Steve Clayton looks surprisingly alert, having stepped off a plane from Seattle at 2.30am with a 7:15am appointment to deliver a rousing presentation on storytelling in Singapore. If I was in the same position as Clayton, I’d look more beat-up than upbeat.

Despite the early hour, the Chief Storyteller of Microsoft is ready to wow the crowd about how brands can harness stories that electrify audiences.

It shouldn’t be too hard a task. After all, says Clayton, “we are designed from birth to consume and tell stories.” But can dry-as-Digestive-biscuit corporations tell exciting stories, ones with emotions and challenges and heroes?

 

Thinking Outside the (X)box

Indeed they can. Break your story into People, Places, Process and Product, he says, and include at least two of these facets in your tale. For example, the Xbox. “Don’t tell the story of the Xbox itself — tell it through the eyes of people who created it.”

See, he says, this was a point when the (literally) game-changing Nintendo Wii transformed how we looked at controllers. Microsoft wanted to get in on the game. “We think we can do controller-less gaming,” is how one boffin put it. Thus the idea for the Kinect was born: a camera that captured your movements and channelled it into pixels.

Pretty sci-fi stuff, but “someone must have research on this technology,” the Microsoft team said. So they scoured the databases of universities and think tanks across the world, and came up dry. Until one day they found the perfect research white paper. Huzzah! “So who came up with this? What company do we have to buy?” the team asked feverishly. Then they saw the liner at the bottom of the paper — it was research written by Microsoft a decade ago, research that had been completely forgotten until then.

 

Telling Tales

That is a story that furthers your appreciation of already amazing technology. Which got us thinking: what other stories lurk behind iconic products? Our favourite examples are below, but first, imagine the potential if brands embraced these stories.

To companies that whimper, “We don’t think customers will want to hear about how many versions it took to perfect this car/coffee mug/nanotech laser massager,” I’d answer with a hearty yes, they do. Failure, risk-taking and crazy coincidences — what could make for a greater story? Because, as Clayton says, when brands engage in storytelling, “You’re in the theatre business.”

So, give your audience a great story, and they may just appreciate your product all the more. That makes for a far less combative way to engage with your customers, he adds. Instead of hitting them over the head with your message: “It’s laying breadcrumbs of a story to help people see.”

 

1. Made You Look

If you examine your pant zipper for a second — maybe make sure nobody’s looking first — I bet you’ll see three tiny letters stamped on it: YKK. It stands for the Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikikaisha (you can see why they shortened it), and it’s estimated this Japanese company makes between 50 and 90 percent of the world’s zippers.

 

2. Sweet Surprise

In 1972 a researcher at Queen Elizabeth College, London, was tinkering around with hundreds of chemicals by altering just one molecule: sucralose. The idea was that this tinkering might have applications for fungicides, pesticides or furniture polish.

The researcher, Shashikant Phadnis, was asked by his boss if he had “tested” a certain molecule. Phadnis misheard this as, “Have you tasted it?” and promptly placed the manipulated sugar molecule on his tongue. Hey presto — sucralose, an artificial sugar 600 times sweeter than the real thing, was born. Today the artificial sweetener market is worth over US$1 billion in the US alone.

 

3. Drop that Cigarette!

PEZ mints were originally sold as treats that encouraged people to stop smoking — hence why the dispenser looks like a lighter.

 

4. Speaking of Lighters…

Frank Sinatra was buried with a Zippo Lighter, Camel Cigarettes and a bottle of Jack Daniels. Why all three brands don’t use that fact in every single commercial is beyond me. Ol’ Blue Eyes was also buried with several dimes because, his daughter told press, “He never wanted to get caught not able to make a phone call.”

 

5. This Art Sucks
Most of us will have enjoyed the saccharine joys of a Chupa Chup. These lollipops are famed for their design as much as their flavours. And rightly so.

In 1969 the founder of the brand had recently changed the name of the product to the one we know today (named after the Spanish word chupar or suck). Now he just needed a toothsome visual design. Sipping a lazy coffee with an artist friend one day, he asked if his buddy could have a stab at the logo.

That friend was Salvador Dali, who spent just an hour doodling ideas on café newspapers before settling on the trademark daisy design. What’s more, Dali insisted the name perch on top of the lolly, so that the logo could always be seen in full.

 

6. Wet Wet Wet

What did kids do before Angry Birds and Instagram? They played with Super Soakers, of course. The first prototype was invented by a nuclear engineer — using nothing more than a PVC pipe and a Coca-Cola bottle.

 

7. Mint Mystery
Did you know the inside of a Tic Tac dispenser lid is perfectly designed for you to drop a Tic Tac into? So yeah, you’re supposed to open those things upside down. Mind blown?

 

Product Design: a Playground for Stories


BY Daniel Seifert

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