Every brand and every product has a story. For some, this story provides a wonderful way to differentiate a brand. When a brand comes from a long tradition or has evolved over many decades, the brand story can take on a life of its own. But newer brands have stories too. The unique way that products are made or designed can separate one product from another in profound ways. People love stories; brands that provide them can capture a unique place in the mind.
Most of us know something about the story of Hershey chocolate. We know there's a town in Pennsylvania that bears this name, and that the town has been home to the Hershey factory for many years. People may know that more than one billion Hershey bars were given to GIs in WWII. Even without knowing all the details, these facts establish a feeling of tradition and root the brand in the history of America. These products aren’t just candy bars, they are part of our national heritage — a story that differentiates them in the minds of consumers.
The story of Ford Motor Company is also the story of the industrial age. Most people know what a “Model T” is and many associate the history of the assembly line with the brand. Ford designed the first moving assembly line and was able to produce a new car in one-eighth the time — a mere 93 minutes. This allowed the company to reduce prices enough to offer automobiles to the middle class. As a result, Ford still holds a place in the mind as the creator of quality, affordable cars. The story of this brand is still one of its defining characteristics.
But stories don’t have to be long or even true. Fictional stories work in the same way. Blue Bell Creameries has created stories about the cows of Brenham, Texas in its advertising to give viewers a taste of the company behind the products. Chanel created short films to tell stories for their fragrances and Duracell did the same for batteries. Stories like these engage the mind and add a dimension to even the most mundane products. They allow us to become part of a bigger picture, and help build a rationale for our purchases.
So what’s your story? What can we learn from you? How does your company impact the lives of your employees, vendors and customers? What traditions do you represent? Where does your brand fit into the wider narrative?
In a world of mass-produced, inexpensive homes and furnishings, the complex, work-intensive customs of Japanese carpentry may seem antiquated and impractical. But this also creates the appeal — for those seeking finely crafted, custom furniture, these perfectly designed and meticulously assembled pieces are the pinnacle of woodworking artistry.
John had worked for cabinet makers and furniture designers for many years, but he was frustrated by the lack of care and design that he saw in the industry. He wanted to work with the wood, seeing it as a product itself, not merely an ingredient. When he opened his own furniture design and manufacturing shop, he needed a way to separate his offering in the minds of his customers.
The techniques he learned studying traditional Japanese carpentry provided the story he needed to present his offering and differentiate himself from his competitors. This manufacturing process is far more labor-intensive and, of course, far more costly. John knew that, in order to recruit customers, he would need to create a much stronger emotional rationale — price would never be a competitive advantage. He decided to create these motivations by telling stories.
- At the entrance to his store he erected a series of wood panels covered in illustrations and text describing the history of the craft and the techniques used in the manufacture of his pieces. He showed how each piece was designed and the wood was planed with amazing precision, onion-skin thin layers at a time.
- He also created an “earthquake machine” — a small platform that could be shaken and bounced using metal dowels — to show how pieces created using these complex joints were much more durable than those made with screws and nails. The panels next to the machine included images of temples in Japan — built without a single nail — that have stood for centuries and survived many earthquakes.
- He provided a video on his website that gives an intimate look into how the craft has evolved, and how these tools and approaches differ from those used in Western cultures.
- He used the same images and copy in brochures printed on thin, rough paper that unfolded into long strips, providing a timeline and narrative of the more than 1,000 years of the craft. On the reverse he included photos of some of his pieces.
- John also realized that the wood itself had a story. Each type of wood was selected for specific purposes, and each tree dictated how it should be used. Many trees were harvested individually. These details were written up and attached to each piece — a keepsake for the customer that clearly presented the unique story of each chair, table and cabinet.
- John cut thin ribbons of wood using traditional Japanese planes and sliced them into small pieces, then had his logo and URL burned into them so he could use them as business cards. He was also able to make small note cards using the same process, which he used to send personal letters of gratitude to his customers.