A 2009 storyfied marketing campaign featuring TOMS Shoes demonstrates how companies can leverage stories about their partners for authentic, effective marketing.

Founded in 2006, Toms Shoes is most famous for the One for One business model that Founder and Chief Shoe Giver Blake Mycoskie pioneered. For each pair of shoes purchased, the company provided a free pair of shoes for a child in need. Over 10 years, Toms delivered attractive, new shoes to around 50 million children (Toms’ social mission has pivoted in recent years). In the company’s early days, Mycoskie managed much of his business remotely from a BlackBerry. When he mentioned this in an interview with the press, his mobile provider, AT&T, recognized a win-win-win opportunity. 

“I was actually doing an interview and talking about the fact that I run my business from my phone,” Mycoskie recalls in a YouTube video posted by AT&T. “It was a source of pride … and someone from AT&T saw that and was like, ‘That’s a commercial!’” (see above) 

Thus, a great storyfied marketing campaign was launched.

Mycoskie continues: 

“Every person that encountered the initial idea was really supportive. So interestingly enough, my business colleagues were like, ‘I don’t see any money in doing this, giving a pair of shoes each time you sell a pair.’  

“But our customers loved it. And so that’s ultimately what built the business. Then, when the AT&T commercial came out, millions of people who had never heard about TOMS were hearing about it for the first time and just going on the website, talking about it on social, it was just like this crazy phenomenon.” 

TOMS itself was built on the foundation of well-told stories. The company’s partnership with AT&T created a huge opportunity for both businesses to promote themselves in a hyper-effective, authentic way. 

“I know it’s so rare that a company like AT&T has such a critical part of our history,” Mycoskie states. “And that’s why it’s really fun to do this again and celebrate our tenth anniversary, and everything that we’ve done with [AT&T] because the people at AT&T have been huge supporters ever since that first time.” 

As a case study, this encompasses all the benefits of storyfied marketing: 

1. Lower cost of production. AT&T didn’t have to hire an actor/actors, write and approve a script, or do a lot of staging. 

2. Authentic, empathic and memorable content. Instead, the telecoms firm found a much more authentic voice for its brand in Toms Founder Blake Mycoskie. Rather than focus on itself (an overdog), AT&T focused on a social enterprise doing good in a wanting world (an underdog). People love underdogs and tend to be indifferent, at best, to overdogs. 

3. Stronger business partnerships. TOMS, the featured client company (and hero) benefitted from a dramatic increase in brand recognition and sales. If you were running TOMS, would you be likely to ditch AT&T if a lower-cost provider came along? 

TOMS Shoes

4. Inherent social good. More sales and brand recognition means more kids benefitted directly from TOMS’ social mission. The stories themselves were inspiring and uplifting, which is a good thing in itself. 

5. Increased goodwill. A telecoms behemoth showed a concrete example of how it does good in a wanting world. And goodwill is a hard business asset—ask any accountant. 

To hell with trade-offs 

Whether you look at this through a social lens or as a hard-nosed business decision, it makes sense. The company that produced the commercial (the guide/AT&T) leveraged the client company’s (TOMS’) story to great effect. 

This is more overtly self-promotional than my approach to storyfied marketing usually is, but it’s authentic, effective marketing.  

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The Future of Storyfied Marketing 

My sense is that, in time, people will become increasingly wary of overt self-promotion, even packaged in story form. The most successful campaigns will paradoxically be the ones almost entirely focused on the clients, customers and beneficiaries of work organizations do. They’ll be least focused on the company itself—the guide. This is not something I see through a moral lens—there’s nothing objectionable about honest self-promotion—I just think its effectiveness will continue to decline. 

Trusting the audience to connect the dots is, in my view, a crucial part of the recipe for successful storyfied marketing. The TOMS/AT&T campaign neatly ties the two companies together and lends deeper purpose to a technology (BlackBerry & wireless internet) that might be considered faceless.  

I’m not positive I can predict the future, but this isn’t about reading tea leaves. It’s about observing trends and shifting biases. Storyfied marketing will increasingly become about the client/customer/beneficiary/end user, as opposed to the company actually doing the marketing. 

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