Want My Business? First, Tell Me a Story


Storytelling is an art that hearkens back to our earliest days—when cave drawings and oral traditions helped us make sense of our world, and each other. But this ancient form of communication has a real and present purpose in today’s fast-paced and frantic business environment. In fact, engaging storytelling that both entertains and informs can cut through the noise of competition and set your company apart.

Commercial real estate is an industry with great stories to tell as well. But oddly, storytelling is a major hurdle for most companies.

There are brands that have great stories to tell. For instance, because of its story, Apple is known for the connectivity and creativity it inspires as much as it is for any one product. Starbucks is a brand that powers community—a place to connect, to work, to unwind. And by the way, they sell coffee, too. More on them in a minute.

Commercial real estate is an industry with great stories to tell as well. But oddly, storytelling is a major hurdle for most companies. I say “oddly” for a number of reasons. First, its sheer size. Commercial real estate is a global, $15 trillion business whose top practitioners provide long-range strategic solutions for virtually every major corporation.

Second is the service and experience commercial real estate provides. When a company sees its real estate not as a cost center but rather as a corporate investment, that’s where we are at our best—where we begin to think about how we can help our clients attract and retain the best talent, drive innovation and creativity, find efficiency and promote wellness across the workplace.

Essentially, we provide the platform on which major global enterprises function, from which they can tell their stories.


Image courtesy of Ford


Storytelling has always been a part of business marketing, through generational changes in our economy, even as the stories have grown more complex. Once, as an agrarian culture, the story was simple: Here is my crop; here is my product; here is my price. The story grew more complex with the advent of the industrial age, when the value added to raw products were much more than the sum of their parts. Think Henry Ford.

In today’s service/experience economy, the predominant story revolves around intangibles. Added to the challenge of marketing something no one can see, comes the challenge of breaking through the noise of information overload. Every minute of every day, email users send more than 204 million messages, more than 570 new websites are launched, Facebook users share nearly 700,000 pieces of content and more than 100,000 tweets are sent. Apple, with its focus on “thinking different,” and Starbucks, with its community-led approach, have broken through by transcending product and tapping into the experience of their brands. 

How did they do it? More the point, how do you? How do you break through all of that noise? How do you win share of mind (shaping how people think about you); share of heart (how people feel about you); and ultimately, share of wallet (why people choose you)?


It all lies in the story you tell—and how you tell it. So, what shapes a story that will in turn shape customers’ decision-making?

There are four components to a good story. All stories that have ever won you over—be it that Academy Award-winning movie you caught last weekend, the novel you return to time and time again or an unforgettable marketing piece—all boast the same following basic elements.

You have to have great characters, characters that engage, who are relatable and understandable. One could argue that Sir Richard Branson, Ginni Rometty, Steve Jobs and Arianna Huffington are not only people with stories, but are in fact great stories themselves. But great characters don’t need to be people, and one legendary General Electric ad for turbines featured the wind as a main character, along with a little boy on a mission. 

You need a compelling plot. This is the engine of that understanding. What is happening to these characters that piques your sympathy, your interest and gets you rooting for them? Why, in the GE ad, is the little boy trying to capture wind in a jar? Where is he going with it? And what will he do with it?

A great story needs entertainment value. Your story has to be more than a fact sheet. Advertising guru David Ogilvy famously said, “You can’t bore people into buying your product.” We’re intrigued by the little boy’s journey, touched by his innocent encounter with a little girl on a train and we feel the anticipation of his plans.

Finally, you need a point of view. That’s your message, essentially—the reason why all of these other elements have come together. At last, the little boy opens the jar, revealing the very human benefits wind power provides. 

Also, the most compelling stories are simple. But that’s not to say they are simplistic or superficial.

Also, the most compelling stories are simple. But that’s not to say they are simplistic or superficial. Wind power is a complex application, but the story referenced above is accessible, even beautiful in its telling. Likewise, commercial real estate is a complex matrix of applications and processes for defined needs. But the story of its benefits to those inhabiting the built environment—well-being, collaboration, human interaction and productivity—are infinitely relatable.

Of course, not every corporation has in its midst a Branson, a Rometty, a Jobs or a Huffington. Absent them, talented marketers are called for, those who know how to employ all of these elements to shape an engaging story. Their role is critical to the message, no less than Apple’s quality control team, or our industry’s own advisory community. They can capture complexities in a way that can break through the noise.

Commercial real estate might be considered a commodity. In fact, it’s typically the second largest corporate expense item after people. But the built environment is an experience, an investment in those people and their ability to deliver on the corporate message, the corporate promise. And each time this is done successfully, there’s another fascinating and very human story to tell.

Paul Suchman is global chief marketing officer at CBRE.


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