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  The Importance of Storytelling in Branding
  By Douglas E. Albertson
Many moons ago, I hired a very engaging author and syndicated business columnist to speak at one of my tradeshows in Portland, Oregon. When I picked him up from the airport, he seemed in a lather about something. I had spoken to him on the phone many times prior to the engagement and he seemed a fairly laid-back guy. Eager to set his mind at ease I asked him if something was wrong.

As storytellers are wont to do, he launched into a soliloquy about the troubles and travels he had endured trying to find an Armani tuxedo for his daughter’s wedding. “If I don’t find one while I’m here, I’m never going to have enough time to get it altered before the wedding,” he said.

He went to a couple of places looking for the tux, but a town the size of Portland is not exactly a hotbed of Armani activity. If he had been looking for a flannel tuxedo, he might have had more luck.

Finally, almost as a last-ditch effort, he wandered into the local Nordstrom. His personal shopper asked him to give her a little time to work on it. While he was there, she said, she wanted to get his measurements just in case they could match him with another tux. Dejected and nearly out of options, he left the store not really expecting too much.

The next day, he received a phone call from Nordstrom asking him if he was still looking for an Armani tuxedo. He leaped out of his seat. “Absolutely!” he shouted into the phone. They had found him a tux and it would be ready for him to pick up the following day.

Elated, he hung up the phone and, by his account, had one of the best speaking engagements of his career. The next day, when he walked into Nordstrom to pick up his tux, he decided he would try it on to see how much alteration would be required. To his utter amazement, the tux fit perfectly. Nordstrom had altered the tux for him. Almost as an afterthought, he asked how they had managed to find an Armani tuxedo when he had searched most of North America trying to find one, to no avail.

His personal shopper just smiled and coyly mentioned something about “magic.” He pressed a little further; he really wanted to know where they had gotten the tux. The personal shopper said she immediately began working on his request after he left and, through her connections, she found an Armani tux in New York. After calling New York to inquire about the tux, the distributor informed the personal shopper that they had put it on a truck bound for Chicago that very day. The personal shopper worked another web of contacts and, coordinating with the distributor, located the truck. The personal shopper then called the Nordstrom in that area and dispatched someone to meet the truck at a rest stop and retrieve the tux from the container.

Keep in mind that my friend had to press her for this information. She would have never told him the story unless my friend had asked.

Not only did Nordstrom go to those heroics to find the tux, the personal shopper was aware of my friend’s time constraints and instructed the local Nordstrom to quickly alter the tux according to his measurements. It arrived in Portland, via overnight carrier, the next day, ready to wear.

The kicker? Nordstrom doesn’t even sell Armani tuxedos.

Brand Stories

Do you have a similar story to tell about your brand? Do you have stories that are as impressive as the one above? Would your employees even go to such lengths to serve your customers?

Nordstrom has never told this story publicly and they do not encourage their employees to do so. They figure if the stories are good enough, word-of-mouth will take them to the marketplace and the stories will carry even more credibility than if Nordstrom is caught tooting their own horn.

Such is the case with the famous Nordstrom “tire chains” story. A man walked into the main Nordstrom store with a set of used tire chains and insisted that he had purchased them there. Nordstrom sells clothing and the like. Without hesitation, the clerk refunded his money, even though the receipt clearly indicated another store. She paid him out of her own pocket. Then, on her lunch hour, she went to the store where the chains had been purchased and got her money back. Brilliant.

If you don’t have stories like this to tell, your brand may be in trouble. If your customers aren’t telling positive stories about you, they may be telling negative stories about you. In short, if there’s no word-of-mouth buzz about your brand, your customer service probably stinks. “Adequate” ain’t good enough anymore. A brand isn’t something that’s “nice to have if you can afford it” as some people have said. It’s an essential ingredient to your business plan.

If you don’t think storytelling is an important part of branding, count how many times you tell (or are tempted to tell) the Nordstrom story to co-workers, friends, peers, business acquaintances or people at conferences.

Three ways to start generating buzz:

Heroics — As the Nordstrom story indicates, people love to hear stories about companies going the extra mile. Employers don’t like to encourage their employees to take matters into their own hands because it can be expensive and their “business format” may not facilitate it. Heroics may well be expensive, but retaining customers — especially loyal ones — is far cheaper than getting new ones.

Foster an Internal Entrepreneurial Spirit — This topic is a book in itself. Tell your employees you want them to go the extra mile and then give them the authority to do it. Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson gives his Virgin record store employees the authority to make decisions up to $500 in value if it’s the right thing to do for the customer. They don’t even have to check with a manager. Tell your employees to treat your customers as if the business was their own. And then reward them handsomely for doing so. If someone makes an expensive mistake trying to help a customer, reward the employee for taking a chance, don’t punish him or her for the mistake.

Get Involved in the Community — Get involved with making your community a better place to live. Buy the local school some new playground equipment or computers. Sponsor a Special Olympics event in your area. Have a “Lunch on Me” day at the local park and give away hot dogs and hamburgers to everyone who shows up. Not only will your employees jump on this bandwagon, the community will see that you’re serious about becoming a responsible corporate citizen.


What kind stories are being told about your company? If you don’t know, why don’t you know? If you do know and it’s not commensurate with the image you’re trying to portray, you have some work to do. Many companies start by asking their customers if they’re doing a good job and they usually find out more information than they expected. But there’s almost always an epiphany or two in the feedback.


The topic of my speaker’s tradeshow speech? Customer service quality in your business. The Armani tux seeker used the Nordstrom story as an example and created 250 new evangelists for Nordstrom.

Money can’t buy that kind of publicity.


Douglas Albertson is the principal of Albertson Consulting Group and an Adjunct Marketing Instructor at the University of Portland in Portland, Oregon.

By the same author: Muddying the Waters and The Velvet Hammer.

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  *White papers are posted as a courtesy to the industry. As such, fact checking, grammatical errors and typos are the responsibility of the white paper writer.  
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