Richard Branson On Storytelling That Sparks Ideas And Build Brands
March is storytelling month on Virgin.com. All month, Virgin and its founder Richard Branson have been sharing articles and insights on the power of storytelling as a leadership tool to build brands, motivate employees and inspire customers.
“I have always loved stories. Ever since I started in business with Student Magazine, I have been fascinated by the intersection between storytelling and entrepreneurship,” writes Branson. “ Entrepreneurs who make a difference are, in effect, professional storytellers. ”
Branson says the Virgin story—its ups, downs, opportunities and challenges—is what attracts people to its products and services, as well as attracting employees to join the Virgin family. “We would be nothing without our story.”
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For example, in one post Branson writes about “The inspirational Paul Polman, Unilever’s CEO.” Polman believes that storytelling is a key to engaging employees to rally around a higher purpose. Unilever receives an astounding 2 million applications a year. Polman once told The Guardian newspaper that the company is a big draw because it tells a story of purpose that employees want to play a role in telling. “Putting purpose at the center of everything the corporation does is incredibly motivating for our employees,” Polman said.
Polman launched a “Sustainable Living Plan” that covers Unilever’s brands (Dove, Persil, Bertolli, Flora) in all of the 180 countries where the company does business. The plan’s purpose is to cut the company’s environmental footprint by half in the next decade. Polman uses stories to promote the vision. According to Polman, "The real breakthrough is feeling it… not just in the head but also in the heart and we do a lot of storytelling around that. Every country I visit, I go to consumers and retailers to look at the impact of our products, the contribution our products make to society. People rally to this.”
Richard Branson also credits former U.S. vice president Al Gore as another leader who inspired him. During one of my interviews with Branson, he told me that Gore once gave him a private presentation on climate change (a slideshow that later became An Inconvenient Truth). Branson said the first time he saw the presentation, it influenced him to become a “campaigner for the environment.” It’s easy to forget that An Inconvenient Truth started as a presentation developed using Apple Keynote software. The presentation was so compelling, it convinced a producer to turn it into a documentary. It reflects the power of story to change minds and spark action.
Branson says that evenings at his home on Necker Island often end with storytelling. His friends, family or Virgin team sit around a campfire and tell stories, an ancient ritual that goes back hundreds of thousands of years. “Telling a story is one of the best ways we have of coming up with new ideas, and also of learning about each other and our world,” writes Branson.
Branson says it’s easier now to be a storytelling entrepreneur or brand leader than at any other time in history. “Thanks to technology platforms and social media, there are so many more ways to connect to people,” he says. “I used to rely on creating a splash and making the front pages to launch our companies and promotions. Now, while the written press is still important, there are a multitude of other methods for reaching potential customers.”
Storytelling, says Branson, is a great way to get your point of across, differentiate your brand, and work out new ideas. “Today, if you want to succeed as an entrepreneur you also have to be a storyteller,” according to Branson. “It’s one of the reasons I blog so much.”
Are you storytelling? Blogs, presentations, and social media are all 21st century tools to practice a habit that’s as old as civilization itself—telling stories to inform, persuade and ignite imaginations. It works for Richard Branson. It might work for you.