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Chris Ashby
August 23, 2021

How to Disrupt Crowded and Outdated Industries By Empowering Your Users to Tell Incredible Stories

Using storytelling principles can often be the key to helping new products breakthrough in crowded or outdated industries. Here’s how.

Photo by DISRUPTIVO on Unsplash

Storytelling is incredibly powerful. It is the foundation of what makes us human, how we live and find our place in the world, how we build our identity, it informs who we spend time with, and the actions and conversations we chose to participate in.

Storytelling underpins humanity. It is our superpower, and what defines us. It enables us to drive incredible change, and affect countless people’s lives through the decisions we make.

When it comes to building and designing businesses, products, and experiences, it is what elevates the best above the rest.

But why is that?

Storytelling teaches us how to survive

At their most fundamental, and throughout history both modern and ancient, stories have taught us how to survive. Stories were told between tribes, between civilisations and between neighbours, cautionary tales, warnings of storms approaching or offers of wisdom and advice. Brian and Jesse from Belief Agency talk more about what we can learn from stories in times of crisis in their podcast series ‘You Are A Storyteller’, and Lisa Cron puts it succinctly and simply in the intro to her book ‘Wired For Story’:

“Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution — more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on, story told us what to hang on to. Story is what enabled us to imagine what might happen in the future, and so prepare for it — a feat no other species can lay claim to, opposable thumbs or not … Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our brain is hardwired to respond to story; the pleasure we derive from a tale well told is nature’s way of seducing us into paying attention. In other words, we’re wired to turn to story to teach us the way of the world.” — Lisa Cron, Wired For Story

It is useful to think of stories not just as works of fiction, novels, films or television shows, but also as the conversations we have with each other, the things we see and the people we meet, and the beliefs, views and ideas of those we surround ourselves with.

These are cues that we pick up on subconsciously, absorbing and shaping our perception of the world around us, teaching us how to survive, and how to change and adapt in times of crisis or upheaval.

Stories go beyond simply helping us survive however…

Storytelling is how we define ourselves

As human beings, we are incapable of not telling stories, from the way we dress, to the hobbies we choose to partake in. These tell stories to others that indicate who we are as people, who we want them to think we are, what we care about, and what we communicate to others. They give us a sense of purpose, a sense of self.

We also see ourselves reflected through other people, both in comparison and in contrast. The people around us effectively acting as clones, representing the best and worst of ourselves, teaching us what we should and shouldn’t do, showing us what might happen if we did the same thing, or took the same approach to a problem. This is a storytelling principle called ‘clone characters’, which I go into more detail about in my article about how they can help us design better products.

But how do we take this and apply it to disrupting and redefining crowded or outdated industries? The answer is simple, but often incredibly difficult to execute.

Step 1 — Find where the story has lost touch with the reality

Businesses and products in outdated and crowded industries often have one thing in common: there is a gap between the story the industry is telling, and the story their users want to tell.

In order to disrupt and redefine, the solution often comes from identifying the disconnected story being told, identifying the story your users want to tell, and designing a product and experience that significantly delivers on the latter rather than the former.

Take Lemonade for example, who in the last 5 years have completely flipped the insurance industry on it’s head, by helping insurance users tell the story they want to tell, instead of reinforcing the negative stories users previously told about insurance. Daniel Schrieber goes into more detail about how they did this on YourHeights.com founder Dan Murray-Serter’s podcast ‘Secret Leaders’, but the simple explanation of their success comes down to a radical challenge to the existing narrative told by users, of insurance company products.

The story insurance customers were telling themselves (and others):

  • Insurance companies never pay out claims, or at least pay out rarely and are difficult to claim from
  • Insurance companies are self-interested, and money-hoarding
  • Insurance is difficult to apply for, with lots of forms and requirements needing to be met, along with long lists of exceptions and terms & conditions, as well as excesses that need to be paid up-front

This leads to users feeling abandoned, and cheated, when the very nature of ‘insurance’ as a basic concept is incredibly altruistic. We all contribute for the collective good, and when one of us needs it, the money is available to help them.

Step 2 — Help your users tell a different story

Lemonade took that narrative switch and ran with it, making insurance:

  • Quick and seamless to apply for
  • Paying claims quickly and without hassle
  • Giving back to social causes
  • On the customer’s side

This simple narrative switch has contributed a significant part of Lemonade building the most disruptive, socially-conscious and successful insurance company that we have seen in decades.

And there are still plenty of industries, both crowded and outdated, that are ready to be disrupted and changed. Education and healthcare being the first that spring to mind.

What it boils down to, is a drastic shift in focus, from the interests of the industry and the company, to the interests and needs of the user, and the focus on delivering a powerful narrative change that empowers the user to tell a different story. This is the very foundation of user or human-centred design.

Examples of other companies who have redefined the narrative for their users

Your Heights

Redefining supplements as food for your brain, as a part of supporting mental wellbeing and living a healthy life.

Patch Plants

Helping users who don’t know anything about keeping plants alive, or about plants themselves, both keep them alive and learn about them through guided experiences.

Uber

Redefining taxis, putting the power in the hands of the rider AND the driver, allowing riders to hail a taxi from any location, at a price they want to pay, and allowing drivers to work the hours they want to, and build their own reputation through reviews.

Twitter

Redefining the media, by allowing users to shape the world narrative, giving them power alongside more often propaganda-led or politicised traditional media sources.

AirBnB

Redefining short term rentals and stays, by empowering users to find somewhere to stay that is safe, unique or reasonably priced, and empowering rental users to have more control over when and how they rent their property or rooms, and to create a unique experience to offer guests.

Storytelling is the key, but we aren’t there yet

Don’t get me wrong, the examples given here are perfect, they certainly aren’t without significant, problematic and even unforgivable flaws, and the press surrounding many of them over the last few years is certainly indicative of that.

What they do well though, the thing that has led them to success, is to redefine the narrative of an entire industry. They put the story that the user wishes to tell at the front and centre of the product.

Storytelling is the key, so let’s empathise, analyse and define how we need to shape the new narrative for our users, understand how we can empower them, and help them feel positive about their interactions and experiences. That is how we disrupt and build longevity, that is how we succeed in stagnant or outdated industries, and that is how we shape the future for the better.

Storytelling is everything.

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