In 1999, consultants B. Joseph Pine and James Gilmore told us we had entered a new economy shaped by experiences. More recently, we keep hearing about the need for executives and the brands they oversee to become adept at storytelling.
Frank Rose, a journalist and senior fellow at the Columbia University school of the arts brings those two streams together in a call for us to learn the art of immersion, as his book two years ago was titled, and tap into the thirst for experiences and stories among the consuming public.
"Think in terms of stories and deepening them in ways that can be helpful to your customers, making your company feel part of their lives," he said in an interview.
Managers, engineers and consultants like facts. And facts, he concedes, are useful. But he insists they are not as powerful as stories, which fit the way neuroscientists are finding that we think.
Becoming storytellers may seem foreign to executives – not the way they were taught to lead. But he says it's actually how we experience life. We watch TV and read books. We watch sports, which are stories unfolding during the action on the field. At dinner parties, we swap stories.
But storytelling is only the first step in his immersion approach. Storytelling opens the door for individuals to connect with your brand. People want to merge their identity with something larger – to enter the world the story lives in, sharing and being defined by the story. And you must provide that.
It's easier in a digital age, since we can create virtual realms and other tantalizing technological offerings, but he stresses this is about artistry more than technology. "Storytellers – that's a catch-all term for advertising executives, film directors, novelists and marketing people – have a lot more tools at their disposal than before and can extend stories beyond the page or TV screen into people's lives," he said.
He points to Burberry, the British luxury fashion house that traces back to 1856, which is having striking success in recent years with millennials, thanks to its immersive media approach developed by chief creative officer Christopher Bailey, now also promoted to CEO. He has told the story of the company's heritage in a way that would appeal to younger people today, accentuating the care with which the original materials are sourced and tailored. It's a message of handcrafted items and authenticity. The company built an online environment called Burberry World and then two years later carried that into some flagship stores, starting in Britain's Regent Street.
"Set in an impeccably restored 19th-century retail emporium, the store consciously blurs the digital and the physical, with mirrors that turn into screens, RFID [radio-frequency identification] tags that trigger pop-up videos about craftsmanship, enormous screens that pulse with celebrations of old-fashioned British tailoring, and live shows from the likes of Jake Bugg, a 20-year-old folk singer from the council houses of Nottingham. Music and craft become part of a saga that acts as the fabric of the brand," Mr. Rose writes in the current issue of management magazine Strategy + Business.
Mr. Bailey has said of the Burberry line: "It's not just a coat. That coat has a story." He added: "People want the soul in things. They want to understand the whys and the whats and the values that surround it."
Bloomberg, a financial data and news service, has also immersed people in its story, in this case at the busy London City Airport, where it sponsors a lounge. The usual trick would be to put up some signs about the company. But instead, Bloomberg turned the lounge itself into an ad, with free Wi-Fi and a huge electronic media wall with a digital stock ticker carrying a constant stream of data. So the lounge is an entry into the Bloomberg world of constant, endless information.
"This is a combination of storytelling and utility," Mr. Rose said in the interview. "They are giving something away for free but also branding it so people associate it with Bloomberg. And there is a sense of appreciation amongst people who experience it."
In both examples, the companies are being authentic with their brand. They are not making themselves out to be what they aren't but immersing people in the essence of the brand. Failing to do that is usually the biggest mistake companies make as they edge into this terrain. "What you are doing has to be organic to the brand. It can't feel fake," he declared.
Companies have a tendency to shout, whereas he urges them to try a "conspiratorial whisper," working quietly with the prospect, not brashly trying to rope him or her in. "You can't do the hard sell. People turn off. People want to feel they are in on a secret. They don't want to feel hectored," Mr. Rose said.
But the biggest mistake is to cling to the sense that people want information about your brand. These days, they can easily find that on the Internet but don't trust it in your advertising. Instead, tell stories, drawing them into richer and more powerful immersive experiences.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter