How bad storytelling ruined online grocery shopping

July 21, 2011

Or the nine most common reasons why so much of corporate storytelling sucks

I stumbled upon an interesting article in “Technology Review” when I was traveling last week about a new shopping service in South Korea that transforms a subway station wall into a virtual grocery store. Using cell phones, commuters snap photos of the toilet paper or sushi they want to buy, and the items are automatically delivered to their homes before they return from work. Pretty cool.

It all reminded me of the salad days (literally and figuratively), when online grocery shopping was supposed to transform the way Americans buy groceries, and Gregory FCA was working with a now defunct online grocery concept in New England. The company was admittedly so far ahead of the curve that it eventually ran off the road and into a ditch.

The problems were legion. Slow Internet dial-up speeds back then bogged down shoppers as they waited for the site to load. Delivering groceries to suburban homes proved a logistical nightmare, requiring the company to install free refrigerators in customers’ garages for deliveries while working families were not at home. Entrenched behavior prevented shoppers from ever believing they could order the perfect cantaloupe without thumping it for themselves.

Even more disastrous, though, was the company’s own narrative. Back in the dot-com days, newly minted and funded companies refused to tell simple, understandable stories, preferring to speak in broad, cultural, or economic terms about their concept and business plan.

The management team argued that the company was not about grocery shopping. Rather, it was a “content aggregator that served as a conduit connecting services and products to the home, completing the all-elusive final mile that was thwarting the online revolution.”

It all made no sense to shoppers, who simply wanted the best quality groceries at the best possible price delivered conveniently. No one got it. No one bought it. Like Webvan, another high-flying online grocery store concept that raised nearly $400 million in an IPO back in the day, our client died the same sock puppet death as, leaving a bunch of overly smart techies to lament that customers “just don’t get it.”

Oh, they got it alright. Simplicity rules. Think Apple if you don’t believe me, and its uniquely understandable boilerplate.

Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App Store, and has recently introduced iPad 2 which is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices.

Or Microsoft, whose entire boilerplate boils down to this.

Founded in 1975, Microsoft (Nasdaq “MSFT”) is the worldwide leader in software, services and solutions to help people and businesses realize their full potential.

Hasn’t the world come to realize that the length of a company’s boilerplate or story is inversely related to the length of time it has been in business or will be in business? The longer, more convoluted the story, the less significant the business is in the first place. So here, for the first time, I will share with you the primary reasons why so much of corporate storytelling sucks:

1. My investors or investment bank just told me the story we need to sell to get the highest valuation. Oh really? Is that the story that no one can understand? All too often, investors live in echo chambers with the reverberations making it impossible for anyone to understand what’s being said.

2. If we make it understandable, no one will appreciate our true value. Nonsense. People value “The New York Times,” and an eighth-grader can read it. The real sign of intelligence is the ease with which you can convey information.

3. We need to define a new category for ourselves, so let’s make something up! Thanks Gartner and Forrester for the endless supply of buzzwords and categories that allow you to sell your magic quadrants. In the real world, people need analogies to understand meaning. Our brains are constructed to find context and make connections. Simply making up new terms and new categories only confuses the story for the masses.

4. We’re not good enough with words to tell it correctly. Good communication is like fly fishing. You need to use the right fly. Cast it at the right time. And place it directly on the rising trout. That’s how you catch the fish. Too often, bad communications is simply the result of those who don’t know when and how to use the right flies. And they end up just scaring the fish away.

5. Legal will never let us say it like that. Lawyers believe that jargon is a surrogate for accuracy. How many times in a news release or corporate communications do you see something like this? Gregory FCA (hereafter referred to as Company). Come on. Really? Do we need that seeping into every aspect of our language?

6. If we just find the perfect words, it will make or break the company. Haha, I love this one. It’s nothing more than an excuse to get nothing done. The constant edits. The revisions. All based on the flawed notion that there’s the perfect expression of meaning. Move on. It doesn’t exist. Communications is art, and art takes many forms.

7. The emperor doesn’t know good from bad. I will call it the “Amadeus Syndrome,” culled from the movie. Mozart just writes the perfect concerto and rushes to hear what the king thinks of it. Not knowing good from bad, he hesitates, and then says, “Too many notes.” I have no advice on this one, except to quote another movie. “It’s good to be king.”

8. Group speak works. No it doesn’t. Ever try to listen to two people talking at the same time? I can’t tell you how many times a document comes back with five different tracked changes. Accepting them all misses some important fundamentals of communications, like sentences need verbs.

9. Everything is important. Let’s put everything upfront. I love this one. The CEO spends the afternoon plowing fact after fact into the first sentence or paragraph of a news release. Yes, brevity is good. But stories have to unfold. Sequence builds drama and pushes an audience forward.

So no. Online shopping has nothing to do with aggregating content or completing the final mile. That kind of storytelling just thwarts a company’s ability to connect with its customers and markets. Effective storytelling is a rich blench of artistry, language, and real business consequences.

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Deika Elmi
7 years 9 months ago
great article thank you, I live in Italy and here we have big problems with comapnies talking down to consumers, there is little respect for the consumer, no refunds, your complaints are ignored and they the companies still act as companies did in the US 50 years ago. I train companies on how to use social media the right way, engaging, narrating oneself, humanizing the brand, and loving or caring for your end consumer. I meet a lot of resistance. Frankly this is an uphill battle and I feel worn out. It will be good to move back home this… Read more »