The magic of strategic storytelling

Everyone’s phones are filled with apps that give you avenues to communicate with them.

Photos by Susan Markgraf

Storytelling has always been used to impart news and information. Like a primitive form of MapQuest, our earliest ancestors relied on cave art for hunting and trade routes. They used it to report on the weather, food and crops, trees and plants, arts and entertainment and even pollinators and honey gathering.

Though the format has changed, the mechanics are as old as time and as current as today. A story told well still has the power to inform, educate, motivate, persuade and entertain. It still has a message, and it always begins with intention.

Like a good outline, strategic storytelling for business is the framework on which brand narratives are formed. This framework articulates the brand’s reason for being. It outlines the company’s business goals and objectives and targets the audience it desires to reach.

Navigating oceans of outlets

The human need to communicate drives every aspect of our lives. Merriam-Webster defines communication as a “process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs or behaviors.”

Photographs are persuasive communications tools because they provide details and elicit emotions in ways words often cannot. More than half the human cortex is devoted to processing visual information. Facebook, which relies heavily on photos and videos to deliver business messaging, is the No. 1 social media outlet with 2.9 billion users per month.

Today, we have general and specialized communications for everything from the weather, food and crops, trees and plants, arts and entertainment to even pollinators and honey gathering. Our audiences are just as vast, such as consumers and industry, customers and media, and staff, partners and investors.

In addition to the ocean of social media outlets (each with its own science that puts strategy behind posting), we have local television news, cable news, local and national radio, satellite radio, trade and consumer magazines, e-newsletters, digital newspapers and all kinds of advertising. To make business communication even more challenging, all of these outlets require the “right” message for the “right” venue. Whew. Our capacity for communications is stressed, overwhelmed and terribly cluttered. If you aren’t telling your business story strategically you may be paddling a canoe in the wrong direction.

Walk the talk

In 1964, Canadian educator and theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “the medium is the message.” His theory was that electronic communications like radio, television, film and computers would have far-reaching sociological, aesthetic and philosophical consequences — to the point of altering the ways in which we experience the world.

McLuhan died in 1980, so he didn’t live long enough to see just how right he was. With respect, I’ll expand on his statement a bit: “Strategic storytelling delivers the right intention through the right message using the right medium.”

Telling your business story strategically begins by identifying and clearly stating your company’s values and brand promise, then delivering on those beliefs through custom messaging that translates into programs and activities. Because unanimous buy-in about brand messaging at all levels of the company is imperative to “walk the talk,” include all team members in the discovery process, especially those who have a stake in the company’s internal and external communications. Every employee — whether public facing or working behind the scenes — is an ambassador of the brand.

Your brand is not your logo

As business leaders, we tend to think a lot with our heads. But heart, passion and empathy are important components of the leadership mix and your company’s messaging.

Early last year, Forbes published an article stating that practicing empathy and developing an empathy-driven work atmosphere can create the high-productivity culture that is needed to thrive in the post-pandemic era. This applies to selling and customer service, of course, and to the relationship that your customers have with your brand.

Your brand is not your logo. It is the emotional and psychological relationship that your customers, partners and target audiences have with your company. You define your company’s brand relationship every day and over time by the consistent behaviors you use while doing business.

Your brand’s strategic story develops through four elements.

Brand promise – The value and experience customers can expect to receive from you every single time they interact with your business is its brand promise. It has heart and is transactional, as well as timeless in its constancy.

Vision – Your brand’s vision is forward-thinking and expresses its passion or intention for the future. It is motivating. It drives you to get up, slap the alarm and go to work every morning.

Mission – Your company’s mission is its purpose or reason for being in the marketplace, whether that marketplace is local, regional or national. It is the “how” and “why” — how your business contributes to the growth, education and enrichment of people and why it aims to do so.

Core messages – Custom tools for communicating your company’s brand promise are core messages that often fall under umbrellas like “education,” “programs” and “activities.” Core messages provide value-added components. Think about the experience you want your customers and end-users to have with your business and its products.

Craft your business’ story in a way that communicates who you are.

Once upon a time

Once you’ve got your messages down, list all the communication channels you may already be using to reach your customers and desired audiences about your brand’s work. Note their varied formats, content and personalities. Are you using the right outlets in the right way to deliver your core messages?

Here are some examples:

Media – local and national consumer and trade magazines, newspapers, talk radio, podcasts, television news

Social media – static or story posts, reels and videos on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok; professional groups and business posts on LinkedIn; videos on YouTube

Email marketing – Mailchimp, Constant Contact, HubSpot

Company website – blogs, seasonal plants and plant facts, DIY tips, e-commerce

Grassroots – influencer support through product placement, garden writers, community newsletters, extension services

Core messages are common threads that weave together the spirit of your brand’s messaging to tell its diverse stories in targeted ways. Core messages about brand experience, inspiration and education are story threads that are relevant to your business. Every link in the chain of our industry has relevant experiences to offer customers.

Every aspect of our industry is inspiring. Every part of it is educational. Education is the best thread we have as an industry for telling brand stories. Strategic storytelling steps in to provide motivation. Crafted stories about “how” you do something may be meaningful to the end result (and to the sales it generates).

Centered on benefits, core messages around education may include hardy and low-maintenance plants, human health and wellness, environmental protection and pollinator well-being. Experience, inspiration, education and motivation are all threads from which brand stories arise. Strategic storytelling is then much more impactful than “promoting” or “selling” because it uses the friendly back-door approach to delivering a brand promise. “Selling” is shouting. “Promoting” isn’t convincing.

Polish your stars

Internal “stars” are team members who embody your company’s brand promise. Every business has them. This star isn’t always the owner. They excel at selling and customer service and customers seek them out because they have a positive mental attitude, empathy and a can-do spirit. People like them. Brand “stars” have strong horticultural knowledge that build trust and a skill set that inspires others. They are the team members to train on your messaging and put front-and-center as brand ambassadors in your public communications. People want to know people, not logos.

Start at the beginning

The journey from framework to delivering your core messages strategically can be overwhelming, for sure. Strategic storytelling is a thoughtful approach to growing your business and, like plants, it takes time, patience and nurturing for the roots to grow.

But people have always loved a good story and the story is still the story. The format may change, but telling your business stories strategically will always start at the beginning with intention and a message that resonates.

Susan Markgraf is a reporter, editor and journalist with more than 30 years’ experience in horticulture and agriculture communications. She is founder and president of GreenMark Media.