Strategy & Marketing

The Power of Personal Stories

For a long time I’ve encouraged my clients to use customer’s personal stories more effectively. In my experience for instance, phone response rises in infomercials during personal testimonies. Apparently a host can talk all day about a product, but when the viewer sees someone like him or her actually using the product, something clicks. They think, “Hey – if it works for him, maybe it will work for me.”  That’s why I counsel product manufacturers, non-profit organizations, churches, and ministries to use personal testimonies in their media projects. Let the people speak! Let them talk in their own words about how the product has transformed their lives.

A great example was the campaign Jet Blue did a number of years ago to capture the stories of their customers.  Emily Steel reported on it then in The Wall Street Journal.  They outfitted a complete “story booth” and set it up in cities across America to let their customers recount their experiences with the airline. Nearly 2,000 stories have been collected so far, both from the booth and from e-mail. Now, other companies are doing the same.

Professional advertisements and commercials with professional actors are great. But there’s nothing like using real people to tell how your product, teaching, or other resource has changed people’s lives.

JetBlue’s Story Has a Familiar Ring
Marketing Campaign Uses Customers’ Anecdotes, But Nonprofit Cries Foul
By EMILY STEEL – June 26, 2006

Natalie Muurisepps was sitting on board a JetBlue plane waiting for takeoff on the eve of Thanksgiving when all the lights flashed on in the cabin. The flight crew asked her to stand, and her boyfriend walked down the aisle. He pulled out a ring and popped the question.

“The whole airplane was ecstatic as the captain came on and said, ‘So was it a yes or no?’ I screamed, ‘Yes,'” she recounts in a JetBlue commercial on the Web.

In its latest marketing campaign, which started in April, JetBlue is giving its customers a megaphone to recount their own experiences with the discount airline. In addition to ads featuring Ms. Muurisepps and other customers, airline staff are touring the country recording similar travel anecdotes, using a trailer dubbed JetBlue Story Booth.

Nearly 2,000 anecdotes have been collected so far, both from the traveling booth and via email. The campaign is aimed at reinforcing JetBlue’s image as an “airline of the people.” The best of the anecdotes could be turned into additional television, radio, print and Web advertisements.

One story the airline isn’t likely to include: a Brooklyn, N.Y., nonprofit group claims JetBlue has stolen its idea. Since 2003, Sound Portraits Productions has overseen a national oral-history project called StoryCorps that also travels the country recording the stories of everyday Americans.

The group has recorded nearly 8,000 interviews since its 2003 launch, using two traveling booths and at two locations in New York. Stories are archived at the Library of Congress and are featured weekly on the National Public Radio news program “Morning Edition.”

While the notion of owning the idea of storytelling might seem far-fetched, StoryCorps worried the public might confuse its project with JetBlue’s Story Booth effort, due to the similarity of the name and concept. Both story tours visited Washington at the same time in mid-May, it says.

Last month, Sound Portraits accused JetBlue of “an overt, willful and substantial misappropriation of the trademark rights and goodwill” that StoryCorps “has spent years to generate and maintain.” It asked JetBlue to “cease and desist” using the name Story Booth.

“We are just hoping that it stops and that they change their name before it ruins our project,” says Dave Isay, founder and executive director of Sound Portraits.

JetBlue declined to change the name of its project, although the airline offered to include a sign at its traveling booth stating the venture wasn’t affiliated with StoryCorps. “JetBlue’s use of the term Story Booth is really a generic descriptive term,” says JetBlue spokeswoman Jenny Dervin. “We are kind of surprised that StoryCorps would feel like they have the right to that name.”

For the nonprofit group, JetBlue’s response was the end of the road. It didn’t want to spend the thousands of dollars involved in filing a lawsuit.

The ad agency behind the campaign, WPP Group’s JWT Worldwide, says it was aware of StoryCorps, but didn’t base JetBlue’s campaign on it.

It is not uncommon for marketers to trip over each other. Resolving these disputes is often difficult as it is not always easy to prove who came up with the idea first. Big companies usually like to avoid public disputes, so the squabbles rarely end up in court.

For a nonprofit, fighting a big company can be tougher. “Every penny that comes in here is put to this project,” says Sound Portraits’ Mr. Isay. “We just don’t have the resources to take on JetBlue.”

“StoryCorps is the boldest attempt I have ever seen to take the American art of storytelling and bring it everywhere in the country,” says Ken Stern, executive vice president of NPR. “I find it astonishing that any company would try to capture and take that spirit and apply it for commercial purposes.”

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One Comment

  1. It’s the power of stories. As a culture, we’re fascinated with stories – especially about other people. If preachers could grasp how effective stories are, every church in America would be packed.

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