Story Engineers spin yarns in the service of commerce

You may have seen the commercial – more like a mini documentary, really, about modern womanhood. We see little girls declaring they can do anything, teenage girls learning how to do anything, grown women doing anything: scientists, doctors, lawyers, captains of industry, you name it, their stories all quite believable and touching and empowering. At the end, they spring the pitch: 50 years of Barbie. Villains! They’re manipulating us with stories to sell BARBIES!

If your reaction to this sort of stealth advertising is to want to hurl your kid’s Dream Kitchen through your new Panasonic plasma screen TV, then you might be vaguely disturbed at Todd Babiak’s new gig. The local award-winning novelist has teamed up with journalist-turned-PR man Shawn Ohler to join the new breed of storytelling marketing gurus. Or something. Few proper words can describe what these guys do all day at their new company, called Story Engine: Strategic planners, marketers, branding consultants – “We’re doing a little of all of it,” Babiak says. The core belief here is that human beings are hardwired to remember stories, not slogans, not sales pitches, not empty jargon, but real stories with a beginning, a middle and an end, character, drama, conflict, climax, resolution, denouement – and if all that can be harnessed to help companies sell their stuff, then more power to the Story Engine.

The author of Toby: A Man, the Garneau Block and other novels – and one on the way – believes in what he’s doing so much that he quit his plum job as a star columnist at the Edmonton Journal. Ohler, meanwhile, resigned his position as marketing guy at ATB (after working the same job for ATCO), after an illustrious career as a journalist filling almost every role that can be filled at a daily newspaper. They’re now driving Story Engine full time, just too busy enough with at least 10 paying clients ranging from ATB (natch) to not-for-profit organizations to catering companies. Any company with a story problem – maybe a great story to tell, but a bit foggy how to go about it – is fair game.

They make it sound noble. On being a journalist, Babiak complains, “You’re always that guy who criticizes, or comes up with an idea and walks away. I was becoming more interested in building things, not only creatively – because I’m still writing novels, and writing a play and looking at getting some TV shows going – but also something real. Shawn and I have been choosing our clients carefully. We’re interested in building stuff, in Alberta and in Edmonton.”

A lot of what Babiak and Ohler do is behind the scenes, inside the clients’ companies away from the eyes of the customers – though their work will eventually have a profound effect on customer relations. For a clue to why it’s catching on, just answer the question: Would you rather attend a four-hour strategic branding meeting with co-workers, or would you rather sit around and tell stories with friends? The results can be very powerful, say Story proponents. During a Story Engine test run for Metro Cinema one year ago, tears were reportedly shed as staff members told their personal versions of the tale of their beloved film emporium, at the time struggling with a high-profile move to the Garneau Theatre. These were not the tears of boredom commonly seen among participants in a four-hour strategic branding meeting. People were genuinely moved.

Ohler says, “When Todd and I were leading these really smart people through the process and people were openly crying in the room, we knew we had something.” Of course the Metro Cinema staff are probably more dedicated to their jobs than the average employee at a large financial institution, but the point is made. Story works wonders. If it’s repeatable and memorable, the story will spread and – it is hoped – people will buy what you’re selling.

Metro executive director Marsh Murphy doesn’t hesitate to say that Story Engine ran the best branding/marketing meeting he’s ever attended, “because it was effective, because they were getting input from everyone, and in every case, people put forward their best, and it was real.” And perhaps most importantly, “I remembered what each person said – because everybody told a story.”

Story Engine takes great pains to avoid the sort of buzzwords that make people cry for the wrong reasons – strategic marketing workshops, team building exercises, any corporate stupidity depicted in Dilbert – and while “Story” itself has become just as much a buzzword as any PR jargon, the idea behind it is what’s important.

“People are more likely to retain information when there’s a narrative behind it,” says Colin Babiuk (no relation), chair of the Public Relations program at Grant MacEwan University. “It creates a greater awareness, a greater understanding and obviously it can be used for marketing as well. Story is one of the tools you can use.” He adds that one has to be careful of avoiding negative reactions from storified marketing that doesn’t tell you what’s being sold until you’ve already been hooked on the story – and there goes Malibu Stacy through the window again.

The Mormons are ahead of the game here. They’ve been using stealth marketing for years with their touching family-values commercials which only tell you who they are at the end, but corporate storytelling as a force of branding has only been evident for about five years, Babiuk says. Apple Computers is a classic example: “The ads talk very little about the products themselves. They’re more about the emotions of the people using them,” the professor says. The Story Engineers agree that Apple is a corporate storytelling success story. Contrast that, Ohler says, to the ill-fated Blackberry PlayBook campaign whose commercials went on and on about impressive technical specs than nobody remembered, and in the end, nobody bought. With the Apple story extended to products so user-friendly they practically hump your leg (there’s an app for that), the company is successful because customers can relate to this immense corporation on a human level, even more now since the late Steve Jobs has been enshrined as its guiding spirit.

Scared yet?

There are numerous other little signs that the art of marketing has evolved far beyond the imaginations of the old-time Madison Avenue admen, the sort of clever writers who came up with such gems as “Tastes good just like a cigarette should.” It extends deeply into the music industry, just to use one example. Questions about programming for Edmonton’s Bear radio station are directed not to the program director, but the “brand director.” Rappers and other top-40 artists are branding their own songs within themselves, announcing their names in the lyrics and in one case making the song a self-contained product: My Name Is Kay is the name of the song, the name of the band and the name of the brand. Florida rapper Pitbull suggests we should take a picture of him with a Kodak in his song Everything To Me, and – you guessed it – he’s got a deal with Kodak. And we were so hard on Bob Dylan for letting The Times They Are A-Changin’ be used in a Bank of Montreal commercial. Jesus, is nothing sacred?

Babiak, who as it turns out studied business in university along with English, broaches that very topic, “Think about religion. There were 900 competing stories and one of them was more convincing than all the others, because in the end they had the best story. It connected with people. Those rules are hard wired into our heads since we were kids. If you use the storytelling techniques that are human and strip away all that other nonsense, you can influence people much more powerfully, you can influence people emotionally. And you do that with story, not with jargon or design or ornamentation.”

It can’t be a coincidence that corporate story engineering emerged around the same time as social networking. The key to the success of this sort of thing is that it has to be honest. These days, any line of marketing bullshit is easily detected and reported on by irate customers dissatisfied with any product, then spread far and wide on Facebook, Twitter and innumerable consumer review websites. If you lie, you’re sunk.

MacEwan’s Colin Babiuk says, “Honesty is paramount – and social networks have accelerated that.”

With that in mind, Story Engine will not take Monsanto as a client, for example (talk about a company with a story problem). Babiak and Ohler will help merchants sell their stuff, their stories, but they will not help them lie. “If it’s not authentic, then people will know,” Ohler says.

The question of the possible brain drain on the artistic class is more difficult. Here we have a gifted author putting his energy towards building branding campaigns instead of writing novels – yet he claims he has even more time now to pursue creative writing than he did with his last day job. Like Ohler, Babiak says he’d gone as far as he could in what many consider is a dying trade, the newspaper industry, and that for all his hard-hitting investigative pieces (one of which blew the lid off the bogus airport lobby) what readers remember are the cute little stories about his family when they spent a year in France.

He says, “These longform essays about my family – they pleased readers like nothing I’d ever done before. I wanted to continue doing that, but I couldn’t. That time of doing that in the newspapers was finished. I wanted to focus on stories, but how can I make a living at the same time?”

In a perfect world, good novelists would be adequately rewarded without having to work as journalists or branding consultants. There are some who think this sort of career shift amounts to going over to the dark side, but both Babiak and Ohler say they feel fulfilled beyond what they ever accomplished in journalism.

Ohler responds, “Dark side? I did that move to journalism into the corporate world and I didn’t find it dark at all. Even the best investigative pieces I ever did, they were on the margins. I only got a little bit of information, not the whole story. When you do the kind of work I did at ATCO and ATB, you know everything – which is fundamentally more interesting than the life I had as a journalist. And if you don’t find something like a big bank interesting, then you’re probably not asking the right questions.”

On the ultimate goal – to the service of commerce – Babiak adds, “Everyone we’re helping, we’re helping to sell something, either externally or internally – and if it’s dirty, filth me up! Rub me in the mud!”

The effect of all this on the proverbial creative muse isn’t clear, but Babiak says he was writing more “commercially” before he fired up Story Engine. He’s not even bothering to enter his new book, The South of France, out in October, in the Giller competition. Maybe that means it’ll be a huge best-seller.

OK, now you can be scared.