Take ‘Em to the Promised Land
Brands can imbue pragmatic products with intrigue through storytelling that illustrates the worlds those products make possible.
By Andrea Bullard
On any given day, about a million Appen employees from around the world collect the speech that shapes conversational AI. With teams scattered across Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, and Australia, the language technology firm is literally all over the place, and—for many years—was figuratively, too.
To meet client demands for quick project turnarounds, Appen paid tens of thousands of dollars to ship field recordings on hard drives to its headquarters. After too many of these devices went missing in transit, the company even resorted to flying employees overseas to courier the files personally. Both methods resulted in Appen’s Language Resources team needing up to four days of IT coordination just to start a project on a tight deadline.
Stephen Norris, Appen’s VP of Operations, knew there had to be a better way: Dropbox Business.
Norris was familiar with Dropbox; his business development team was already using the file sharing platform as a collaborative and organizational tool. His colleagues convinced him it was the answer to the company’s lack of synchronicity, proclaiming: “Dropbox just works.” Norris made the switch.
Free from the frustrations of physically transporting data, Appen is re-focused on the most important aspects of its business—such as making sure its clients’ machines speak convincing Swahili.
“Dropbox lets us transfer massive amounts of data without anyone having to get their hands dirty,” said Norris. “Before, people might have to ask if a data transfer worked, but now when they look in their folders, they can be certain that what they see is up to date.”
Dropbox features the story of Appen’s triumph prominently across its website. It’s no surprise this message resonates with audiences: Dropbox’s presentation of the Appen story hews closely to the Hero’s Journey, a storytelling structure that has underpinned effective narratives since the dawn of humanity.
First outlined by comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey is the name for a narrative with seventeen specific components and a storytelling arc. All Hero’s Journey stories begin in a broken world: a land in a state of fundamental disrepair. The tale’s protagonist (the story’s hero) is a powerless outsider character who meets a wiser, older mentor. This mentor reveals how much more is possible, and sets the hero off on a journey to right the wrongs which plague the world. The mentor endows the hero with a magical gift to confront the evil in the world—emerging victorious and mending the world with the spoils of this victory.
When a company leverages this storytelling approach effectively, they assume the role of the mentor, while casting their customers as the hero of their narrative—with the product ready to be wielded as a magical gift. This style of narrative transcends product and creates an emotional connection between brand and customer.
It’s all-too-common for organizations to get caught up sharing their features and benefits. In Dropbox’s case it has recognized the importance of an emotional narrative, not technical capabilities, in converting sales: making itself a catalyst for its customer’s quest to transform a broken world into a paradise. This journey has created an emotional bond with the company’s more than 600 million users.
In an interview with the LA Times, CEO Drew Houston credits his brand’s success to this well-defined customer journey: “People do not choose Dropbox because it has this much space or gigabytes. They choose it for the experience.”
That experience is a promise of a world where teams working oceans apart can collaborate seamlessly. Much larger companies—tech giants such as Apple, Google and Microsoft—offer cloud storage products that are superficially similar to Dropbox, and are even included for free with products already owned by Dropbox users. But why are those users are willing to pay for (what might appear to be) a redundant service to become heroes in the Dropbox story? According to one study, brands that lead in customer experience outperform competitors by a staggering 80 percent.
Dropbox helps customers see the promise of the mended world through more than compelling case studies. A quick glance at its Instagram reveals the company has avoided the mistake many brands make of centering their product and how people use it. Instead, Dropbox uses creative visuals and video to stoke the imaginations of potential customers about the promised land available to its customers: a world where teams working in harmony have the freedom to think, dream, and innovate. How those customers get there is up to them.
When traditional marketing methods failed, Dropbox embraced this customer empowering approach as its strategy for growth. The Dropbox story is all about fueling collaboration, so the company engaged its customers with a referral program for bringing friends or coworkers to its service, a move which increased sign ups by 60 percent.
Dropbox’s story cultivates an internal culture that mirrors its customers’ paradise. In an article about the strengths of its team, it emphasizes that its employees are “people who prioritize their flexibility and freedom.” As a company devoted to creating synchronicity through simplicity, it hires people “who are excited to collaborate…in any context, and [are] ready to break down the barriers between different teams…who are willing to go the extra mile to make their team function better.”
Employees interviewed for the article unite behind a common theme: Dropbox empowers people to focus on what matters. “You have the ownership to spend your time how you need to–to achieve the things you need to,” says a senior product recruiter for the brand. The Dropbox story is told so consistently, it’s easy to forget the banality of what it actually does—provide cloud storage.
If Dropbox had touted its technical capabilities instead of illustrating its story, it likely would not have become the behemoth it is today—a SaaS company that generates $1.6 billion in annual recurring revenue. But that’s precisely the power of the Hero’s Journey narrative: it can transform a mundane product into a magical gift with the power to gain widespread adoption.
When Recleim CEO Steve Bush first stumbled upon Graniteville, South Carolina in 2012, the small town was teetering on the brink of economic collapse. Once a prosperous producer of textiles, Graniteville suffered a series of calamities beginning in the 1980s, the more recent of which had been a deadly train collision that killed nine people and poisoned the town’s air with vaporized chlorine.
Prior to 1983, the owner of the town’s largest textile plant—The Graniteville Company—had cared deeply for its community. It provided locals with jobs, outfitted the high school band, and even saw that someone regularly mowed the grass by the canal where residents went fishing. Eventually, the factory was purchased by Avondale Mills, which didn’t show the same level of investment in Graniteville as its eponymous predecessor. A year after the train crash, Avondale announced it would shut the factory down, plunging the town into what appeared to be an irreversible depression.
At the time of his arrival in Graniteville, Bush had recently secured the rights to an innovative appliance recycling technology capable of neutralizing the harmful gasses released in the traditional scrapyard process. Bush purchased the former Avondale mill, and began converting it into the first Recleim recycling plant.
Shortly after, Bush had the town’s iconic water tower repainted, restoring the old Graniteville Company logo to its original, bright red hue. Four years after starting, the company employed 127 workers in Graniteville, paying more than double the minimum wage (with benefits!) on average.
This depth of this impact on Graniteville mirrors Recleim’s equally significant environmental one: it prevents 1.6 million tons of greenhouse gasses from polluting the atmosphere, and 57 million pounds of appliance waste from crowding landfills each year.
Within five years, Recleim (a Woden client) was operating multiple plants fitted with its superior recycling technology. Despite its process salvaging 95 percent of recyclable materials, Recleim faced stiff competition from local junk haulers; extolling the features and benefits of a more environmentally-conscious appliance removal service just wasn’t enough to disrupt its market.
Reclaim found inspiration and purpose in its origin story. The moral of that tale—that an organization can uphold both its ideals and its economic interests—became the purpose at the center of its brand narrative. This aspirational, emotional message called on Recleim’s customers to do more, and allowed the brand to position itself as a mentor, enabling its clients to do well while doing good. The effectiveness of Recleim’s programs became a reason to believe its story, not a narrative unto itself.
Focusing on the brand’s magical gift (closed-loop appliance recycling), and what it makes possible in the hands of a capable hero, was the catalyst for remarkable growth. In 2018, Recleim’s annual revenue skyrocketed to $36.1 million, a 3,621 percent increase from the previous year. This momentous growth made Recleim the #101 on the Inc. 500 list of America’s fastest-growing companies. It was named again in 2019 and 2020.
These results are inspirational, but like Dropobx’s, not surprising. People have been responding to Hero’s Journey narratives since before the written word.
Like Dropbox’s easy-to-use file synchronization service, Recleim’s recycling programs grant customers a path to a promised land: a place unmarred by the poisonous skeletons of clunky old machines—a place where both nature and industry can thrive.
Both Recleim and Dropbox succeeded by steering the conversation away from staid but effective services, and toward the possibilities now available to their customers. In defining an arc that was clear to their customers and authentic to themselves, they forged a trusted bond, allowing them to mentor their customers toward the promised land.
Andrea is an associate at Woden. Want to stay connected? Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss whatever your storytelling needs may be.