I was sitting with a representative of the Changning district of Shanghai for a lunch hosted by Wellington City Council at the New Zealand Pavilion on June 10 at the World Expo.
She was enjoying the fresh tastes of the New Zealand menu and we were reading the wine list. She paused when she read the Chinese translation of Sauvignon Blanc. “This does not mean Sauvignon Blanc,” she said pointing to the Chinese characters. “It means ‘missing someone you love’.”
I asked whether that was common in China – to market food and beverages by feelings and associations. “Yes,” she said.
That little exchange gave me an insight into how positioning products and services in China may well be a step beyond what many New Zealand exporters are prepared for.
While I was in Shanghai for Wellington's trade mission, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise introduced me to a small public relations company that also has an office in Beijing.
I established a cooperative understanding with its deputy general manager so that in the future, as All Told’s clients prepare to tell their story in China, we will be able to draw on Chinese advice as to how those stories should be best told for Chinese people.
To read a copy of the presentation All Told gave to members of the Wellington trade mission before it left, click here through to the New Zealand China Trade Association website.
The New Zealand China Trade Association has published an address I made to the Wellington City Council’s Shanghai Expo Workshop on telling stronger export stories. You can read it here.
The workshop was held for exporters considering going on a trade mission to China in June led by the Mayor of Wellington, Kerry Prendergast. The delegation will visit Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and also Xiamen from June 5-14. I'll be accompanying the delegation in Shanghai and will write some freelance articles on its experiences for trade websites.
The Shanghai Expo Workshop, held on February 26, was attended by about 60 people. It included a half-hour slot for All Told to give practical advice on how Kiwi exporters are perceived in China, the need to tell good stories and what good storytelling can lead to.
This included an interview by Diana Burns with an exporter experienced in trading in China, Steve Kulevski of Pertronic Industries.
Steve emphasised the importance of making an emotional connection with Chinese customers and telling a wider story about Wellington, your family and how you got into business. As well as finding a way to relate on a personal level, it was important to be patient and professional he said.
Other speakers at the two-hour workshop included Wellington Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Charles Finny, New Zealand commissioner general for the Shanghai World Expo Phillip Gibson, Wellington City Council’s international relations manager Tom Yuan, and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise’s international market manager for North Asia Joanna Hickey.
Many ‘stories’ presented by New Zealand exporters are really only fragments of true stories, without the dramatic tension needed to engage a customer. I re-appreciated this as I read The Seven Basic Plots – why we tell stories, by Christopher Booker, over the summer holidays.
In some situations where time is limited – say a two-minute conversation in an airport lounge – it is difficult to present more than a slice of your story. You may just have time to recount a situation that illustrates how you could help a customer solve a problem. But on websites and in print, you have plenty of opportunity to tell a full story.
As an exporter, you will have been through many situations that created drama – a customer needed something at short notice, a competitor stole your IP, your container with your first order got held up in customs. The list is probably endless.
But very rarely will you find any of these situations mentioned on a New Zealand exporter’s website. Most often you will read of their products or services.
Yet here is what marketing strategist David Meerman Scott writes in his latest book World Wide Rave: “Don’t talk about your products and services again. Instead, focus on your buyer personas [a distinct group of potential customers] and how you can solve problems for them”.
Seven basic plots
By understanding the seven basic plots described by Christopher Booker, you will also be able to model your story on one that resonates with these people you want to do business with.
Booker spent 34 years studying and preparing his book which traces common threads in stories that are cultures and centuries apart. These plots will help you in whatever country you export to.
The seven basic plots he illustrates are:
• overcoming the monster
• rags to riches
• the quest
• voyage and return
• tragedy and
With the exception of tragedy, all of these plots can be used as a model for exporting stories. The quest, for example, is well suited for those people who try to find the perfect solution to a customer problem, such as a cure for a disease.
I’ll just illustrate one plot in this article – the comedy – which has the power to disarm and unify.
Booker writes that the essence of a comedy always has three stages:
• we see a little world in which people have passed under a shadow of confusion, uncertainty and frustration, and are shut off from one another
• the confusion gets worse, until the pressure of darkness is at its most acute and everyone is in a nightmarish tangle
• finally, with the coming to light of things not previously recognised, perceptions are dramatically changed. The shadows are dispelled, the situation is miraculously transformed and the little world is brought together in a state of joyful union.
Now watch this series of short comic videos developed by IBM featuring their own people. See if you think they successfully follow the plot of a comedy.
When The Art of the Sale series first began, it showed IBM wasn’t afraid to poke a little fun at itself. The first video has been watched on YouTube by a quarter of a million people. How else could they have got so many people to learn about their mainframe, and soften up their image?
Here is a 12-point checklist to help you prepare a memorable story:
Are you putting yourself in the shoes of your customers and articulating the emotional and rational needs they have, or a problem they want solved?
Is your story dramatic? Is it set out as a quest for a perfect customer solution or does it begin with a challenge that has to be overcome?
Does your story set out the value you deliver that sets you apart?
Do you have engaging details about the main players in your company?
Have you woven in personal anecdotes? If you feel you are putting yourself on the line, your story is more likely to be engaging.
Is your story complemented with interesting visual images?
Is it framed by good design?
Does your story show how your New Zealand location shapes your services or products?
Does your writing demonstrate and show, rather than under or overstate?
Is your story told in plain English?
Have you tailored it to the medium and timeframe?
In reviewing your story, does it touch your customers as people?
In May 2003, in an office in New York, Martin Gold the president of Martin Scott Wines Ltd, which then had a portfolio of 300 wineries, looked at me and said about New Zealand:
“The people are dynamic and exciting, the country is beautiful and the product is wonderful. I fell in love with all of it. You have a great story to tell.”
Why then do many of our exporters tell weak stories?
Perceptions research by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise shows that in all our main markets Kiwi exporters are perceived as underselling themselves. They are not developing strong emotional connections through persuasive storytelling.
In a study of exporters’ websites recently, I noticed that three key elements in good storytelling were repeatedly missing:
By articulating the ‘market pull’, exporters build a bridge with prospective customers. Even some of our leading exporters don’t profile the market demand on their website.
For example, one of our honey exporters talks only of the quality of their honey. They don’t talk about how in stressful societies, where people are trying to stay healthy and active longer, manuka honey has ingredients that will help them – and yet that is really the hook for their product.
Many exporters have few details about their main people. You will just see their name and title, or perhaps, “My grandfather established Smith & Sons in 1926. Two generations later, we are still going strong.” Now, there is a compelling story under there – it’s just not told.
On the other hand, Icebreaker and Trilogy are both good at weaving personal anecdotes into their stories. “Our father arrived chainsaw in hand to carve a great hole in the wall between our two offices,” the Trilogy sisters Sarah and Catherine write. Interested? Anecdotes are vital detail in a good story.
All exporters know that New Zealand has a strong perception overseas as being ‘clean and green’. Companies that want to be associated with that image need to demonstrate, however, how it shapes their products and services. NZLavender shows with images of Canterbury fields how they create its lavender oil. But a textile manufacturer that featured scenic images of Horowhenua made no link between its setting and its textiles, other than to say they were manufactured there.
Why are these three elements repeatedly missing in good stories? There are several possible reasons.
One is because to do it well you do need the perspective of an outside writer to dig for and identify what is interesting. It’s hard, skilled work writing in a style that demonstrates and shows, rather than one that under or overstates.
Another reason is New Zealanders’ modesty and understatement – we don’t talk about ourselves as easily as say Americans do. But have a care, that understatement can be misinterpreted in overseas markets as being conceited, giving an impression that we’re not ready to empathise with customers’ situations.
Building a personal story means you also have to put yourself on the line, and that’s scary for all of us.
In reviewing your story ask, “Would that touch a customer as a person?” That’s the key to any good story. It’s also the hardest part to get right.
All Told worked with Aviation New Zealand to publish a catalogue of eight New Zealand aviation companies that went on a trade mission to India in early November.
The 24-page booklet demonstrates the capability of New Zealand’s aviation industry and was presented in meetings held with Indian air authorities and airlines in New Deli, Mumbai and Chennai between November 2-6.
Aviation New Zealand chief executive John Nicholson led the trade mission, assisted by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise.