Here’s a B2C story that makes a B2B point.

In 1997, Apple had a miniscule market share and was teetering on the brink of irrelevancy.

Meanwhile, the Chiat\Day ad agency was soaring.

They’d just won “agency of the year” honors and were landing major accounts, sometimes without having to pitch clients.

Steve Jobs, who’d returned to Apple the year before, got in touch with Lee Clow, the head of the Los Angeles office of TBWA\Chiat\Day.

Prior to its merger with TBWA, Chiat\Day had worked with Apple and Jobs in the 80s. (They created the iconic “1984” commercial, directed by Ridley Scott). Clow very much wanted to win the Apple account back.

The “Think Different” story

He figured Jobs would hand it to him.

Clow and copywriter Rob Siltanen flew up to Cupertino to meet with Jobs. On the flight, Clow told Siltanen that if the agency was asked to pitch the job, they’d decline.

Jobs asked Clow to pitch the job.

Clow didn’t decline. He changed his mind on the spot, and told Jobs he’d get back to him with a pitch.

Clow and Siltanen flew back to LA, and sent the agency into overdrive trying to come up with a campaign that would help Apple get its mojo back.

The agency came up with the concept within a week: “Think Different,” with visuals consisting of simple black-and-white photos of iconoclastic artists, explorers, inventors, and activists.

Clow and Siltanen returned to Apple to make the pitch.

They had no backup concepts.

When he heard the pitch, Jobs was excited. “This is great, this is really great,” he said. “But I can’t do this. People already think I’m an egotist.”

Then he paused and said, “Screw it. It’s the right thing.”*

The campaign got people thinking about the brand in a new way, set the media ablaze, and ignited Apple’s ascension.

Here’s the TV commercial that launched the campaign. It tells a story.

Here’s the script:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

The story is universal: A person battles obstacles to create change.

And inside that master story, TBWA\Chiat\Day nested stories that illustrated the theme in microcosm: the stories of Nelson Mandela, Pablo Picasso, Amelia Earhart, and many more.

There’s a correlation between Apple’s success and the successful storytelling of the “Think Different” campaign. Maybe even causation.

Because good marketing is good storytelling.

It’s the story of a business. The story of a product or service. The story about how someone’s life is made better by that business’s product or service. And the way all these stories interweave.

I’m sure a lot of this sounds familiar. These days, you can’t travel more than a few clicks online without stumbling across an article on how business needs to tell stories. This surge in storytelling enthusiasm, however, raises four questions:

1. Why do we need to tell stories?

2. What is a story?

3. How do you tell one?

4. How do you put storytelling into practice in an organization?

I was curious. And although I’ve been a writer and editor for 20 years, I didn’t feel like I had great answers to those questions.

So, a while back, I flew from Seattle down to Los Angeles to attend a storytelling seminar presented by story expert Robert McKee.

By the end of the day, I had answers to the first three questions. Then I spent the subsequent year trying to answer the third one at Yesler.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

Why do we need to tell stories?

Robert McKee is the author of the movie-industry bible “Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting.” He’s also renowned for his three-day screenwriting seminar, which he’s been teaching for more than 30 years. At last check, alumni from the course had won more than 60 Oscars and 200 Emmys. McKee is a force. To get a feel for what he’s like in person, check out this clip from the movie “Adaptation,” where Brian Cox does a dead-on McKee:


In recent years, in addition to leading his “Story” seminar, McKee has also run a business consultancy and taught a “storytelling in business” course called Storynomics.

Here’s the core of McKee’s Storynomics argument:

1. Old-school, interruption-based marketing methods don’t work (no surprise there).

2. We skip ads, don’t see them, or block them.

3. What does work is a compact, precise, and factual purpose-told story—that is, one told to get a prospect to act—because stories fit the way the brain works.

Stories work better than mere appeals to emotion or facts because stories—which are both emotional and factual—reflect the way the mind operates.

Stories encode information with a positive or negative charge (pleasure or pain). They help us forecast outcomes based on previous experiences, letting us know “these berries are safe to eat” and “that large catlike creature with the big teeth is not safe to pet.”

To explain how stories engage the brain, McKee pointed to the work of Princeton scientist Uri Hasson, who says,

Only when we use the full, engaging, coherent story do the responses [of listeners] spread deeper into the brain into higher-order areas, which include the frontal cortex and the parietal cortex, and make all of them respond very similarly. And we believe that these responses in higher-order areas are induced or become similar across listeners because of the meaning conveyed by the speaker, and not by words or sound. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, we are captivated by a story, to a much greater (and empirically verifiable) degree than we are by discrete packets of information, such as individual sounds or words—or arguments, features, and data. (Data is fine, but it has the most impact if you put it in the context of a story.)

Stories, as McKee says, are equipment for living.

What is a story?

For starters, here’s what a story is not: a chronology, hierarchy, list, process, journey, or narrative.

(A narrative is a sequence of things that happened: This happened then this happened then this happened. All stories are narratives; not all narratives are stories.)

A story, then, is a series of dynamic events that progress to bring about change in a human life.

A good story will:

  • Hook our attention.
  • Hold our attention.
  • Reward our attention.
  • Move us to act.
  • Deliver a change in value (typically from negative to positive).
  • Appeal to our curiosity.
  • Deliver surprise.
  • Deliver insight.
  • Move us emotionally via empathy—the recognition of a shared humanity revealed through struggle or adversity.

Here are a few examples of terrific storytelling in action. Just look at how emotional they are.

“Unsung Heroes of Science” (Royal Dutch DSM)

“Real Beauty” (Dove)

“Dream Rangers” (TC Bank)

“Like a Girl” (Always)

It’s true that these stories are 1) mostly B2C; 2) most relevant for the “awareness” stage of the buyer journey; and 3) videos.

In posts 2 and 3, I’ll talk about how I think story structure applies to B2B, different stages of the buyer journey, and text-based assets.

Stay tuned. And if you want to talk about the power of great stories, just get in touch.