Going beyond stories told to stories experienced

Hazel Howat

Forever name-checked but never bookmarked, this is the story of the promise that never was. The story of whether storytelling itself exists in real life, outside of a campaign, a social channel or a heritage narrative, and into the walls of the retail store, a living expression of emotion, sentiment and ­imagination.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived a lonely shopper who craved a richer connection with their favourite brand. Like a socially connected circuit board, they are plugged into every single noise their favourite brand makes, but once they look away from the screen, or mute the volume and get out into real life for a bout of social shopping, the conversation stops. 

This is a tale which has vexed us for some time. Why do some brands think a story well-told needs to stop when architecture starts?

The story itself is a tale as old as time and yet, we have a fresh appetite for them each day. A craving which can only be satisfied by cracking the spine of a freshly bound book, or by the resounding ‘Tu-dum’ which welcomes you to the sofa and augers in some serious Netflix-and-Chill time, a movie-marathon pending. 

Stories have the power to stay with us long after the credits roll. Whether it is a plot line or character epiphany, these narratives can resonate so deeply, making us feel compelled to share, to act, to change. Similarly, amongst the noise and catalogue of brands vying for our attention, we choose to acknowledge those whose stories speak to us in a way that empowers us.

Some brands have a meaningful story embedded in their company and product DNA (e.g. Nike, Apple, TOMS), some have to come up with a creative story that makes their product meaningful (e.g. Google, AirBnB), and others are just born to tell stories – we’re looking at you Disney, Warner Bros, Ferrari, Amazon, Spotify, Pepsi. The most successful brand storytellers are those that place the customer at the centre. With empathy and relevance, customers can see the role they play in the plot and can relate to your brand the way they might relate to their favourite movie character.

Storytelling doesn’t stop at the threshold. In fact, if anything, it should be where it gets more immersive and sensorial. Think of it in this context; you have invited a stranger, a newfound connection, and an old friend into your house (not your retail outlet), they’ve come because they know you have a great story – trust us, all brands have great stories – now, what happens next? Do you think they care about zoning? SKU counts? adjacencies? yield? The answer is no, they are engaged, pre-wired to explore, looking for connections like a super receptive magnet. Emotional receptors are set to discover mode. What have you got? Where’s the story? How do you tell it? 

Rarely do brands let their story live across every channel, so we let us walk you through those we have nominated for the Retail Storytellers shortlist, and those worthy of winning the Academy Award.

Patagonia -

The Story of the Ethical Explorer

Inspirited with adventure, you push the limits, rooted deep in your nature is the call of the wild. It determines your every move. You question the ‘impossible’ mindset, choosing to see a challenge instead of a no-go zone. Others just tell stories, but you create them, carving your own path, like the footholds carved into the cliff face which you scale.

But more than that, you wear your stories laced in the fabric of your Nano Puff®, dust lives in your pocket, snags and scuffs adorn your sleeves, the garment a living time capsule of every venture. While there are traces left on your jacket, you strive to leave no traces on the Earth, your footprints only temporary, in the trodden dirt or snow-capped summit. The mountain is not the only thing to be conquered, so is the lasting impact you are having on the planet, your clothing reflects your mission.


Photo by Patagonia, the Ethical Explorer

Patagonia talk the big talk. Some brands choose to shy away from addressing the impact we have on the Earth; Patagonia actively shine a light on it by being ‘in business to save our home planet’. Beyond using their story-rich online channels to promote product or their brand narrative, they highlight these environmental and social issues by talking to those who experience them every day, stories of adventurers out in the world, challenged to change not just themselves, but the world they live in.

Image courtesy of patagonia.com/stories/

Patagonia’s approach to storytelling creates a community around the brand, uniting customers across channels with a common purpose. The ‘Stories’ segment on patagonia.com is a library of articles, films and podcasts which offer insight to causes the brand is passionate about – they give people a voice “for we all have much to teach and much to learn.” Their social feeds showcase these same stories, primarily with user-generated content from treks, trails and hikes. Of course, explorers tell their stories whilst wearing their Better Sweater® or TechFace Hoody®.

Patagonia’s ‘Worn Wear’ campaign is an exploration of quality, in the things we own and the lives we live. They encourage customers to live their beliefs, but also that supporting a brand doesn’t have to compromise your values; that how you get where you want to go is as important as where you’re going.

Alas, this story is too good to be true, the downfall is in how this storytelling extends to the store – or doesn’t in this case. Patagonia’s brick-and-mortar stores aim to incorporate their brand values into the retail space: environmental preservation has been considered in the use of resource selection, like recycled materials, repurposed boating-yard timber and furniture upholstered in Patagonia’s organic fabric. But it’s the stories which are so prominent across every other channel that are overwhelmingly absent.

Photo by Jarrah Lynch “Patagonia’s Melbourne flagship store”

Where is the story of Christo Grayling, who leads an off-the-grid surf camp in Baja, Mexico? Whose Patagonia swimming trunks lasted 15 years, more than 1200 user-days, paddled rivers throughout Chile, Canada, Sri Lanka, survived surf trips to India, Peru and Ecuador, taking years before they required any repair (aside from duct tape and a new rear-panel created from a beach umbrella!). Or the story of the Chapin family, maple syrup harvesters in Contoocook, who have passed a pair of blue Patagonia bibs down from their nephew to each of their four children, surviving many an hour outdoors

Photo by Christo Grayline for Patagonia, “Christo Grayling and his 15 year old Patagonia swimming trunks”

Like a movie plot which falls apart halfway through, Patagonia’s stores leave you wanting more, product stories lacking as much as people stories.

Zara -

The Story of the Customer Co-Creator

You are a go-getter and a non-stopper. A head-turner and a trend-former. You understand that fashions fade, only style remains the same. Style is more than just what you wear, it’s how you wear it and how you live. And you live by your own terms, with a refusal to conform, embracing your own unique identity and what makes you, you.

As fashion’s next frontier, you don’t just shop the trends, you help to create them. Your name is Miko, and when you walked into your favourite retail store in 2015 seeking a pink scarf, you helped to pave the way for today’s leading high-street retailer.


Photo by Steven Meisel for Zara, the Customer Co-Creator

Believe it or not, this more than an idealistic story, it is as true and relevant for Zara today as it was 8 years ago:

“A lady named Miko walked into a Zara store in Tokyo in 2015 and asked the store assistant for a pink scarf, but the store did not have any pink scarves. The same happened almost simultaneously for Michelle in Toronto, Elaine in San Francisco, and Giselle in Frankfurt, who all walked into Zara stores and asked for pink scarves. They all left the stores empty-handed – an experience many other Zara fans encountered globally in different Zara stores over the next few days. 7 days later, more than 2,000 Zara stores globally started selling pink scarves, 500,000 pink scarves were dispatched – to be exact. They sold out in 3 days.”

The personified story Zara tell perfectly encapsulates the key reason for their success: fast feedback from customers and a highly responsive data-heavy supply chain. In a design-to-shelf process which takes the average retailer 4-12 months to complete, it takes Zara a mere 30 days, with 12,000 styles produced every year. Your typical Zara customer visits a store 17 times per year, compared to the industry average of 3, but what is the appeal?

Image courtesy of Zara, ‘Zara supply chain’

Zara simply knows their customer, they listen to them, and put them at the centre of all that they do. Including customers in the design and manufacture process creates the highly sought after brand loyalty. Their audience (predominately 18-40 year olds) are fashion-forward and value exclusivity, and so Zara creates small batch numbers of recent runway-reminiscent product. This scarcity effect appeals to the impulsive nature of this consumer group – they recognise that if they don’t buy it now, it may not be in stock when they return to store next month.

Image courtesy of Zara Instagram

The tale-of-the-pink-scarf isn’t one that many Zara customers know – the brand doesn’t actively shout about it anywhere – but people believe it, because they themselves have experienced it. Zara’s storytelling is in the strategic silence – the brand’s founder Amancio has never been interviewed in the media or used promotional advertising in any way. Editorial-style product shots on social media reach their customers whilst the product is still in stock. Buy it now or never.

Image courtesy of Zara, ‘Zara Battersea Power Station self-checkout”

Zara don’t tell the story, because they don’t have to. They live it. Their Battersea Power Station home is centred on convenience and grab-and-go, customers can prebook fitting rooms and collect online orders in as little as two hours. More than this, they can try on their online orders on collection day and return them immediately using the postal facilities built into the store if they don’t suit.

Empowering customers with efficiency and self-sufficiency, the store is an embodiment of their mission statement “give customers what they want and get it to them faster than anyone else.”

That is what makes this story so powerful. Quiet online, subtly efficient in store. Zara’s unwavering emphasis on the customer as the centre of their story and as the root of their brand is the coveted ingredient to their success.


Nike -

The Story of the Empowered Athlete

Higher. Faster. Better. That is your mantra. You think the unthinkable, to make your dreams a reality. Yes, you’ve had setbacks and more reasons to quit than most, but they are your motivation, your reason to keep pushing.

Sure, no one holds as many Grand Slam singles titles as Serena Williams. Lebron James may hold the NBA all-time scoring record. But records are there to be broken. Your time is coming. They might be the goal setter, but you are the goal beater, the record smasher. Because as long as you are wearing your Court Zoom Pros or Air Jordans, and a black tick adorns the surface of your ball, anything is possible. In sport, there is no time to wait until tomorrow, the day is today. Just do it.


Image courtesy of Nike, The Empowered Athlete

Whether a gym-novice or a high-performance athlete, these three words speak to you. Emotive and inspiring, they make people believe in their own infinite potential. Nike endeavours to bring “inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world (*if you have a body, you are an athlete).” They equip athletes to continually progress, united with a goal to leave a lasting impact through team-spirit and relentless passion and effort.

 They achieve this by telling stories of inspiration (people) and innovation (product) across every channel, from social to dotcom to store. So let us walk you through the story of exploration as a Nike customer…

Image courtesy of Nike, ‘Air Vapormax Behind the Design’

On Instagram, scrollers will see a Nike product worn by their favourite athlete in action on the pitch, court or track. It connects them with the celebrities they admire, since they also wear the brand and perform at the highest level of competition. On another tab, they open and scroll through nike.com, assured that they will see that product again, beautifully presented and photographed, with material and technology close-ups. Onto YouTube, they are brought into the heart of that product’s development process with the “Behind the Design” series, discovering more about the product’s story with designer interviews and how they, as a loyal Nike follower, have helped to inspire and shape the creation. It is with confidence that Nike customers can then visit the store, anticipating that they will see the product in all its Vaporflied or Air-Maxed glory; but more than a product, they will find it wrapped in an experience of discovery, education and imagination.

Image courtesy of Nike Jordan, ‘Chicago 1 Pop-Up in Giant Lost and Found Box’

Say they choose to visit the brand’s Air Jordan 1 ‘Lost and Found’ heritage pop-up, which materialised as a larger-than-life Nike shoebox in China in November 2022. They can explore the evolution of the iconic shoe over the years in an innovative reimagination of the brand’s roots fused with future vision. Or, if they choose to visit the brand’s House of Innovation flagship, a space designed to showcase the “best innovations, athlete storytelling and experiences” with a series of highly immersive and digitally enabled touchpoints. The heartbeat of the city, the store connects the sporting community to like-minded individuals, inviting visitors to engage in experiential product trial through the Joyride or KidsPod installations. Moments in the store hint at the “Behind the Design” YouTube content as installations show real life exploded products as art pieces of craftsmanship. In a marriage of purpose and performance to innovation and imagination, Nike accommodate knowledge-gathering, enabling their customers to discover, learn and do. In HOI, you are the athlete, and this store is for you.

Image courtesy of Nike, ‘Joyride installation at Nike’s third House of Innovation in Paris’

This end-to-end story ensures that no aspect of the plot is overlooked – online discovery as the prologue and anticipation of what is to come; the mission as the in-store experience, where the customer is encouraged to dream, with Nike as your sidekick; finally, the purchase as the resolution and indicator of an exciting next chapter. All of which paints you, the customer, as the hero.


The Story of the Generous Shopper

You care about the planet like you care about people, with a positive vision for the future. Each day you are motivated by kindness. More than just in how you speak, it’s how you act, how you live. Above all else, you want to shop with kindness, and support those who are fuelled by this same generosity and spirit of goodness. Not one to fuss over labels, you want to be a customer for life, where your purchase is just the beginning of a more beautiful story.

Beyond only seeing the change, you want to be the change – although you know that positive change is not something you can achieve alone, positive change happens together, when you unite under a common purpose to do good with those around you. And when you wear TOMS, you wear good. You do good.


Image courtesy of Blake Mycoskie for TOMS Shoes, 'Blake Mycoskie and the One for One philosophy'

The story TOMS tell is one of radical generosity. It is baked into their tone of voice but above all, into how they do business. The business was born from the founders own profound compassion for others – during a career break in 2006, Blake Mycoskie immersed himself in the culture of Argentina, all whilst wearing the casual canvas shoe popular in the region. During his time there, he met a woman who educated him on the extreme poverty in some parts of the country, with many people unable to afford bare necessities, like shoes.

Image courtesy of TOMS Shoes, ‘One for One giving philosophy’

Here, a vision was born – a company which creates alpargata shoes but with a ‘one for one’ giving philosophy, where for every pair purchased, another was donated to someone in need. Now in 2023, TOMS donates one-third of its profits to grassroots organisations.

Although it is unlikely that their audience have witnessed this poverty first-hand like Mycoskie has, TOMS have an admirable way of uniting their followers in empathy, igniting their charitable spirit, inviting them to be part of a movement which betters humanity. In doing so, they create a community, telling a story of solidarity, giving and goodness.

Where there may be some detachment post-purchase of the life’s customers are impacting by buying a pair of TOMS, the story is continued online. Social media shows the otherwise unseen, like a child wearing the shoes they have just received because you, yourself, just purchased a pair. Simple, joyful, emotive, the smile on the child’s face matches your own as you know you have helped to make a difference.

Image courtesy of TOMS Shoes, ‘TOMS Thessaloniki flagship’

Image courtesy of TOMS Shoes, ‘TOMS Thessaloniki flagship’

The store’s story is an embodiment of the movement shoppers are supporting; and so, this tangible touchpoint creates an emotional tie with each customer. Like a movie where all the seemingly unrelated character storylines come together, the store is the place of unity – unity of people, unity of stories, unity of goodness.

And what is it that unites these things? The TOMS shoe. It was the alpargata shoe, worn by the creator that ignited the vision; it is the same shoe that scrollers see on social media; the same shoe that they buy; the shoe that is then donated to someone in need. A story of unity. The shoe is unity. The store is unity. TOMS is unity.


In the world of retail storytelling, very few brands are truly bringing their narratives to life. Those most successful at it – like Patagonia, Zara, Nike and TOMS – artfully place their customer at the centre of the narrative, the key commonality being that they unite them under a common vision and purpose, then use the store as a ground to let them explore it. Every channel leads to this moment: seeds are planted on social media with inspiring interviews, heritage tales and behind-the-scenes insight; then equipping them with technology, information and imagination, the retail space brings the story to life and shows them the role they play. The store is a place to express themselves, but also to meet like-minded individuals, fellow intrinsic characters to the plot.

Much can be learned from these leading examples by natural-born storytellers like Disney and Warner Bros. Just imagine a Disney store where the expectation is that the unexpected will happen, the unreal becomes real, exactly like what happens in the movies – the Fairy Godmother comes along, or you find a lamp and are granted three wishes, or a lion lost in the wilderness finds two friends. Or a Ferrari store, where the brand’s legendary story comes to life in more ways than just the building architecture, or a Formula 1 car hung from an atrium ceiling; a Pepsi store which is as bold and timeless as the drink itself; a sensory Spotify store which tells the story of music and their artists, the customer becomes the co-creator, audio-visual experiences creating new dynamics between creators and their listeners.

Retail storytelling looks different from brand to brand. Just like no one wants to watch some knock-off version of their favourite movie, customers want brands to give them something unique, a story which resonates with them and makes them feel part of something bigger. A story which they don’t just watch or listen to, but experience as a reality.


12 mins22 Mar 23