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What Build a Bear taught me about storytelling

It was half term last week, so like many other parents I was juggling childcare and work – and I’ve learnt from experience that you can’t do both well, so my phone was off for the day and I didn’t check emails. Ironically this free headspace made me think about work, and it was all triggered by a cuddly toy.

Build a Bear

Last term my son’s infant school took his class on a trip to The Build a Bear workshop. I think there was some ‘educational’ reason for the trip, but at the time I thought this was either a particular piece of marketing genius by the Build a Bear people, or a massive lack of foresight by his teachers – my son has spent the first seven years of his life being perfectly happy without an over-priced stuffed toy, but now the cat (or to be exact, the bear) was out of the bag.

So this half-term we made a return trip. He a Build a Bear expert, and me the novice. As soon as I got in the door however, I was wowed by a strange mix of Disneyland enthusiasm and an Ikea DIY approach.

Build a story

The really interesting thing was the story. The difference in experience between Build a Bear and buying an identical bear is vast – and that’s because you’re not buying a bear, you’re creating a friend and getting a story.

As soon as you step through the door, the customer (that’s the child, adults are just there to pay) is the focus. They’re encouraged to select the bear they want, then choose an unstuffed version and take it to the machine to be filled.

The staff ask questions: what’s your name, is it for you, will he be your friend? Then the child presses a little foot pedal and the stuffing flows into the bear, as the member of staff brings this new friend to life, all the while asking questions about the future life the bear and child will have together. It’s pretty full-on. I was asked less questions about the future when I got married.

Bringing the story to life

But then comes the genius bit. The child reaches into a container and pulls out a small satin heart, which after shaking, kissing and doing a little dance then places in the bear to give it life. A bit more stuffing and a few stitches later, a bear is born. Complete with a life story, a birth certificate and passport.

Over the course of 15 minutes we had turned a saggy empty toy into a lifelong friend with a heart, a name, a personality (friendly, apparently) and tastes (he likes cauliflower cheese but not sausages).

What started off as a commodity was now a high value product – with a story. This is something all independent businesses need to do. We all need to add value and meaning to our customers lives, not just to be better, but to be different. To mean something and to be memorable.

Your competitive advantage

What are we doing to take our customers on a journey? Your competitive advantage is the story your customers believe about your business, not what appears on the invoice or bill. “And that”, as my seven-year-old son says, “is a true fact.”

Is there a little satin heart that you can give to your customers that will bring your story to life for them?

Nick Cooper