It started with an elementary school writing assignment. I was probably 8 years old. Our teacher asked us to write a poem about someone we admired. I still remember the opening lines of my poem. It went like this: “There once was a boxer named Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali as he would say.” It was my way of introducing one of the most famous sports heroes of all time. The poem chronicled Ali’s triumphant victory in which he won the World Heavyweight title in an epic fight with Joe Frazier. I still remember the beginning of the final stanza of the poem: “In the 15th round Ali saw, an open path to Frazier’s jaw.”
At the time, Ali was not only an extraordinarily talented boxer, but he was a uniquely gifted self-promoter. His ability to rise above the noise and garner attention made him the kind of sports hero that could captivate a worldwide audience. In pre-fight press conferences, he would declare himself as “the greatest fighter of all time.” He came up with colorful ways to describe his boxing style: “I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” he would say. He was a master psychologist and knew how to intimidate his opponents and get under their skin. In one of his most famous championship fights known as “Thrilla in Manilla,” Ali found himself up against the ropes getting beaten badly by Joe Frazier. The quintessential provocateur, it was at that moment that Ali said to Frazier, “Is that all you got?” Angered by his taunting, Frazier turned it on so much that he wore himself out. Ali won the fight by TKO.
For an 8-year old sports enthusiast, Ali was mesmerizing. He was the reason my brother and I asked for boxing gloves for Christmas. We used to box each other in the basement of our New Jersey home. We’d invite other kids in our neighborhood to our basement during the cold winter months where we would have all-day boxing matches, until the one left standing would declare himself “The greatest fighter of all time.” On Christmas day, when we were required to be civil to each other, my brother and I spent hours playing Rock’em Sock’em Robots- today’s equivalent of video games.
About a decade later, well after we had hung up our boxing gloves, Muhammad Ali had established a training camp in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. My bother and I were in college at the time, and one night he and his fraternity bothers cooked up an ingenious plan, the kind of plan that only a bunch of inebriated college kids could come up with. They decided they would make Muhammad Ali an honorary member of their fraternity Zeta Psi. They had a cheesy plaque made up with fake walnut veneer and an official-looking certificate with words honoring Ali and recognizing him as an official member of Zeta Psi fraternity at Lehigh University. They called up Ali’s training camp and talked their way into having a meeting during which they would present Ali with this prestigious, once-in-a-lifetime honorary membership in their fraternity.
As President of his fraternity, my brother was designated as the one to present the plaque to Ali along with the fraternity’s Treasurer. Despite the years of head trauma I had suffered during those marathon boxing matches in our basement, I still had enough brain cells left to recognize this as a unique opportunity so I invited myself, arguing that the ceremony would not be sanctioned without an “official witness.” As we drove through the windy roads of the Pocono Mountains, I remember wondering why anyone would want to set up a training camp in such a remote, hard-to-get to kind of place, but I guess that is what you do when you want to eliminate distractions.
We arrived late morning just as Ali was starting his workout. We stood ringside and watched him spar with a tall muscular guy who didn’t stand a chance. Our faces pressed up against the ropes, we could feel the vibrations of his punches and the sprinkle of flying sweat. I can still hear his manager barking instructions like “Stick and move,” and “Work inside out.” About an hour later, Ali was surrounded by members of his entourage. One guy was unlacing his gloves while another guy was cloaking him in a white robe- the plush kind you might find in your closet at a 5-star hotel, only this one had an Everlast logo.
Ali climbed out of the ring, and his manager led him over to us. “Hello boys,” he said. I replied, “It’s nice to meet you Mr. Ali.” “Call me Champ,” he said. “Ok,” I said. “It’s nice to meet you Champ.” His manager led us back to his dressing room. The Champ pulled up a small table and placed 4 chairs around it. “Have a seat, boys,” he said. He reached over and pulled out a deck of cards. He started doing card tricks for us- one after another. They were card tricks that required audience participation. I remember thinking that he was a consummate entertainer. After about 15 minutes, his manager came in and said “Ok, boys, time to wrap it up.” Had it not been for the manager, I think the Champ could have gone on for hours entertaining us.
We all can relate to a good story. They create meaning for us. Stories connect with people on an emotional level, and it’s that emotional connection with a brand or a product that drives purchase decisions. Features, benefits, facts, and figures are easily forgotten. But we remember good stories. Creating a story around your company or product and incorporating your story into a point-of-purchase display is a time-tested way to drive sales and create brand loyalty.
Consider, for example, the story of Flex Watches, a California-based, charity-centric watch company who created a story and supporting business model built on donating 10% of sales to 10 charities that were represented by 10 colors. There are lots of cause-marketing companies out there that donate money to good causes, but Flex Watches took a unique approach in the way they designed their entire product line around their charitable mission. Their cool line of watches is visually vibrant with each color representing a different charity.
We designed a POP display for Flex Watches that incorporated bright colors and messaging like “Time to Make a Difference” to help tell the company’s story. The company and our display were featured on CNBC’s television show “The Profit.”
Another one of our customers is creating a brand with a story about saving rainforests around the world. Deforestation is destroying rainforests at a rate of 1.5 acres per second or 47.3 million acres a year. Soulstice’s new eco-bracelet is made from all-natural coconut shell beads. Each bracelet contains a real seed from the Amazon rainforest. Buy a bracelet, save 1 acre of Amazon rainforest. Each bracelet comes with a plant-able intention card to give customers the opportunity to personalize their purchase. Soulstice’s value proposition is simple. Its story is compelling and easy for us to connect with emotionally.
There are thousands of great examples of company and product stories. You don’t have to have a charitable mission to have a story that resonates with customers. Everyone has a story. Crafting your story in an authentic and memorable way that connects with target customers is where the magic happens. Think about what your customers care about, what they value, and how your story can make that emotional connection with them. Storytelling is an art. Storytelling, if well executed, can set your company apart from your competitors and create a special bond with your customers that can be hard to break.
As we exited Ali’s dressing room, my brother asked the Champ for a quick picture to commemorate his official acceptance of the award. The Champ graciously obliged. That’s my brother on the left and the Treasurer on the right. Eager to fulfill my responsibility as the official witness, I enthusiastically volunteered to snap the photo. It didn’t dawn on me until we had exited the training facility that by being the one who snapped the photo meant that I was not in the photo. Sadly, I missed an historic photo op. While I might not have a photo, what I do have is my story to tell. It’s a story I’ll never forget.