How great marketers tell stories

April 18, 2014, 4:00 PM UTC
How a Louisville Slugger is born

This is Part 5 of a series for by Jim Stengel,  former global CMO of Procter & Gamble and author of Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies. In today’s Guest Post and his final Guest Post next Friday, Jim digs into the best practices of the best ideal-based companies and explores how they outgrow their competition.

FORTUNE — Stepping into the temperature-controlled vault, we felt like we were in the presence of baseball’s immortal greats.

We were inside a hallowed sanctum at Louisville Slugger: an archive of bat models, each custom-designed to the specifications of a pro. The models fill horizontal racks that line the walls. Reaching to a slot marked R43, Marketing VP Kyle Schlegel reverently withdrew one. “This was the template for all of Babe Ruth’s bats,” he whispered.

According to legend, the iconic Louisville Slugger bat was born in 1884, when a 17-year-old baseball fan invited a major league player to his father’s woodworking shop. The star of the Louisville Eclipse was mired in a hitting slump and had broken his bat. The teen handcrafted a new bat to the player’s specifications. The next day the Louisville star got three hits.

The Brand Ideal, or Purpose, of Louisville Slugger is “to make players great.” That statement could sound like puffery, except that the stories surrounding the brand make it plain and true. This is the case for most Ideal-driven businesses. Stories make the Ideal wheel spin.

Much has been written about the importance of storytelling in marketing and management, but nowhere do tales have a taller order than inside the walls of Ideal-driven companies. They bring definition to the Ideal. They authenticate it and animate it. They inspire and direct its activation.  They reaffirm the course and perpetuate the narrative.

In our year-long journey visiting Ideal-driven companies, we uncovered two types of stories that are particularly nutritive to the Ideal agenda.  The first is what Jonah Sachs, author of Winning the Story Wars, calls “genesis stories.”

Genesis stories illuminate the motivation behind the brand or the company at its founding. Like the baseball fan milling a bat for a pro, every great business is a response to a real and specific customer need. And the genesis story clarifies this.

At Unilever, the genesis story provides inspiration and direction for CEO Paul Polman. In the months before he took charge in 2009, he studied Unilever’s genesis. As an outside hire, he made it his business to know the heritage story better than most anyone else.

That story began in the 1890s with William Hesketh Lever, who sought to use his new Sunlight brand soap to “make cleanliness commonplace” and mitigate hygiene-related problems that plagued Victorian England. In late 19th century Britain, one of every two babies would not survive their first year.

According to Polman, Lever would ask himself, “How do I grow, grow, grow so that more people get the benefit?”

Today, Polman says, “the issues have just moved to sub-Saharan Africa and India” — where another of William Lever’s creations, Lifebuoy soap, is there to help the cause. “Lifebuoy is exactly what the name says.”

The second type of story we observed is the customer impact story. This narrative documents the life-improving effects of an enterprise. For example, last year, Unilever’s Lifebuoy team created a three-minute film to promote hand washing in India.  The video depicts a father giving thanks for his son’s fifth birthday.  The closing sequence reveals that the son is the man’s first child to survive his fifth year.

The Lifebuoy film has been viewed on YouTube almost 19 million times.

Customer impact stories don’t have to recount saved lives to be powerful. Edmunds, which provides online services for car buyers, used video testimonials to share what its Brand Ideal—“Simplifying life’s big decisions”—means for its customers. One video shows how the Edmunds website empowered a 74-year-old woman to purchase her “ticket to independence.” Another celebrates a mother’s new-found mobility.

Edmund’s President & COO Seth Berkowitz says, “The videos reflect exactly what we would like to think we’re all about — and the mission we’re trying to live.”

For seven years until 2008, Jim Stengel was the chief global marketing officer at Procter & Gamble , where he oversaw an $8 billion advertising budget and 7,000 employees. Now heading a consulting firm/think tank aptly called The Jim Stengel Company, he advises companies on how to grow globally by driving ideals. He’s the author of Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies, which uses a 10-year study involving 50,000 brands to show how at the best companies, financial performance relates to an ability to connect with fundamental human emotions, values and greater purposes. Stengel, 58, is also an adjunct professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and on the board of directors of AOL . He’s writing this series for with Chris Allen, the Arthur Beerman Professor of Marketing at the University of Cincinnati.