We’ve entered a new Renaissance period in business that has moved us past selling products and services for the sole benefit of the companies selling them.

With global economic parity looming, companies can no longer rely on themselves for the answers. They must co-create new value systems with their customers and other businesses not only to survive, but to grow. And stories – or the act of curating them – can provide amazing new opportunities for growth.

There are a host of companies that have built strong values and a strong “metastory” around their businesses, from more traditional brands like 3M, to the modern darlings of the technology boom, like TOMS or Zappos. Across this spectrum is a way of thinking that takes on organizational inefficiences and creates layers of transparency and authenticity that permeate all communications.

At the same time, more and more companies are taking on the complex problems of the world – from socio-economics, to trade, to education and government. The ability to directly address problems and provide solutions to complexity is the bedrock of storytelling in the 21st century.

A narrative theme is what courses throughout a brand experience, starting with a strong metastory, then extending into specific programs and media.

The business of curation

So how does storytelling actually impact business?

Understanding the value of curation is a great first action step. As my friend Ishan Shapiro says, curation can be defined as “storytelling through the use of available knowledge, information and experience.”

This means that we go from merely aggregating media assets – video, text, sound, pictures – to building currency around experiences that have cultural, social and educational impact. And where companies are relevant in these contexts, market opportunities abound.

Charmin’s installation in Times Square, Dove’s Real Beauty meet-ups, Amex’s OPEN kiosks and HP’s innovation installations are all proving that branded content can provide an experience of real meaning and “shareability.” In each of these examples, a “metanarrative” spawns extensions whereby people are inspired to create their own media based on themes or topics related to these initiatives.

Holistic storytelling and branded experiences

Each of these brand initiatives applied an underlying theme or topic that resonates with people in their daily lives:

  • Charmin explored the meaning of comfort by installing bathrooms in Times Square
  • Dove broke down cultural mores around beauty with TV commercials and then extended the narrative into other channels such as social media
  • HP branded collaborative innovation by inviting prolific artists to create music with their fans (Disclosure: HP is a client though I did not work on the initiative mentioned)
  • Amex redefined financial independence by listening to the needs of small business owners and providing them with tools to share

In the case of AMEX, “open” was the underpinning theme; the program extensions are varied; and the medium – Open Forum – is a portal that uses multiple social, digital and offline channels, featuring business owners sharing their success stories.

In each case, storytelling is a holistic practice. Channels and inventory play second fiddle to experiences that are relevant to various audiences and consumer segments.

This is especially important when we consider that consumers today exhibit widely varied behaviours; they aren’t just car buyers or soda drinkers or banking customers. They’re people with sophisticated needs living in a world where solutions to complex problems present even more problems. So we must co-create systems that are culturally relevant and scalable.

In the case of HP, the meta theme of innovation culminated in a strong partnership strategy that produced amazing user-generated experiences co-created between people and the brand. Based on these experiences, new stories – and new ideas – have emerged that continue to evolve.

How Nike does it

Nike’s work on “The Human Race” is a great example of how to leverage people and technology in unprecedented ways. The company has long identified running as an activity that connects people, and one that can enable them to converge around a cause while feeling good about themselves.

And the best part about this platform is that it has unlimited scale. As long as we are around to run, The Human Race continues on through local events and illustrative iterations as well as a wonderful array of shareable and immersive content that provides more unique experiences on mobile devices and screens of all types.

As for sales, the marketing elements are baked into the experience: You simply buy a pair of Nike+ shoes, monitor your distance and become a part of the movement.

Nike uses the metanarrative of “running as a life activity” to rally affinity groups around causes. These experiences result in a wide variety of new stories and activities supported by the brand. These also build or extend brand equities (attributes that consumers can personally invest in).

Stories we need

So how does storytelling impact business? By enlisting people as participants in the stories they already care about so that they buy the products required to fulfill a human need. From there, business growth is organic and can take on many exciting dimensions.

Of course, telling stories and allowing them to flourish across various channels and media types is not all that easy. Major brands like Nike have their own media ecosystems with which to create these immersive experiences (hence the notion of platform).

For those brands which do not have such a luxury, the onus is on them to come up with more creative ways to engage customers. But again, this depends on allowing curation to evolve as a practice of the people, not just what we as marketers or brands dictate.

There is no question that people are willing to engage and participate. If we can make stories the catalysts for reinvention, the possibilities are limitless.