Sell Stories Not Stuff, Feelings Not Features

Your customers value the fortune much more than the cookie.

The cookie in your business is the commodity. It represents the physical, tangible assets that can be imitated, replicated, copied and shipped at a lower price. 

Your fortune is intangible and hard to duplicate. It's the meaning, experiences, stories and feelings that we associate with your product or service. 

In the Kickstarter economy, the story matters much more than the stuff. 

Bernadette Jiwa says, "in the 'needless' economy, the job of the innovator isn't to make something new; it's to make something that matters." Something we associate meaning with.

In western societies, we place an incredible amount of value on the fortune. 

We don't pay Starbucks for the commodity, we pay for the experience. We probably drove by two Dunkin' Donuts and an Einsteins just to get it.

GoPro didn't re-invent the camera, they recreated the experiences we create with the camera. Before the GoPro, it was difficult to simultaneously capture and experience life's great moments. 

Now others can experience those great moments through the lenses of the person capturing them. 

Selling the story not the stuff, the feeling not the feature, is more important than ever and we want to help you become master storytellers.

As part of our Greatest Innovators Series, we take a look at how two of the greatest innovators (whose paths eventually connect) used storytelling to topple giants and dominate their industries.

But first, we give an in-depth explanation on the importance of storytelling and share a proven template for telling a clear and compelling story to your audience.

If you like what you read, be sure to subscribe to get stories from The Greatest Innovator Series delivered right to your inbox. 

Why are stories so important to us?

Stories are favorable for our existence as humans and have permeated our experiences since the beginning of time.

In Lisa Cron's book, Wired For Story, she says that story was more crucial to our evolution than the opposable thumb. 

Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to. Story is what enabled us to imagine what might happen in the future, and so prepare for it—a feat no other species can lay claim to, opposable thumbs or not. 

We wouldn't have survived long if we had mistaken the ruffling in the bushes as the wind instead of a lion, or confused the bump floating on the water as a log instead of a crocodile... we would've been lunch.

On the highways of our brain, 95% of our thought traffic (roughly 10,450,000 pieces of information per second) can be labeled as subconscious, the other 5%, conscious.

Our senses, like sophisticated traffic cameras, are surveying all that information to flag any traffic that has not paid the "survivor toll". If the toll isn't paid, then those subconscious thoughts enter the conscious parts of our brain, which determine whether you give something your full attention or you keep daydreaming. 

Your brain and every other organism on this planet have one main goal: to survive.

The brain is a master investigator that is always asking: 

  • Does this matter? 
  • If so, why?
  • What should I do about it next?

The brain only operates in one mode: efficiency mode.

It is always trying to answer those three questions as efficiently as possible, using the least amount of resources. 

Remember its main goal is survival.

The brain creates mental shortcuts for itself. It navigates a mental memory bank and yanks out the right information on a need-to-know basis. 

One of the ways that we navigate complex situations and information, while expending the least amount of energy, is through story. 

Stories allow us to perceive and process new concepts without having to pay the physical price of actually experiencing them. 

That's why we naturally and intuitively latch onto a well-told story. We feel what the protagonist feels. Our body is simulating the events that play out and it's almost as if we were experiencing it ourselves. 


In his book, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio says this:

The problem of how to make all this wisdom understandable, transmissible, persuasive, enforceable—in a word, of how to make it stick—was faced and a solution found. Storytelling was the solution—storytelling is something brains do, naturally and implicitly... It should be no surprise that it pervades the entire fabric of human societies and cultures.

In the book, How The Mind Works, Harvard professor and scientist Steven Pinker explains it like this:

Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother? If my hapless older brother got no respect in the family, are the circumstances that might lead him to betray me. What's the worst that could happen if I were seduced by a client while my wife and daughter were away for the weekend?... The answers are to be found in any bookstore or any video store. The cliche that life imitates art is true because the function of some kids of art is for life to imitate it.

Hopefully, it is clear why we have been hardwired to crave stories. But knowing why we crave them still doesn't help us use them effectively to become a great innovator.

Let's face it, we have a hard time articulating why we crave great stories. When asked why we love a particular one, we say something like "I just do".  This leads us to believe that great stories just happen... they don't. There is a structure that is consistent across all of the great ones that we love and we will share it with you.

Are you making noise or music?

One of my favorite authors, Donald Miller, helps businesses grow through clarifying their messaging. He says the difference between noise and music is that noise is just a random sequence of sounds and music is sound that is filtered through rules. 

Stories are like sounds. They can take on an infinite variety of expressions, but if the rules are broken, we notice instantly and become disinterested or even annoyed very quickly. 

Stories are random events filtered through rules. When they are structured improperly, we have a hard time engaging with them.

When you look throughout all of literature, there is only one story.

According to Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories every narrative conforms to one of these seven plots:

1. Overcoming the Monster — The Hunger Games

2. Rags to Riches — Cinderella

3. The Quest — The Lord of the Rings

4. Voyage and Return — Finding Nemo

5. Comedy — A Midsummer Night's Dream

6. Tragedy — Breaking Bad

7. Rebirth — Despicable Me

Although there are seven main story plots, Donald Miller, and others argue that there is one universally set story structure hardwired into our brains.

Miller even argues that Donald Trump's campaign is resonating so well because he is telling a clear story. You can connect with a well-told story even if it seems ridiculous or unbelievable. Our brains don't care. 

Here is the universal story plot that we have learned to expect and connect with. 

For one reason or another, it is this structure that resonates with us so deeply. You can probably plug most of your favorite movies and dramas into this formula and reproduce the events in the movie on a timeline. 

Great innovators know these secrets and employ stories as a tactic to invite their audience into a story that they already to believe to be true. 

Average performers use stories as well. 

But they don't seem to resonate as deeply as the great innovators' because they realize one subtle but important difference: their audience is the hero and they are the guide.

Average innovators talk about themselves or their company as the hero.

The hero (your audience) is the one who must take action, not you. 

A good guide understands the conflict that their hero is engaged in and offers them an alternative plan for dealing with it. 

According to Miller, there are multiple facets of conflict in every story ... internal (fear or doubt), external (villain or enemy) and philosophical (a larger existential problem in the world)

We must call our audience out of their fear, and offer them a plan. Only then, can they connect with the story we're telling them. Only then, will they be able to experience success or failure.

Not all cinematic movies end successfully for the hero, but that is usually the goal for great innovators in the business context.

They are selling a vision of a better future that is made possible by following them or using their product or service. 

We have come to expect such incredible quality from anyone that competes in today's marketplace.

Technology gives everyone a platform to spread a message and it also allows small teams to create complex products with limited resources.

We can now source goods and supplies from anywhere in the world at the click of a button.

But that doesn't matter.  What separates the goods from the greats, is the story. 

Two of the greatest innovators of our time have used storytelling to win our trust, loyalty, money while creating the most beloved brands in the world.  

We put their brand storytelling through this framework. 

Learn how to harness the power of storytelling to outperform your peers and become a great innovator.  

I'm the man, I'm the man, I'm the man...

You would be hard pressed to walk into a gymnasium or field and not spot a pair of Beats headphones around. They have become a household brand name and  have taken the music industry by storm.

On November 24, 2013, Beats by Dre launched it's "Hear What You Want" campaign.

It changed our perception on high-end headphones from nice to have products to  must haves. In the process they also made Aloe Blacc a household name and had us all singing "I'm the man, I'm the man, I'm the man"...

Aloe Blacc's own record label wouldn't help him promote the song on the radio but the song became the No.1 record on iTunes, thanks to Beats.

For years, the headphone market has been dominated by  entrenched players like Bose, JBL, and Sennheiser, who tout "high-quality", "superior technology backed by research", and high-performance sound as reasons you should buy their products. 

Your customers don't care about your stuff. They want to be immersed in a movement ... in an experience ... in a story. 

Being a former athlete, I have used Beats and Bose headphones and I personally believe the Bose headphones sound better than Beats.

But that's not why we buy things is it? 

Bose, JBL, and Sennheiser all made the mistake as positioning themselves and their products as the hero instead of the customer. 

Beats didn't come to control over 70% of the headphone market by selling stuff or features, they did it through selling stories and feelings. In fact, they sold half a billion in products without paying for one ad.

Here is the Kevin Garnett spot that launched their famous campaign, framed through the universal understood story structure. 

A Hero

Kevin Garnett is the hero in this story, but Kevin Garnett is supposed to represent their target market - the icons, creators, movers, shakers and makers who have something to prove to the world and their naysayers. 


With A Conflict

External Conflict - there is always someone who will say that you don't have what it takes to accomplish your goals and dreams. They are represented by the raging crowds.

Internal Conflict - KG is probably thinking the same things in his head that the people are screaming. Am I too old for this? Should I quit? Do I have what it takes to succeed?  

Philosophical Conflict - Can the underdog succeed with all of these forces and factors working against them?


Who Meets A Guide

The guide is the beautiful pair of Beats Headphones dawned around his neck. They purposefully position the headphones as Kevin's sidekick or an extension to his person.

Regardless of whether he is at home reading a newspaper and listening to a show on ESPN or heading into the stadium before the big game, Beats is there for him. 


Who Offers A Plan

Hear what you want to hear. You can control it. Cancel out all of the noise that may be screaming at you, telling you that you don't have what it takes. You can be inspired by a beautiful sound even in the face of adversity. 


Success or Failure? 

Once Kevin passes through all of the raging fans, he cracks a smile, as if to say, "I made it through". As he steps onto the big stage, in his case the court, he's loose and ready to face the challenge. 

The spot ends with them mentioning the adaptive noise canceling feature of their product for one second. 


In 1953, IBM shipped and sold it's first commercially successful computer the Model 701. Also known as the "Defense Contractor"

The initial price to rent the beast was $15,000... A MONTH! By the 1970's IBM was handedly dominating the computer market, employing thousands, spending millions on marketing and raking in billions in sales. 

Who could challenge Goliath in the computer market? 

Two opportunistic computer geeks huddled in a suburban garage name Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. In 1977, they would launch what is now the world's largest and most lovable company — Apple Computers. They had a vision of bringing personal computers to the masses. But in the beginning, times were hard and they weren't gaining much traction. 

During the late 70's and early 80's, the computer market was fiercely competitive with Dell, Hewelett-Packard, Gateway and most notably Microsoft all vying for attention. But even with all of the competition, IBM was still the leader. 

In 1983, IBM was selling three times the number of personal computers as Apple. 

Apple needed a way to break through the clutter.

On January 24th, 1984, the ambitious computer startup used a story to send a prophetic message at the 40 billion dollar giant leading their market.

Ad Age called it "the greatest commercial of all time".

1984 was a symbolic year, described in George Orwell's novel 1984, where people lived in conformity under the rule of Big Brother. 

The context set the stage for one of the most power brand stories of all time, that eventually built the greatest company in the world. 

Here is the commercial mapped through the universal story structure.  

A Hero

The heroes in this story are the men and women marching in unison, in what seems to be a totalitarian society. They are listening to this speech: 

Today, we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives. We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology—where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests purveying contradictory truths. Our Unification of Thoughts is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on earth. We are one people, with one will, one resolve, one cause. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death, and we will bury them with their own confusion. We shall prevail!

With A Conflict

External Conflict - the villian in the story is clearly Big Brother (IBM), who seeks to dominate the PC Market while requiring complete subservience to them.

Internal Conflict - she probably has several thoughts running through her head. What will happen if I get caught? What will the future look like if I don't succeed? 

Philosophical Conflict - Can the non-conformist succeed against a larger and more powerful opponent? Should I conform to the norm or assert my own originality? 

Who Meets A Guide

The guide in this commercial is the Mac. The Mac is portrayed as the underdog who is a young, agile, athlete (played by Anya Major). She has a drawing of the MacIntosh on her tank top. 


Who Offers A Plan

Don't conform! Throw a sledgehammer to the rhetoric that Big Brother wants you to believe. Decide - do you want to live under some else's rule? Or do you want to follow us?

"On January 24th Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’"

Success or Failure? 

In an exhilarating moment, when the runner heaved the hammer at the screen, right as Big Brother says, "we shall prevail", it was clear that she succeeded in awakening the heroes as the screen exploded. Their mouths were open and they were astonished.

In a not-so-ironic twist of events, Apple announced that it agreed to acquire Beats Music and Beats Electronics for $3 billion on May 28th, 2014.

The two companies are hoping to create the most innovative music products and services in the world. 

I would imagine that their story together will turn out to be a success. 

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

The inspiration for this case studies came while reading Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas, which quickly became my favorite book. I believe that it's one of the best books on innovation ever written. 

John Pollack — a former Presidential Speechwriter for Bill Clinton, and winner of the world pun championship — unpacks some of the greatest innovations throughout human history and explains how analogies fueled them all.

My fascination on the topic of story came from Donald Miller. I went to his Storyline Conference and became fascinated by his Storybrand framework

I have become obsessed with the witty and quick punch lines of Bernadette Jiwa, who is BY FAR my favorite marketer and one of the bests on the planet.


Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools you can use to connect with your audience. 

Some of the greatest innovators stand above their competition because they sell stories not stuff, feelings not features.

The great innovators we featured today have large budgets and huge brands but they didn't always have those two things. 

There are a bunch of free and low cost tools that can give you a platform and help you amplify your messaging but that is not what is most important. 

You need a clear message that people can engage with and we have given you the template. 

We are trying to eat our dog food with The Greatest Innovators Series. 

You are the hero. We know that every time you read a great article on LinkedIn, Medium, Inc... or whatever platform you choose, you are wondering, 'how did that brand or that leader become so great at what they do?'

What is the conflict? With everyone offering so much advice and thought leadership, people don't know which content they should follow through with and adopt as a source of truth.

This series is the guide. We know your pain and struggle with the same questions as you. 

What's the plan? We're going to dig deep to share powerful truths in a new and interesting way. We want to create something that cuts through the noise and provides the truths you are looking for. 

Success or failure? That's up to you. Employ these tactics and we are certain you will see more success on your journey to becoming a great innovator.

Go make music. Go tell stories. Good luck!

If you enjoyed today's post, be sure to subscribe to our Greatest Innovators Series. Thanks!

What are some of your favorite examples of brand storytelling?