteller, speeches based on emotional content rather than just facts are very persuasive. Elon Musk is a good example of this. The CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors may not be the most natural orator, but his warmth, wit and clear understanding of business make him an appealing public speaker.

The assertion that the B2B niche is too rational for warm and friendly storytelling is further refuted by a paper written last year by Andrew St. George. Considering the ways that positive leadership messaging can influence productivity, St. George was surprised to find the Royal Navy to be a model of ‘cheerful leadership’. As with large B2B companies, you might expect an international military force to have a hard, factual approach to communication. Instead, the Royal Navy uses humour in day-to-day stories (or ‘dits’) to foster productivity and confidence, making the message willingly received and more memorable.

Personalising the company message

A plot twist seems to be in store for B2B, as leading international companies catch on to the strength of storytelling as a way of reaching employees. A business cannot maintain complete control of its story, but the most successful companies embrace the experiences of their founders and allow their stories to shape the company’s. The celebrity status achieved by Steve Jobs and Bill Gates shows how an individual’s experience can feed into a company’s message, personalising it.

Karolina’s research found that a consistent message is needed for B2B storytelling to become an effective persuasion tool. Both organisational leaders and employees contribute to the corporate story, but the message can become diluted as it trickles down through the business. As digital media encourages more leaders to have an online presence, the importance of understanding the value of storytelling increases. GE has introduced a ‘strategic storyteller’ role, dedicated to achieving clear and consistent storytelling throughout the international organisation.

Interplay between storytelling and business success

One of the major findings of the research was about the interplay between storytelling and business success. A two-way exchange was discovered, with storytelling strengthening businesses, and their stronger performance then reinforcing their stories. 

The study found that sharing brand stories encouraged staff positivity and inclusion, which in turn fed back into the story.

At the same time, substandard performance will become part of a corporate story just as easily as success.This relationship reveals the extent to which a story can be considered to lie outside the control of a company, in the same way that a brand can be shaped, but will always be dependent on perception.  

Persuasive power of storytelling

The study adds to what Fifth Ring believes about B2B storytelling. Sharing brand stories should play a strong role in marketing and communications, and the persuasive power of storytelling has a place in the ‘rational’ world of corporate products and services. Many business leaders are slow to appreciate the similarities between B2B and B2C in this area, but are slowly becoming aware of the value of storytelling.

As a global integrated communications agency, Fifth Ring specialises in helping energy companies across the world to create and tell the world their stories. If you need to send out a consistent message that delivers the facts with emotional appeal, we can help make your thinking visible.