Storytelling for Product Managers — And Why It Matters

Storytelling is an important and often overlooked part of a Product Manager’s job.

As a Product Manager, if anyone asks you what makes your product unique and better than the competition, you can give a full list of reasons to rationally support your success. It’s the features. It’s the price, the performance, the novelty, etc.

And you’re probably using those same reasons to communicate with potential customers. 

But the best brands tell their customers something else: they tell them a story. Stories are more interesting than facts; they stick with us longer and connect with customers on an emotional level, not an intellectual one. 

Think of Apple vs. Samsung. Hundreds of listicles can make the case that Samsung phones are better quality than iPhones, but it doesn’t really matter. There’s a baseline phone quality that users expect, of course, but beyond this the real differentiating factor is emotion. Apple has a far stronger emotional connection with customers than Samsung does. And it’s because Samsung advertises features, while Apple advertises feelings. Take the following ads:

Ad for Galaxy S21 Phone. Dark background with phone in center. The ad says: "Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G"
Source: Samsung
Ad for iPhone 12 Pro. The ad has a picture of a young woman lying on the floor with her phone, filming something. The ad says "iPhone 12 Pro "Make movies like the movies."
Source: Apple

A customer seeing these ads gets this message: If I buy Samsung I get Ultra 5G. Okay, awesome. I don’t fully understand what 5G is, but it’s Ultra so it must be good. But if I buy Apple? I can be a filmmaker. The customer feels inspired because Apple is fueling their aspirations. In the Samsung ad, the phone is the protagonist. But in the Apple ad, it’s the user.

Story completely shifts the users’ relationship not only with the product, but with the brand itself. It can be extremely useful, but you have to know how to do it right. 

You might also enjoy: Emotional Intelligence for Product Management

Story begins with brand

White flowers on top of open book

Building an emotional relationship with your customer-base can’t be a one-off gimmick. Storytelling is long-term communication for your brand. You’re not hitting users over the head with story to elicit an emotional response; you’re luring them in, enticing them with the story of who you are, and who they can be by associating with you

And keep in mind: not every brand can tell every story.

Nike can run campaigns like “Find Your Greatness” and “Just Do It” because they’ve built a brand around resilience and action. Other brands could not run those campaigns believably. Think of how you would feel if Colgate told you to find your greatness. It doesn’t land the same way.

How do you know what stories your company can get away with? Through strong brand identity and communication.

Check out: Branding for Builders from Former Amazon VP of Product

Start with the why

Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle is a great place to begin solidifying brand. The steps are simple: figure out your Why, How, and What.

Take a step back from product, just for a moment. Look at the whole picture of your company and think about its purpose, cause, or belief – the core reason you exist. 

  • Do you want to change the world through education?
  • Do you believe in making health accessible to everyone?
  • Do you want to enable people to get the most out of every hour of the day? 
Man on running track in start position

Your Why is what sets you apart from other businesses with similar products, helping customers choose you in the first place and then stay loyal to you. Every good company has a North Star, a clear vision and direction that aligns with their Why. The trick is translating it to customers.

Once you know your Why, break it down into specifics. You have a purpose; now convince your audience of your unique value proposition. 

  • Have you designed a new technology? 
  • Are you disrupting a market with your business model? 
  • Do you have access to resources or processes that are hard to replicate?

And finally, the What. We’re back to product. Counterintuitively, product is the last thing you should talk about. Like in the Samsung vs. Apple example, consumers don’t understand enough about features to make them the deciding factor. Even if the product and features are groundbreaking, consumers need a strong brand and a good story to convince them of it. 

So if we break down Apple’s brand Simon Sinek style, it goes: “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently (Why). The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly (How). We just happen to make great phones (What).” 

Telling the story takes it one step further: “And the great phones we make? They can make YOU into a filmmaker.” Apple isn’t selling a phone. It’s selling excitement and possibility, and it can do that believably because it knows its brand and its Why. 

Product and brand are inseparable, and work together to engage the customer. The trick of storytelling is to communicate your brand in a way that makes your customer the protagonist, using product as the vehicle. 

Where product meets story

Keep in mind: your product isn’t the whole story, but a part of it. A plot point. So as a product manager, your job is to understand your role in the story. Is your product the side character that pushes them to reach their goals? Are you the glass slipper, or the bowl of porridge that’s just right? You want your product to have a positive impact during the customer journey and be part of the conflict resolution. 

Side profile of girl reading book

You already conduct user research, so you know how important user-centric thinking is. You keep users’ emotional needs in mind when conceptualizing, designing, and launching your product. Storytelling is the same; user-centric and emotion-driven.

Though storytelling is most important for product launch and marketing strategy, having this core emotional goal in mind throughout the product process makes the end story better. If you address an emotional need, the story can believably center the users’ emotional journey. 

With product management you identify a problem, find a solution, and work towards it. Storytelling is just as strategic; the emotional response elicited is intentional. As with product, the emotion targeted must be backed up with user data, a process that is most effective when connected to the emotional goal of the product.

As much as we like to think that we’re rational beings, we make emotion-driven decisions. People buy stories, not products. The ability to situate yourself in brand and customer stories is a useful tool to create products that are true to the company mission and fulfill customers’ emotional needs — as well as a valuable skill to motivate employees and get support from the higher management.  

As a product manager, you work with many different kinds of people. Storytelling, a deeply human practice, is just another way to understand and communicate with them.

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