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Marketing Leader Series: Steve Rudolph on Authentic Storytelling

Steve Rudolph is the Chief Storyteller at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. In a decision as personal, and monumental, as choosing an educational institution, stories are vital to reaching and influencing individuals. Luckily, Rudolph is in an environment rich with narrative vignettes, and has made a career out of helping people share their experiences. He's learned quite a bit along the way, and we sat down with him to get the inside scoop on how your brand can harness the power of authentic storytelling.

Why is now the time to focus on storytelling?

There's a bit of a confidence crisis going on. It's hard to know who to trust, hard to know who is being authentic and who is just trying to get ahead. Authentic storytelling builds your brand by building credibility and trust in your organization. You may have the coolest ads or the greatest logo, but without real connective stories, people won't take you seriously.

In this content-saturated environment, peers are the new experts. You've likely done this yourself, scanning online reviews for a product, choosing the toaster with the most stars in the feedback or asking your friends what they like best. It's because we trust their authenticity, rather than their advanced qualifications. We see this is larger examples, like the controversy around global climate change. Despite the unanimity of leading experts, there are pockets of peer groups that trust one another over the science. For better or worse, we trust people who think and sound like us.

What kind of brand stories are effective?

Your brand is likely already focused on one of three types of stories, but if you're just getting started, or want to clarify your messaging, figure out your authentic story to tell, and make sure that the content you're producing aligns with your goals.

Origin story: This is where the why drives the what. Think of TOMS shoes - "one for one." The company's whole existence started from this desire and passion to help people in under-resourced areas of the world. As the company grew beyond footwear, they made sure to keep the same promise alive, to keep turning their success back into generous outcomes and assistance for others. Sure the shoes are comfy, but their marketing isn't around having the coolest sunglasses or the most high-performance shoes. They show Tom himself handing out boxes of shoes to kids at schools. They know their origin story, and make sure you don't forget it.

Mission story: Why you support their business. This is in a similar vein to the origin story, but can be bigger and broader. Patagonia doesn't have the one lightbulb moment of its founder as the center of its brand, but their commitment to quality, sustainability, and environmental activism is woven into the fabric of their story. They offer garment repair classes and encourage consumers not to buy new products if they can be mended or reused. Is it smart messaging to tell your customers not to buy more? It is if you authentic voice is around the mission you have to change people's relationship to the earth's resources and equip them to go fall in love with it themselves.

Customer story: Your user is your biggest asset. Airbnb is a highly unique company in that they don't own any of their products. How do you sell something you don't control? This is where customer stories come front and center. Their ads tend to feature the experiences of their users, whether it was someone who made a trip to New York City to reconnect with a long-lost family member, or showcasing the memories of a recent family vacation, Airbnb lets their satisfied customers speak for themselves, and hopefully influence others. With peers as the new experts, these testimonials are more powerful than ever.

What makes a story successful?

First, allow others to tell your story. Get those testimonials on video, on your website, on your social media. It's crucial to let your audience speak, and to accept what you hear! Maybe they don't get your tagline exactly right or they highlight something you wouldn't - for authenticity's sake, leave it in. You can always solicit stories or help someone craft theirs to tell on video, but make sure that it's still their voice coming through. This requires letting go of some control over your messaging, but it's definitely worth it.

Secondly, be sure to include challenges and struggles. Ok, you may not want to put your biggest blunders in your brochure, but to build trust and credibility, people need to see the pain points you've worked through. A perfect story is not believable or helpful. It's ok - even encouraged - to be a little vulnerable.

Finally, accept good enough. Rudolph stresses the message he gives to his team: "Perfect never ships." With storytelling, there's always another edit, another angle, another draft. But you'll never get it out the door if you're trying to get it just right. Luckily, authentic storytelling has room for a few rough edges even in the presentation. Put out the best work you can, and accept good enough to go forward.

What are the biggest mistakes you see brands making?

DO NOT only tell outlier stories. You might've had one remarkable, incredible story that would be killer on your blog. But if it's a total outlier, you're only breeding disappointment and inauthenticity. Resist telling that crazy success story if it's unrealistic.

DO NOT focus on personality. Too much, or too little, can kill your piece. It's tempting to engage the really dynamic people for your videos, say, but the focus needs to be on the story and the brand, not the personality of the person on screen. Likewise, someone too flat can kill it too!

DO NOT rush or sculpt an interview. Interviews are a great way to get authentic stories about your origin, mission, or customer experience, but don't be too directive. See the advice above regarding letting some of your 'warts' show, and accepting what you hear. Your audience will know when your testimonial turns into a spokesperson repeating ad copy. (Why do you think all those commercials say, "Real people, not actors" at the beginning?) Also, make sure that you have enough time for the storyteller to settle in to the story. Don't try to over-produce your 'talent' or hurry them along unneccesarily. Rudolph mentioned that it's often in those longer pauses and later moments that the best stuff comes out.

DO NOT get bogged down by a "multi-layered approval process." Rudolph suggests getting buy-in from the top up front, and then keeping your stories close to the audience and the creative team helping bring them to life. Stories that have been tweaked and reviewed by too many committees lose their authenticity very quickly, so build trust with 'the powers that be' and as much as possible, get them out of the way once you get down to work.

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