Your company story: A business lesson from Buzz Lightyear

In 2010, Toy Story 3 was the top-grossing film in the U.S. by a large margin, and one of the biggest films ever. It Buzz Lightyear with a lesson for businesses was five years in development. But if you assume the Pixar crew spent most of that time using fancy computers to replicate human facial expressions, Buzz Lightyear has a surprise for you.

A lesson for businesses small and large:
Pixar spent the first four years of development just getting the story straight!

For four years, they amped up the drama. They made every detail of every plot twist and turn flow together. They filled the story with emotion. Toy Story 3’s secret sauce is not Steve Jobs, Tom Hanks or amazing technology – it’s the storytelling.

How business is like literature

David Riemer, former Yahoo! marketing director, current producer of a Bruce Hornsby musical and my former workmate at JWT/SF, recently addressed students at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business on the importance of storytelling for business. “Behind every great business,” he said, “is a great story.”

But not just a simple company history. A great company story is the sum total of its customer focus, market insight, emotional responsiveness, problem solving and great products, all wrapped in an engaging brand personality. It’s a gripping blend of business strategy, brand essence, execution and message.


David Riemer lectures MBA candidates at the Haas School at UC Berkeley. If want to make your own company story stronger, put aside some time and take a look.

Using classic elements of literary analysis, and examples ranging from HP’s Carly Fiorina to Cinderella, David compared business and literature.

Literature depends on compelling characters. For your business, no one make a more compelling protagonist than your customer.

In literature, a protagonist must have motivations. Understanding customer motivations leads to market insights – where great product and marketing ideas are born.

A vivid setting provides context for the story to come. Your company’s setting includes your competition, your position against competitors in your customer’s eyes, and significant market trends.

A story’s plot parallels your customer’s problems, and how she tries to solve them.

At the literary climax, the plot reaches an emotional peak. Does your company empathize with customer emotions? Do your products, services and messages respond to emotions you’ve identified?

Great stories have symbolism. Cinderella’s carriage symbolizes transformation. In your business story, your symbols are your colors, logos and icons, that stand for the essence of your brand.

A story has a point of view and a voice. Your company story includes your brand personality and product attributes – all the things that come to mind when people think of your brand.

Finally, a great story has an uplifting plot resolution. For businesses, that means your product and your brand should solve important emotional and practical needs. In other words, your value proposition.

You must develop your company story before you go to market, because holes in the story signal holes in your business strategy. Make your story tight and compelling. Remember that stories, both beautiful and scary, were the original viral media. And they’re still the most powerful.

If your company needs a stronger story, my partners and I can help. Let’s talk.

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About Barrett Rossie @barrettrossie

Marketing manager that specializes in developing strategic messages that set brands apart, and bring their competitive position, benefits and brand personality to life. Visit me at http://barrettrossie.com View all posts by Barrett Rossie @barrettrossie

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