view video from the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars tasting room
I recently had the opportunity to spend time with San Francisco 49ers football legend Dwight Clark. “It’s funny, Carmine. I caught five hundred and six passes in my career with the Niners, but everyone wants to hear the story of ‘The Catch,’” Clark told me.
The Catch has it’s own Wikipedia entry. It’s one of the most famous plays in professional football history. When Clark caught Joe Montana’s pass in the NFC conference championship on January 10, 1982, it sent the 49ers to the Super Bowl, which they won. The team went on to dominate the 80s with four Super Bowl victories.
Clark now sketches out the play as his signature on autographed footballs. Dwight Clark is an individual, but also a brand. The Catch is his signature story.
What’s your signature story? Every person has one. Every company, startup or brand has one, too.
“Signature stories represent a critical asset that can be leveraged over time and which can provide inspiration and direction both inside and outside the firm,” write David and Jennifer Aaker, marketing professors at the Berkeley-Hass School of Business, and the Graduate School of Business at Stanford. “Signature stories are a powerful way to gain awareness, communicate, persuade, change behavior, and precipitate discussion. They are almost always far more efficient and impactful than simply communicating facts or features.”
In a paper about signature stories, the Aaker’s use the following example:
“A Nordstrom customer in the mid-1970s walked into the Fairbanks, Alaska, store and asked to ‘return’ two worn snow tires. It was an awkward moment. Nordstrom, which had evolved from a shoe store to a department store, had never sold tires (although another company once did at this store’s site). Despite that fact, the salesperson that had been on the job only a few weeks, relying on a customer-first culture supported by a generous return policy, had no doubt what to do. He promptly took back the snow tires and refunded what the customer said he had paid.”
Nordstrom is known for its generous return policy, and it empowers employees to make the right decisions for its customers. Nordstrom leaders—as well as executives in many companies such as Nike, Accenture, KPMG, Southwest, and others—use stories to reinforce the values of their company cultures. Memos, emails, PowerPoint slides, or binders full of training material cannot replace a compelling signature story.
David and Jennifer Aaker say an impactful signature story includes the following elements:
1. It’s a story. A signature story is just that—a narrative with a beginning, middle and end (a resolution).
2. It’s intriguing. According to the Aakers, an intriguing story is “thought-provoking, novel, informative, interesting, entertaining.”
3. It’s authentic. The characters, settings and challenges must feel real. A story that doesn’t ring true will be perceived as fiction and may harm the speaker’s credibility.
4. It includes details. Small, vivid or important details enhance the authenticity of the story.
5. It reveals a surprise. In a movie, this is the twist. It’s the M. Night Shyamalan moment when the audience says, Whoa, I didn’t see that coming.
6. It introduces empathetic characters. The listeners should be able to see themselves in the shoes—or context—of the hero.
7. It has conflict and tension. This is the stuff all great narratives are made of. If there’s no struggle or conflict, it makes for an uninteresting story. An empathetic hero overcoming a meaningful hurdle—and succeeding in the end—is irresistible.
Incorporating these seven elements in a story is not as daunting as it might appear. They can be checked off in one or two words. For example, I’m a fan of the California wine industry because it’s full of stories and storytellers—mavericks, pioneers, and entrepreneurs who are passionate and creative. Wine and storytelling pair perfectly. Here’s a signature story from the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley, California. The elements of a signature story are in brackets.
In 1976, a blind wine tasting was in held in Paris. At the time, it was inconceivable to most international wine critics that a California wine could beat—or even match—the quality of French wines [details, intriguing].
Because it was ‘blind,’ the judges didn’t know what they were tasting. The scores were tallied [tension builds]. To everyone’s shock, a bottle of the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa won the first prize [surprise, twist].
Some of the judges couldn’t believe it. They were furious. They thought they had been tricked. They demanded to see their scorecards [conflict]. The event may have been buried and lost to history if it had not been for a TIME magazine reporter in attendance [twist]. George Taber was the only journalist to show up for the contest because ‘everyone knew French wines were going to win, so why bother?’ [details]. Taber wrote a short story about the shocking results. The event—known as The Judgment of Paris—brought international recognition to the winery, its pioneers and to Napa Valley, helping it attain its status as a world-class wine region. [empathetic characters and a full story with a beginning, middle and happy ending].
The story (which I built from the facts of the event) can be delivered in about 60 seconds. One of the challenges with storytelling is keeping the audience’s attention without putting them to sleep with a long, ponderous story. Details are vital, but it takes practice and feedback to keep your stories compelling and brief.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars trains its team members to tell the story. The company also redesigned its tasting room as a visual complement to the story. The room has a storywall with key dates, bottles of the award-winning wine, the actual scorecards from the Paris tasting and the TIME magazine article, among other items. Clearly, not every story will have a room to go with it. If you’re telling a story in a presentation, simply include photos or videos to complement the narrative.
A signature story will help you, your product or your brand stand out. It’s a differentiator because no two brands share the same story. What’s yours?