A Look at Winning Marketing and Storytelling in 2013

It’s widely predicted that storytelling will be a major focus for Marketing professionals in 2013 — many of us know that already. What a lot of us are wondering, however, is how we generate stories that captivate consumers when everyone else is competing for the same engagement. I intend to share what I’ve discovered by observation on a Trimet bus that I think could be valuable to businesses this year, appropriately enough, by telling you a story.


I’m a total cubicle-dweller for a living: Marketing, Digital, Social Media, and lots of writing. I think that spending all that time by computers can be really valuable for the information, but taxing for the inspiration. With this in mind, I made a resolution to start taking the bus more often when I moved to my new apartment in NE Portland (just 16 blocks from downtown).

It’s been one of the best decisions I could have made.

After working long hours, a brisk walk through chilly downtown Portland is really refreshing. The crisp air makes me feel invigorated, but the sights are really what gets the gears turning. Anyone looking for new ideas should plant themselves on a Trimet bus and just explore. I believe that social interactions here — anywhere — are key to understanding consumer behaviors. Often, one person’s actions can spark ideas that work for a big business. It just takes a little creativity to scale it.

On the day that I became inspired to write this article, I witnessed an act of kindness that generated great stories about an individual and his business. I believe the following lesson is just one strategy to source great stories. It is by no means the only one.

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The story

A bus full of people comes to a stop on the edge of downtown Portland, Oregon. The familiar glass doors swing open, inviting a line of frozen commuters into the warmth. Some have change ready, while others dig for fare; no one really pays attention to this part because we’re all happy to be sitting (finally).

Feeling repelled by all technology after a long day of cubicle work, I like to look around while I ride the bus. This day, I saw someone unable to pay their fare. From his dress and mannerisms, I gathered he was homeless. It’s impossible to be sure and I hate to judge, but I lived that life once and I know what it looks like. Without fare, people can’t ride the bus — it’s how the business works. I felt for him, though; so, I didn’t want him to have to go back into the cold. As the only person who seemed to notice the goings-on, I reached for my bag to grab some change to help the guy out.

As I dug through my bag, the bus driver started explaining in a rather pointed tone that the unfortunate stranger had to get off the bus if he couldn’t pay. He returned some reasonable excuses that he had lost his cash. The whole thing was sad and I thought the bus driver could have handled his stress a little more gracefully, instead of being so rude to someone in need. Digging, digging, I had nearly uncovered some change to drop into the chute, but someone else beat me to the punch — this awesome stranger.

With rivaling venom, the awesome stranger interjected, “It’s okay. It looks like someone’s having a really bad day and needs to take a time out.” It wasn’t really to the bus driver directly, but I think he got the point. I’ll never forget how he totally put the bus driver in his place before sliding a spare dollar into the bill acceptor, essentially rendering the (evil) bus driver powerless. It felt like a victory for humanity to see the person in need welcomed onto the warm bus. It’s really not something you see everyday.

What I saw next was absolutely beautiful. The two guys from completely opposite backgrounds start chatting up a storm. It was enough to pique anyone’s interest! Especially when the presumably homeless man started rattling off expert get-to-know-you questions, leading to the professional background of the awesome stranger.

It turns out that the awesome stranger who spared a dollar was a barista for a specialty coffee shop downtown. That’s not a really high-paying job. Looking around the bus, I knew there were people grossing 3 or 4 times what the barista made, but it was the one who didn’t make a lot of money that stepped up. Compelling humanity — raw and beautiful. With less to give, a barista had more heart than corporate suits.

After chatting a bit longer, the two men parted. Some time passed, and I heard the homeless guy confirm the name of the coffee shop with a different person. I could tell he wanted to remember that name. Who knows if the two would meet again, but I’m sure the barista will be the subject of many stories, as will his place of work.

Cute stories aside,

One dollar generated word-of-mouth Marketing results comparable to campaigns that cost thousands more.

What made this particular story so compelling?

Forbes Contributor, Phil Johnson, describes three critical components for an effective story in his article, “Not Just for Bedtime, Marketers Corner the Market on Storytelling.”

A story…
1) Must reveal something personal and unknown about the person or brand
2) Must tap into a specific emotion (fear, desire, anger, happiness, etc.)
3) Must take people on a journey with transformation between the beginning, middle, and end

I’m not ready to call that a rule, but I think it’s worth researching what makes an effective story. In any case, it got me thinking about storytelling and word-of-mouth value for brands.

This is what I came up with:

Small acts of kindness can spark valuable storytelling, which is really word-of-mouth Marketing.

In other words, brands can totally be more strategic about how they spend money in the name of Marketing, and they can probably have a lot of impact too. Sure, you can buy spots on the web or in print, but that just puts the brand out there. Without a great story to tell (or to listen to / read from the consumer perspective), it’s less effective.

I leave you with a graphic I found that really illustrates the point for me. “The grass is greener where you water it” — it’s probably an argument for optimism, but to me it also speaks to the aforementioned strategy. If you invest your money (in cash or services) to help the community, it will come back to you. That’s to say, perspective aside — your little patch of grass may *actually* be greener.

Neil Barringham quotes

A quote from Neil Barringham

This post was originally published on the Pathos Digital Marketing blog.

  Discuss This Article

Comments: 6

  • Loved your post Andrew. Thank you for taking the time to weave a good story into it. With so much to read on the Internet, I often never see the names of the authors I read but I had to look yours up; the power of storytelling!!

    • Lisa, I think that really underscores the importance of a good story in conveying your message — whatever that may be. I appreciate your feedback! I’m a very analytical person and I’ve often been told technical writing/strategy are strong points. It was an exciting challenge to tackle something narrative, but I’m glad I did, and it looks like I’ll have to keep it up. Thanks for reading and feel free to reach out on Twitter @AGpdx!

  • Melissa Sircy says:

    Great article Andrew!

  • Solid post and storytelling Andrew. It’s amazing how much a marketer can relate everyday situations to the business world.

    In the case of your story “One (personalized/humanized) dollar generated word-of-mouth Marketing results comparable to campaigns that cost thousands more.

    That is the difference I feel! Congrats on your first blog here on B2C!

    • Jacob, thanks for reading and for the comments. I think it’s hard to see companies spend so much money on Marketing that’s wasteful when compared to this strategic WOM. If you’re anything like me, you’ve even met resistance on Marketing pitches because people are afraid things will turn out like they did before strategy!

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