Africa has had a rich tradition of storytelling, with its rich imagery and inspiring characters, that has connected communities for eons. Yet, as businesses become entangled in the intricacies of managing a venture or increasing market share, it is easy to forget just how powerful a tool storytelling can be as a means to connect with customers.

The ability to craft and share a compelling and authentic narrative can be a transformative force in any business’s journey. A unique story not only helps differentiate a business from competitors, it also enables it to connect emotionally with its audience, building a sense of trust and loyalty that goes beyond mere transactions.

The brand story is an essential piece of any business toolkit. However, it is a skill that needs to be honed in order to have  greater impact.

Stories as a business tool  

In a recent teaching session that I conducted for a group of entrepreneurs in the GIBS Entrepreneurship Academy programme, entitled TOOLUP: Expanding Your Business Toolkit, we discussed the profound impact that crafting a unique story can have on how businesses connect with customers.

The brand story informs decision-making, marketing strategies, and customer interactions, all while reminding the founders of their passion and purpose and why they started the business. During the teaching session, participants were encouraged to delve deep into their personal and professional experiences, values and aspirations, to create a story that they felt would resonate with their target market. What emerged was that when businesses take the time to create their unique stories, they can become a beacon to guide them in their business endeavours.

Stories can be told from multiple points of view: that of the founder, or the reimagined journey of the business, or from the perspective of the client. No matter their form, they need to be unique and speak to the vision of the company. All good stories, though, consist of three elements: authenticity, a compelling narrative and alignment with the business’s strategy.

Authenticity

Authenticity lies at the heart of any compelling story. It not only creates a memorable brand but also fosters trust and loyalty among customers and stakeholders, because it shows how businesses remain true to their own spirit and values.

A brand that has skilfully embraced authenticity is the South African sneaker brand Bathu. Multi-award-winning Theo Baloyi needed his story to connect to the experiences and aspirations of South African youth. Bathu exemplifies how businesses can integrate authentic stories into products and services that thrive in the market. Baloyi asked, “What are we as South Africans doing to tell our stories?” His solution: a stylish shoe brand with an African story. Bathu has cultivated a loyal following and has become a symbol of pride within the African sneaker market.

Another brand that is a symbol of African success is that of African cement and commodities giant Dangote. Its story focuses on the rise of its founder and CEO, Aliko Dangote, who is Africa’s richest man. After completing his degree at the age of 21, Dangote borrowed $3 000 from his uncle to start importing and selling agricultural commodities in Nigeria. It is a story of tenacity and hard work, as he grew his business to become one of Africa’s leading industrialists and philanthropists. In 2019 Dangote donated $20 million to The Africa Centre in New York to challenge negative stereotypes around the African continent.

It is in these narratives that African businesses share their triumphs over adversity. In the words of African brand specialist Thebe Ikalafeng, “You’ll meet a lot of naysayers and non-believers – your job is not to prove them wrong but prove yourself right.” This is how authentic stories inspire their customers.

A compelling narrative 

A good story also needs a compelling narrative. This enables businesses to lead with their values, attracting like-minded stakeholders who become integral to the brand’s narrative. Together, the business and these stakeholders are able to form a community driven by shared beliefs, propelling the business towards greater heights.

During the teaching session participants learned how to structure their narrative effectively. We explored techniques through:

  • incorporating a compelling opening
  • highlighting key turning points, and
  • emphasising the impact their business aims to make.

A memorable story can be created by weaving together personal anecdotes, customer testimonials, and the vision behind their venture. By doing this, businesses are able to create their own memorable stories.

Founded in 1975 by Dr. Sam Motsuenyane and Dr. Richard Maponya with just R70, African Bank aimed to level the economic playing field, creating a bank by and for the people. Despite initial financial challenges, the dynamic team raised the R1 million then required from the South African Reserve Bank, and launched African Bank. And today? Despite financial storms, the bank boasted a net profit of R372 million in May 2022, shining as a unique story of resilience it coined as “The Audacity to Believe”.

Aligning the story with the business strategy

Interestingly, the teaching session emphasised that storytelling should not exist in isolation but rather align with the overall business strategy. An authentic story takes the business beyond transactional relationships as it forges emotional connections and builds a community around the brand. For this reason, entrepreneurs were guided on integrating their unique story into various aspects of their business, such as marketing campaigns, branding, and customer experience.

A brand that has put its strategy into its story is CIMAS, the medical risk insurer that has revolutionised healthcare solutions in Zimbabwe. Established in 1945, CIMAS boasts a remarkable eight-decade legacy as a premier medical aid provider. This staying power and resilience is a testament to its unique African story as today, despite the challenges on the continent, the brand remains unwavering in its dedication to offering unique, comprehensive, and high-quality primary healthcare service.

The story is about the customer

Finally, in order to align with the business strategy, business leaders need to take their personal experiences and combine them with the desires, challenges and aspirations of their target audience.  Ultimately, the story is about the customer.

Armed with this knowledge, businesses are able to tailor their story to resonate with their audiences and establish a powerful connection that goes beyond transaction. As Seth Godin says, “People do not buy goods and services. They buy relationships, stories and magic.”

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Storytelling is an essential tool in the business toolkit.
  • Good storytelling is a skill and needs to be honed to have maximum impact.
  • Good stories are authentic, have a compelling narrative and align with the business strategy.
  • All businesses can benefit from having a compelling story to connect with customers.
  • Stories are about the customer.

Dr. Faith Mashele is a chartered procurement and supply professional (FCIPS, UK) with extensive experience. Before joining GIBS Business School as faculty, she led procurement COE at Nedbank and served as the financial director for expenditure at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT). She has been celebrated on various platforms including the Top 100 Most Influential Supply Chain Women in Africa.

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