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How To Sell A $1 Snow Globe For $59: The Real ROI Of Brand Storytelling

"Storytelling" is a hot topic in marketing these days, but can you put an actual price on a compelling brand story? The surprising tale of what happens to the value of everyday objects when you imbue them with backstory.

For over a decade, I've made a career as a marketer by leveraging the processes and techniques I learned as a filmmaker and fiction writer—the processes and techniques of narrative storytelling. I've met with executives to sell them on the idea of putting money behind brand storytelling, or the practice of capitalizing on proven narrative strategies in a business context. This includes not only consumer-facing communications, but also corporate communications. Speechwriting, public appearances, strategic partnerships, public relations, internal communications, and thought-leadership are all enhanced by good storytelling.

Mere common sense is usually all it takes to convince an executive that controlling public image—controlling the corporate story—has business advantages. And with corporate and brand storytelling as hot topics in marketing circles lately, I've found myself having to do less and less convincing. But the other day, an executive I met threw me a curveball. Going into the meeting, she already was not keen on putting money against media that wasn't directly part of a concurrent marketing campaign.

"OK. You've got my heart," she said, referring to my emotional argument for investing in storytelling. "But what about my head? Can you show me the numbers?"

The numbers? How do you measure the value of a good story? I mean, asking me to quantify an ROI on a good brand story is like asking someone to quantify the dollar value of a beautiful sunset.

"Let me work on it," I said. And here's some of the proof I came up with.

The Product-Level Value Of Story
The founders of the website, a site devoted to quantifying the bottom-line power of story at a product level, say, "Stories are such a powerful driver…that their effect on any given [product's] subjective value can be measured objectively." The website is home to an experiment that goes like this: the founders buy thrift store, garage sale, and flea market products, always cheap, no more than a couple dollars at most. Then, they hire a writer to compose a fictional story about the product, imbuing it with heritage, history, and ostensibly, value. The once-valueless products, accompanied by their new stories, are then sold auction-style on eBay. The difference between the original purchase price and story price is recorded as the objective value of that story.

The takeaway results for the first 100 products bought, storied, and then resold on eBay are poignant and telling. On average, the original product price was $1.29. But the average resale price after a story was added grew to a staggering $36.12. All in all, the experiment shows that even at a micro level, story can increase product value by a whopping 2,706 percent (or more, in the case of this snow globe).

The Brand-Level Value Of Story
Nothing makes an executive or corporate stakeholder happier than skyrocketing stock prices, and many case studies suggest that a strong brand story effort can not only increase the value of individual products and services, but also the value of companies and brands themselves. Consider the following:

On June 1, 2011, Tiffany & Co. stock closed around $72 a share. Later that month, the brand launched its "What Makes Love True" brand story effort. The microsite—where users could check in, leave a love message for their significant other, and the message and a heart would appear on a Tiffany geo-location map—was not designed to sell jewelry, per se, and didn’t feature any Tiffany products. Rather, it was created and deployed with one, specific purpose in mind: to give Tiffany & Co. "ownership" of the story of true love. Tiffany wanted to solidify true love as its brand story, and through the What Makes Love True brand storytelling effort, it succeeded. In less than a month, its stock prices were closing more than $10 higher at around $83 a share.

On an even larger scale, consider the champion of interactive brand storytelling, Burberry. Since 2008, when Burberry began to shun traditional campaign-specific tactics for brand-level, story-driven digital ones, its stock prices have risen more than 750%.

Of course, marketing isn't the only force at play when it comes to stock prices. But the effect on revenue and brand equity of conjuring consumer emotion through powerful brand stories cannot be denied. The business case is solid. All that remains is for you to tell your brand’s story.

—Duke Greenhill is an award-winning creative marketer, filmmaker and writer. He is the founder of Greenhill+Partners, a New York City boutique consultancy specializing in marketing and corporate communications strategies.

[Image: Flickr user Mark Turner]

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  • bart de pelsmaeker

    Great post. I've come across the significant objects experiment before and thought it was just the perfect example of what you can do with a great story. It inspired me to write my own piece on the ROI of brand storytelling. I've quoted this article in the piece if you'd like to check it out

    It's nice to see that since this experiment was covered, many more brands have begun to realize the opportunities presented by brand storytelling.

    Thanks for sharing this piece!

  • Balq60

    I think the concept is valid, I don't think the e-bay example is valid though.

  • shannabright

    Snow globe story reminded me of something you'd find in the J. Peterman Catalog. Fact of the matter is, we process stories differently than we do data. We connect with stories. We do not connect with data. 

  • Jonathansalembaskin

    Stories are never true in and of themselves; stories can be about truth and the best ones are firmly grounded in it. I think we marketers tend to get too caught up in our brilliance and ability to invent meaning where none exists. We aren't and we can't. Effective branding is a narrative, not a promise or story.

  • Anthony Miles

    For Tiffany and Burberry you have just shown correlation not causation. 

  • Terry O'Gara

    Prob;em with buzzwords is everyone uses them to mean whatever they want them to mean. The Tiffany example is not a Story, though it may very well exemplify another kind of brilliant marketing.

  • Yozzer452

    I was in the antiques trade for a few years in the early 90's. I bought for $20 at auction half a dozen embossed  brass WWII Tins which were given to soldiers at Christmas. After researching them I wrote out the provenance of the tins on the sale tickets, and offered them for sale at $20 each. They were snapped up in a day, with a profit of $100. Another example of the story sells. 

  • TL

    I also feel that buying items from thrift stores and selling them on ebay is not a compelling story to support this theory. People buy things cheap all the time from garage sales and sell them for more on ebay without any story at all. What would make more sense is buying something on ebay without a story and then posting that same item with a story to see if the price would indeed go up. 

  • CD

    Interesting that the author does not find it creepy and dishonest to make up nonsense stories in order to dupe people out of their hard-earned cash.  Wouldn't we all be better off if people focused their energy on making better products and building brand INTEGRITY?

  • Todd Ramsey

    Storytelling doesn't always equal "nonsense." Often, the most compelling stories are true. 

    Many companies make great products and have phenomenal integrity. Consumers are just tired of hearing bullet-point ads that highlight those facts. That's where brand stories can help bring those realities to life.

  • kpr

    While I understand where you're coming from, I think you're missing the point. 

    Sometimes, the best way to talk about a brand's essence is by telling a story. In many cases, these stories are simply analogies. Think about the recent spots for Jameson Irish Whiskey. These are fictional spots in which John Jameson loses a barrel of whiskey into the ocean, fights a giant octopus and returns to the shore with the barrel on his back as his comrades are attending his funeral. It's absolutely not true. But it's not "duping people" either. It's a story that speaks to the dedication Jameson has to its whiskey. 

    See it here:

    Think of the bed time stories we tell our children as a means to teach them little lessons without hitting them over the head. A good story has the power to say more than what's on the surface. And the brands who understand the balance between blatant lying and storytelling are the ones who have the greatest chance for success. 

    I don't think the author here is trying to tell us to simply make shit up to sell goods. The eBay example is used to prove to the aforementioned doubter in the article that storytelling has value. 

  • pff

    accurate remark. but i would go further - nowadays, the story is more important than the product (i mean physical goods market, not IT). products are often the same, or merely differentiated. what distinguishes them from each other is a story sealed with brand image.
    we are selling marketing and physical product is an addition to it. this is how the brand value is built.