Rowan Dean
Smarter Writer

Rowan Dean is an award-winning creative director, social media commentator and advertising guru

Rowan Dean
Smarter Writer

Rowan Dean is an award-winning creative director, social media commentator and advertising guru

To build your profile and win more customers you have to start talking about yourself. But what do your customers really want to hear? We ask business owners and professional storytellers for their tips.

It’s true. I’ve been telling stories all my life. I remember much of my time at primary school was spent inventing bizarre characters for school plays, while in high school I concocted ever more outlandish tales as to why my maths homework had yet again disappeared.

Telling stories can be great entertainment, but it can also be an invaluable business tool. Particularly for small business people eager to get noticed in the crowded world of advertising, PR, branded content, and social media.

dog with goggles

Tell a story

The first advertising story I told was, fortunately for me as well as the client, a very effective one. I was a young Aussie working in the UK when the chance of a lifetime came along. For several months the Brits had been trying to write an ad campaign to launch Foster’s Lager into the UK. Unfortunately, so imbued were the young English creatives with ‘ocker’ stereotypes of boomerangs and cork hats that everything they came up with was rejected by Foster’s in Australia as too old-fashioned for the target market of trendy young drinkers. 

In desperation, the ad agency turned to the only Australian who worked in the place and said: “You want to be a writer? Write a campaign for Foster’s. You’ve got until Monday morning.”

One of the many ideas I frantically scribbled that weekend ticked all the right boxes and tickled everybody’s fancy, and within a few months I was filming Paul Hogan and John Cornell in what became the most successful UK alcoholic beverage launch of the ’80s. 

The basic idea behind the campaign, which ran for many years, was that if you’d never had a Foster’s then you’d never had beer (from an Australian’s point of view, at least). Hogan’s role was to explain to the Brits this basic fact of life.

There are a few reasons why the campaign was so effective. The storytelling hit the right note at the right time. This was the first time Australians in Britain had spoken with a confident, self-assured voice. Suddenly Aussies were cool, rather than embarrassing. When Men at Work’s song Down Under became a worldwide hit and we won the America’s Cup, it reinforced the narrative. The storytelling, in other words, rang true.

Hit the right note

Being authentic, and timing your story to fit the current mood, is critical. Being original, bold, insightful and humorous are also key. Without humour, those aspects that you wish to brag about in your story quickly become tiresome and even off-putting.

What made Hogan’s confident character so appealing was the naivety and self-deprecation that complemented it. At a wine tasting, he presumed they were spitting out the wine because it tasted so bad. Watching the rain bucketing down outside an English pub, he raised his glass to the drought having finally broken.

Hogan’s ‘discovery’ of Britain in the ads mirrored that of Britons discovering Foster’s. Young male beer drinkers identified with his brashness and swagger, and liked taking the mickey out of outdated British institutions such as garden parties and fox hunts.

Link your own story to your business brand

When you tell a compelling story that links you as an individual to the story of your business, you’re automatically building a brand narrative that can be exploited in social media, through PR or as part of an ongoing advertising campaign. 

When John Symond launched Aussie Home Loans in the ’90s, a key part of his success was built around his personal story. He had faced bankruptcy, but came to a deal with his creditors and was determined to have a second shot at it. Rather than boasting of his success, he confessed to his failures – and created a powerful narrative that his western suburbs “battlers” passionately identified with.

“I was very fortunate in that I had no money to advertise, so I learned all about marketing yourself – this was by default, not a plan – but because my story was so controversial and it was what consumers wanted, it worked,” Symond told Peter Switzer in The Australian.

Your story must have a point

When you have a good story it becomes the basis of your PR, delivering free advertising and endless word-of-mouth. But no matter how well you tell your story, there is one fundamental ingredient: it must be built around an insight.

As Steve Martin says to John Candy, “the shower curtain ring guy”, in the film Planes, Trains & Automobiles:

“I mean, didn’t you notice on the plane when you started talking [about shower curtain rings] eventually I started reading the vomit bag? … You know, everything is not an anecdote. You have to discriminate … And by the way, when you’re telling these little stories? Here’s a good idea – have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!”

The point of your story must be absolutely fundamental to why you have started your enterprise – that becomes your narrative. Ideally, you should be able to express it in one sentence. The essence of the Hogan ads was captured in five words: “Foster’s. The Australian for lager.” 
Similarly, John Symond’s passion for his home loans venture was neatly summed up by his catchphrase: “At Aussie, we’ll save you.”

Telling stories can be extremely effective. But only if there’s a point.

Expert tips

Katie McMurray owns KatieMac Publicity, which specialises in public profiles for business owners:

  1. Public profile and media coverage build a business’s reputation and credibility. But before you mass email hundreds of media outlets with the same message; stop, look, listen and read.  
  2. Play to your strengths. You’ve probably noticed your favourite trade magazines and websites report on national and international market trends as well as remarkable people in the industry. Mainstream media have a broader audience, so they’re looking for businesses that punch above their weight or do things differently. If you don’t stand out in your industry, you won’t stand out for media either.
  3. The ‘hard sell’ doesn’t work. Editors aren’t interested in your services and products per se. They want an edge or angle nobody else has said. You need to be thoughtful, topical and intelligent when speaking to media. Spruiking is out. Refer to industry or demographic trends instead. 
  4. Choose your targets carefully. Media campaigning is not a mass emailing exercise. Your own well researched list of five names will be more productive than a bought list of one thousand. Look up the media outlet or person you’re targeting. Take the time; just as you would in researching a prospective client. 
  5. Stay focused. Like anything in business you can take short cuts or do it well. Media coverage will stand your business in good stead for a long time. It’s worth doing well.

Valerie Khoo is an expert content marketer and author of Power Stories: The 8 Stories You Must Tell to Build an Epic Business:

  1. To position yourself as the ‘go to’ person for your category, you need a smart content marketing strategy that showcases your expertise and selling points. 
  2. Tell the right stories. When it comes to converting customers, the most powerful stories you can tell are often about other customers. But remember, let them do the talking. Don’t be seduced into raving on about how great your product/service is. Focus on letting your customer explain what their life was like before working with you, and then describe how different it is now. Everyone loves a ‘transformation story’ so invest the time to discover and document your customers’ stories. 
  3. Be useful, often. Think of the questions most asked by your target customers — and answer them. Provide useful information on issues that customers are most concerned about. Don’t think of this as giving away your intellectual property. Position yourself as an expert and build trust with people so that you’re top of mind when they’re ready to buy.
  4. Share your content. Social media and online publishing platforms are ideal for sharing your content because they offer a free or low-cost way to share information. If people find your content useful, they’ll share it with their friends. However, don’t treat this as a one-way broadcast. Engage in conversation, show that you’re not just out to promote yourself and, if you want to develop a loyal following, treat people with the same respect that you would in real life.

Michelle Gamble is ‘chief angel’ of Marketing Angels, a national marketing consultancy helping businesses build strong brands:

  1. Building a story around your brand will differentiate you and engage people. Stories can drive sales, attract great staff, and generate word-of-mouth.
  2. Build the foundations first. Why did you start your business and what sparked your idea? How was the business created if it wasn’t by you? What are you passionate about? What differences do your products and services make to people’s lives? Include quirky or interesting facts — they don’t have to be business related (can you juggle, are you a karaoke star?) — to give you a human face and make people relate to your brand.
  3. Share your achievements. Mention awards or major achievements as well as key metrics that support the difference your product or service makes. Include information on any charities or community programs you support that align with your values and purpose. And don’t forget testimonials that support your brand story.
  4. Get creative. Your story needs to be engaging and so should the way you present it. Consider video (but not the boring talking head kind), infographics or illustrations. 
  5. Share your story. Don’t bury your story on your website — build it into your branding and customer experience including your tagline, premises (try wall decals), packaging and any signage (including vehicles). Call the website section ‘Our story’ rather than ‘About us.’

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