Home » Customer Experience » Why Storytelling, Experience, and Symbolism Engage Customers

Why Storytelling, Experience, and Symbolism Engage Customers

Mystery Tales

Customers don’t want marketing drivel from businesses. They want engaging experiences. They want immersion into story. They want to feel things that only certain imagery can summon. In a world of information overload, they want enchantment.

In a world where customer touch points have been largely controlled by those who understand technology better than they understand the art of storytelling, experience, and symbolism, customers are frustrated. Those businesses who alleviate that frustration with quality engagement without spin at all levels will thrive in the new era.

Those who don’t, won’t have a prayer.


Do businesses really need to tell stories? Isn’t that getting away from the point? Yes. And that’s precisely the point – getting away from the point. Until we customers trust and engage with a brand, we are wary that the business cares more about lining its silken pockets than knowing us and providing us with something meaningful. Our defenses our high. We smell hype. The only way to penetrate this mental fortress is with the trojan horse of emotional story. Consider this story within a story.

King David sent his men off to war and stayed home, basking in his own luxury and power at the palace while his soldiers risked their lives to maintain national peace. One day, he spied a married woman bathing, and he sent for her. He slept with her. He got her pregnant. He tried to cover up his sin by inviting her husband back from the war to stay with his wife, but the soldier slept outside, not wanting to experience pleasure while his men suffered on the battlefield. David, terrified of the consequences of his actions, then used his power to order the woman’s husband abandoned in battle, leaving him to die alone at the hands of the enemy.

Now God loved David, but he hated what David had done. He wanted David to see just how ugly his sin really was so that he would change. But David’s defenses were high. He had already murdered a man to protect himself. Any outright finger pointing would only result in more denial and violence. So God sent Nathan, a prophet, to tell David a story.

“King David,” Nathan said. “Once upon a time there were two men – one rich, one poor. The rich man had thousands of sheep. The poor man had one, and it was his prized possession. He raised it from birth. It grew up with him as the family pet. It even ate from his plate, drank from his cup, and slept on his bed. He loved that lamb as if it were his own child.

One day the rich man had an out-of-town guest. He needed to serve dinner, but did not want to bother with the expense of losing one of his own animals. So he had a servant steal the poor man’s lamb. He slaughtered it, cooked it, and served it to the guest.”

King David jumped up in anger and said, “This man deserves to die!”

The prophet Nathan responded, “You are the man.”

The story goes on to explain that David instantly recognized the grievous error of his ways. He recognized the parallels between the story (which initially seemed to have nothing to do with the point Nathan had come to make) and his own ways. The point was hidden in the story until the very end.

If the point is true and the story well told, the message will be delivered. Take away truth, and you have a story that won’t resonate. Take away story, and you have a truth no one wants to hear.

Customer touch points need to be story driven. Here at Heritage Auctions, though we are still very much a work in progress, this comes a little easier because every item we sell is unique. It is typically historical, and the reason people want to buy it in the first place is that there is a story behind it. So when we present the hockey jersey that Mike Eruzione wore when he scored the winning goal against the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics, we retell the story of the “Miracle on Ice” – uniting everyone who already knows the story and engaging those who are just learning it for the first time. When we sell an autograph of Neil Armstrong, we of course try to recreate as best we can that “one small step for man.”

If you’re not familiar with the story-driven experiment on eBay that produced the book Significant Objects, take a look. The experiment generally proves that stories associated with average, low-value objects – even openly fictional stories – made the objects much more valuable than their non-storified counterparts.

We businesses must learn to share what we have to offer our customers through engaging, meaningful stories. Who is doing this well? LEGO leads the charge sharing the story of their origins. Oreo Cookies is strong in the social media space, leveraging the most meaningful stories in our culture and letting us know that they are with us. They are willing to modify their very product to join the story, as with this brilliant idea of selling red-stuffed Oreos to celebrate the Mars rover Curiosity’s landing.  I can’t say enough about this Dove video that I would title You are More Beautiful than You Think  it shows the story of several women and how they see themselves versus how others see them. At Heritage, we started a page on our website devoted to telling the stories of our employees and why they love their jobs. And who can say they were not moved by the Budweiser Superbowl commercial in 2013 telling the story of a young Clydesdale and his trainer – in which no one ever consumed a bottle of beer? This was a truly trojan horse.

Stories move us. They always will. If you want your business to thrive, move your customers with stories.

Customer experience is key for all points of the the customer journey, from discovery to consideration to engagement to conversion to ongoing loyalty. We instinctively know this and demand it when we have our customer hats on, but often when we step behind the counter we forget to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”

I take my dry cleaning to a tiny little shop in Uptown Dallas. I initially chose the business because it was close to work and seemed reasonably priced. I continue to go there simply because of the experience. The last time I dropped off my clothes, I was greeted by my first name and a smile. “How is your ankle today, Brian?” the woman asks. I then remember that I was limping the last time I came in, nursing a sprained ankle. She takes my clothes and tells me they will be ready by 5pm the next day. She never asks for money when I drop off my clothes. And, to my surprise, I got a text when the clothes were ready. I didn’t ask for it. I know it wasn’t automated. I don’t even remember giving out my mobile phone number. I pictured this nice woman sitting inside her shop, looking up my phone number, and typing me a message directly on her own mobile phone.

My clothes happen to always be nicely cleaned and pressed as I would expect, but what makes me go back is the experience. Beyond the quality work, I get a personal and friction-free encounter.

Personal experience. As a customer, I don’t care about your big data. You need to know my data. And not just my data, but the story it tells. Amazon knows me, and when I visit their home page I am greeted by name and list of suggested books – often new books from favorite authors that I didn’t even know were written. I have made many impulse purchases based solely on Amazon’s suggestions.

We have no excuse for not leveraging the insights in our big data to create quality customer experiences.

Providing good experience does not mean you have to have a full-service gas station with attendants airing up tires and filling up the tank for you. Self-service is often the best form of experience.

For example, at Heritage we recently allowed customers to opt in to get a text message around 30-40 lots before the item they were interested in came up for live bidding. The link in the text launches the live auction software and allows the customer to bid in real-time as if (s)he were present wherever the floor auction is taking place. We have received many compliments for this experience, even though it can only occur when the customer takes advantage of the self-service system.

Friction-free experience. Once a week at work, a large group on my time orders lunch in so we can stay focused in the office, but still take care of our grumbling stomachs. Someone always gets the task of taking the orders and fulfilling them accurately. I am amazed at how many restaurants simply provide a PDF menu online and nothing else, leaving one poor person here strapped with taking 25 orders manually by email and then to translate over the phone. Very few establishments have the group order figured out. One of them that does is Chipotle.

I’m not a big fan of Chipotle’s food. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is fresh and tasty. I’m just not a burrito guy. But if I have to take the order, I become a burrito guy. Group ordering with Chipotle has a zero coefficient of friction. Contrast this with Jason’s Deli who, though I love them, frustrates me with their clunky ordering system. I avoid the group order because I would rather pick up the phone and call than deal with a web interface that hates me.

Analyze every step along the customer journey. Quantify the coefficient of friction at each stage. Then, break out the WD40 and go to work.


If you need a primer on symbolism, I suggest watching Simon Sinek’s TED Talk How Great Leaders Inspire ActionDon’t let the title fool you. Yes, it is about leadership. But the science behind it is the primer for understanding this truth: words can’t, don’t, and won’t communicate to the part of the brain that makes decisions. Only symbols can do that.

A symbol can be a photograph. A doodle. A physical object. It is anything that evokes something in what science would call the limbic brain or in what I would call the real you. The real you knows what you really want, and no amount of information can change that. A symbol, however, can move you to consider making a choice.

For example, as I write these words I am anxiously awaiting the eBay closing of a comic book that closes in less than 20 minutes and I am determined to win it.  You should know that I don’t own a single comic book. I don’t like comic books. I don’t collect comic books. So why do I want this comic book? Because it is a powerful symbol for me and probably many others. It is Mystery Tales #40, the comic book used in a very key scene of an episode of LOST.

I am a perennial fan of LOST (<– spoiler alert)partly because it was a story filled with rich symbolism. Owning Mystery Tales #40 allows me to actually own one of those symbols and relive, to some degree, the feelings that it evoked in the story itself.

Update: I lost, even with a bid that was way over market for that issue. I am convinced a fellow LOST fan bought it for the same reasons that I wanted it. Congratulations to him. That’s the power of symbolism.

Customer touch points need the right symbols to reach those places in the real them that  words simply can’t express. And even if words could express them, no one wants a wordy touch point.

Art works are symbols. A study at NYU shows that when art touches a nerve, the brain lights up. The brain network activated during an intense response to art overlaps with the brain network associated with inward contemplation and self assessment.

“The aesthetic experience is a simple beholding of the object….
you experience a radiance. You are held in aesthetic arrest.”
 – Joseph Campbell.

How do you use symbols practically? In at least two ways…

Leverage universal symbols where appropriate. Some symbols are already etched into the limbic brains of your entire audience. The dollar sign ($), for example, is a universal symbol in America and beyond. On a menu in a restaurant the dollar sign is a negative symbol – it reminds me of the pain I will feel when my money leaves my wallet. Some restaurants and studies have determined that removing the dollar sign from the menu and just presenting the number itself eases the customers’ pain and makes them more willing to spend. In this case, the removal of a negative symbol is the key.

Social media symbols placed next to online media communicate without words that a click will let me share it with my sphere of influence in the social space of my choice.

Create new symbols and bond them to memorable experiences. Brand logos, images, and other symbols we create can become meaningful symbols to customers when combined with emotional experiences.

Just below the words I am typing on WordPress, I see the symbol you see to the right. Next to it are the words “request feedback on this draft before publishing.” Because I feel vulnerable in imagining my blog riddled with spelling errors and other mistakes, this symbol suddenly becomes meaningful to me. It reminds me to be careful about proofreading. I don’t need the words any longer. WordPress has created a new symbol for me. Nice job. And, because I can’t help it, I have to go back to the red-stuffed Oreos. The symbol they created showing an open Oreo cookie with Curiosity’s tracks going through the red stuffing is just brilliant.

Nobel Prize

Where I work, symbols are our business. We share these symbols with the world when they become available. Seeing them in person can create powerful experiences. Here is just one amazing story…

I went to NYC today in part to view a medal coming up for auction – the Nobel Prize medal awarded to Dr. Francis Crick, one of the men responsible for the discovery of DNA. For a few brief minutes, I held in the palm of my hand a specimen that represented a leap in scientific understanding and the common link between all humans, the very same medal once held by the man responsible for the discovery. The medal, solid 23 karat gold, and not more than 2in in diameter, was a tactile bridge across time, and the opportunity to cradle it in my palm almost impossible to imagine. Think of all the crimes that would have gone unsolved, the children who wouldn’t know who their parents were, and all the other developments that would have never been made if not for DNA.

I am beyond grateful to have had such a meaningful experience.

Stories, experiences, and symbols are the native languages of our clients. As businesses, we need to learn these languages if we want to effectively communicate to our valued customers and customers-to-be. If we do, doing business with us will seem indigenous (as it should).

P.S. I have already pre-ordered my copy of Brian Solis’ What’s the Future of Business?, which discusses how to address these issues more specifically through experience design. I encourage you to do the same.


Brian Shipman is the CIO of Heritage Auctions – a fantastically unique place to work. Heritage’s mission is to help people successfully acquire or pass on rare and significant objects that have both monetary and soul-stirring value. His job is to create a quality customer experience using the red carpet of technology.

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  1. […] ← Why Storytelling, Experience, and Symbolism Engage Customers […]

  2. […] to end well. A success for someone else could signal a potential success for us as well. This article from Brian Shipman’s CIO Explorer blog explains why customers want to be enchanted, and how some businesses are successfully doing this […]

  3. […] Why Storytelling, Experience, and Symbolism Engage Customers […]

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