Telling the Story of Retail Products

I recently stopped by the Elliot Bay Book Store in Seattle and was impressed with the amount of personal reviews their team had hand-written for book titles. I ended up picking up a lot more books than I would have at a regular book store where I would browse covers or spines of books. In this era of fake internet product reviews, it was refreshing to see a handwritten review from someone who read the text… additionally some of the reviews got a good chuckle out of me (see below). Could this well executed strategy of telling stories about products be applied to more than just a bookstore?

“Nazi’s on Drugs. Makes a lot of sense, actually”

Stories as old as the stars

As humans, we love stories. They help to connect us to one another, they help us learn things faster, and they form our understanding of how we perceive the world around us.  Prior to the invention of written language, knowledge was passed down from generation to generation by orators in the form of stories and fables.

Not only have stories been influential in how we learn, they have also been used to define how we behave and the actions that we take. Religious texts such as the Bible or Quran have been used to guide people’s actions and foundational beliefs. When we think about engaging and connecting with consumers of our product, we need to spend less time talking about product features and more time telling the stories of the products to engage and connect with our buyers.

Why do customers care about the story of your product

“ There’s gonna be another cat coming out, looking like me, soundin’ like me next year… I know this. There will be be a flipside of what you did; Somebody’s trying to spin-off something serious.” – Cypress Hill

If a product becomes successful, there will soon be entrants into the market that seek to copy the success of that product. If there are enough similar products in the market, and products are only able to compete on price, the products become known as a “commodity”. The purpose of Marketing and Branding is to differentiate your product in a commodity market to allow you to charge a price premium over your competition, thereby yielding a higher profit margin on each sale of your product.

Marketing departments have successfully been able to differentiate products by creating brand awareness with stories. Some of the more common types of stories about products include:

  • Product Spokesman Story – Inspirational or experiential stories about people who use the product.
  • User Experience Story – The sharing of the experience or sensations derived from someone who purchased and used the product.
  • Origin Story – The origin where the product came from. Why it was created.
  • Product Maker – Who created the product. The story of the craftsman who created the product or served it to you.
  • Journey Story – The products journey. How the product was delivered to you or the retailer from the far-away or very local origin.
  • Inspirational Story – A story that is not about the product but is designed to just inspire people and evoke emotions of people who see the story.


Examples of Good Storytelling for Products and Brands

When I think about brands that leveraged stories to make us feel an emotional connection to their product there are a few key examples that have stood out in my mind. The following are:


Nike has done great job focusing on the stories of the Athletes that represent the brand. One of the more recent examples was an origin story they did of Serena Williams for the US Open.


Starbucks does a great job focusing it’s storytelling around its employees. This particular example is focused around the questions that their Veteran employees get asked.


Dove does an awesome job focusing on people who use their product. They have create a brand that represents everyday women and shuns the “supermodel” approach that other beauty products focus on.


GoPro has a product that can sell itself based on it’s users experiences. The two story examples that stand out to me are the Danny MacAskill videos (not for the faint of heart) and the Fireman Kitten video.


Apple has focused on threading the story that they make products for the renegades and outsiders that “Think Differently” and do great things.

Johnnie Walker

Johnnie Walker did an excellent job of what i call the “Origin Story”. I have watched this video all the way through multiple times over the last few years.

How to generate stories for your products.

So after watching 1-2 videos above, you decided that you need to generate a story about your products. The next step in your storytelling journey is to figure out what story to tell. The following are a few ground rules I use to guide me when telling a story:

  • Know who your story is for – Don’t try to make a story for everyone. Pick the target audience that is aligned to the demographic you’re are looking to align to your product. Follow the old adage “If you try to please everyone, you will end up pleasing no one”
  • Make it interesting – There are many different types of stories. A story should have a protagonist, some setup, a complication, and a reveal.
  • Have a character – Tell a personal story about a character. Humans love stories about other humans. Pets are good too.
  • Make it relatable – It must be universally understood by your target audience. E.G. If your target audience is the super wealthy, don’t try to tell them a story about going to the grocery store.
  • Make it generate emotions – A story should make you feel something: Anxiety, Fear, Excitement, Happiness, or Sadness. If it doesn’t make you feel something, it is just a report.
  • Avoid Negativity – Try to avoid negativity. Mud-raking is great for getting people out to for a candidate, but being positive makes people want to use your product.
  • Edit brutally – Try to tell a complex story and you will lose everyone. Short, sweet, and to the point. Cut Cut Cut… Anything that is not core to the story needs to go.

If you need help generating stories, the following are some approaches to help you generate the story arc:

  • Get customers to help tell stories – Find your current customers (preferably raving fans). Ask them about their pain points and what they like about your product. Amazon has done a decent job of getting stories in their reviews. The one thing to avoid is the fake review process (currently a problem with Amazon and other sites).
  • Can your vendors / merchants help tell the stories of their products – If you are buying products from someone else to sell, talk with your vendors to learn stories that they have heard about the product.
  • Can the product tell it’s own story – This one sounds silly, but imagine if your product were an animate object. What would it tell you about its origin, its journey, it’s aspirations, and how it hopes to please it’s users.
  • Talk with your employees about their stories – Employees in most companies have great stories about products, but from thier personal usage and second-hand stories from your customers. Get your employees to help tell stories about your products.

How to leverage technology as a medium for telling stories.

As you think about the stories for your products, another important aspect is to consider the medium for how you will tell the story. Per the intro story above, Oral and Written mediums have historically been how we consumed stories. As technology has advanced, the medium for storytelling has changed a lot.

The following are some modern mediums to consider as you identify your product’s story:

  • Product Reviews – Having a good product review process is important. If you can have your experts review products or have honest customers review products, it can help you have some great stories out there.
  • Podcasts – If there are certain podcasts that are heavy for the demographic of your target users, see if you can get some time telling them the story of your product. Alternately, you can place advertisements on many podcast networks.
  • Pictures – I sat behind three young people at a recent sporting event. They spent about 2 hours looking at instagram pics on their phone and about 5 minutes watching the game (mostly to try and capture some instagram-able moments). Can you do product story placements with popular celebs on a picture based social media? Can you put your product into a situation where it will get a lot of pictures related to an event (concert, sporting event, etc)?
  • Video – Video is a great medium for telling stories. Whether you’re creating commercial type videos, product testimonial videos, or just inserting your product into someone else’s video story… consider how it shows in video.
  • AR / VR – My favorite recent AR experience is the Chiquita banana “Behind the Blue Sticker” campaign. You point your phone at your banana and it opens up into the origin story for the bananas (grower, pickers, sorters, shippers).

Conclusion: Just do it…

Whether you are a retailer or a product owner, you need to be thinking about how to differentiate your product from the rest of the market. Storytelling can be a cost effective approach to setting your products apart. Take the time to go the extra mile to create engagement from one of the oldest aspects of human communication.