Business is all about storytelling
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE - Rod Nepomuceno () - April 30, 2012 - 12:00am

Recently, I was walking in Rockwell’s Power Plant Mall together with my mom, dad, and brother Ernie.  We passed by the cinema area and saw that

Titanic 3D

was showing.  My mom, forever young and forever romantic, blurted out, “Hey, I want to watch that!”  My brother Ernie and I looked at each other and said, “Uh-oh, are we going to chaperone Mama and Papa on a three-hour movie date? This could be awkward.”  But then we said, “What the heck, it’s the 100th anniversary of


— let’s do it.”  Besides, it’s the highest-grossing film of all time, with a Grammy-winning theme song.  It’s historic. So we went ahead and bought some tickets, got our X-Men-Cyclops 3D glasses, some popcorn and watched once again the great unsinkable ship sink to the bottom of the North Atlantic to the tune of Celine Dion’s eternal anthem,

My Heart Will Go On

, while Kate Winslet’s character, Rose, gasps desperately, “Jack! Jack! Don’t freeze, please! There’s going to be a sequel! Don’t die!”

Watching 1,500 people die all over again in a great, horrific tragedy wasn’t exactly the kind of entertainment I was looking for during a relaxing Sunday afternoon.  Even if it was in 3D.  In a way, watching it in 3D was worse.  The people falling off the ship went directly at you, like they were plummeting right before you.  But I realized while I was watching that the movie wasn’t compelling because of the tragedy itself.  There have been thousands of other maritime disasters: the Lusitania, the steamboat Sultana, and the Doña Paz, just to name a few, but these have not captivated and captured people’s imagination and curiosity like the Titanic has.  Why?  Because of the “story” behind the tragedy.  Titanic was not just a terrible maritime tragedy.  There was a compelling story behind it.  In fact, there were hundreds of stories behind it.  The fictional love story of Jack and Rose was the main story.  But there were other compelling storylines: the discovery of the wreck after 73 years, the designer of the ship and the head of the shipping company who claimed that the Titanic was unsinkable, the captain who was already retired by then but was coerced to lead this one last voyage, the “snub” by the nearby ship California, which was only a few hours away but failed to heed Titanic’s distress call, the last-minute choices of the people on the ship (e.g. whether they would go to the lifeboats and leave their loved ones or stay on the ship and die with their loved ones), the division of rich and poor within the ship, which was, in a way, a microcosm of how our society works.

And that’s what made Titanic the movie so successful: it was all these compelling, intertwined stories that caught people’s attention … and captured their wallets.  If Titanic was merely an “effects” movie that showed in a realistic way how a giant ship sinks, I am 100-percent sure it wouldn’t have made a killing at the box office like it did. It made a killing because of the compelling stories behind the tragedy.

That’s how it is in the media business.  As they say in the media industry, it’s all about content, content, content.  It’s all about the compelling story. And when I say story, I don’t mean a full-blown plot.  By story, I am talking about the compelling hook, the punch line, the winning point. For example, in terms of content, Yahoo has more to offer than Google.  But why is Google doing better than Yahoo?  Because Google has a winning hook: effective, reliable, online searches.  Period. When you go to Google, it’s practically empty; it just has a bar where you type what you’re looking for.  And when you put in what you’re looking for, it gives you all the nice links.  Simple story and yet a very compelling one.

Coke, as we all know, is a carbonated beverage.  But that’s not the story they are selling.  Right now, check out all their billboards and ads.  What’s the story in their ads?  That’s right, “happiness.”   They are selling the compelling story of happiness.  It’s not that wonderful cola taste; it’s not the adrenaline-driving sugar content; it’s not the refreshing carbonated fluid.  It’s all about happiness.  Right now, “happiness” is the story of Coke.  And we’re buying it because we all love to be happy.

There’s a portal called headed by Bryan Cooley.  I had lunch with Bryan recently, and he explained to me the compelling story of  Basically, it’s allowing people to bid against each other over items that go up for auction. A compelling item will be offered up for bidding, e.g. an iPhone or a Samsung Tab, and then people on will get a chance to bid.  They have certain items they put up for auction where there’s a 10-second period when people can try to outbid each other.  When the 10 seconds are up, the last highest bid wins.  It’s a compelling site because people get to play a game by going up against each other; at the same time, there’s a compelling prize at stake.  Some people get to take home an iPhone for a few hundred pesos. is growing fast; not because it’s another game site, but because it has a compelling story: a fun game with a chance to purchase a cool item for a very low price.

In my business I have sold a number of projects for sponsorships; not by selling the actual project but by selling the story behind the project.   There was a time that bourbon brand Jim Beam came to us and asked us to implement a rock band search campaign.  But I told Jim Beam, “Let’s not do that, because then you’d be no different from other liquor brands that do band searches.”   So Jim Beam asked what idea we had in mind.  We told them, “Let’s have a search for a lead singer for a rock band; let’s call it Frontman.”   And Jim Beam asked, “Why?”  And we told them, “We’re going to sell this concept not so much as another search for a good singer.  We’re going to sell it as a campaign to discover the next Arnel Pineda — the next Pinoy lead singer for a globally famous band.”   It was a fantastic story.  Needless to say, we got the deal. And Jim Beam was pretty happy with the result.

Five years ago, in 2007, I approached McDonald’s and SM to do a soccer event concept in the malls.   Both McDonald’s and SM had a legitimate question: “Why soccer?  Soccer is not popular in the Philippines.”   I told them, “Because McDonald’s and SM are leaders.  You lead and everyone will follow.  If you promote soccer now, you will eventually build up the interest in soccer.  And with the “seeds of interest” that you will plant for the game now, eventually, this sport will be big. And you will be considered the agents of change insofar as soccer is concerned.”  

McDonald’s and SM agreed with the story.  And now, in 2012, soccer is the second biggest sport in the Philippines.  And I have no doubt in my mind that one day, it can get bigger than basketball.   Note that I didn’t sell a soccer event to McDonald’s and SM.   I sold them the concept of being the  “leaders,” being the “purveyors” of something that could eventually be big.  And now, SM and McDonald’s can proudly say “Even before this Azkals thing became big, we were promoting soccer.”  And that’s absolutely true.  There’s no denying that.

So remember, in life, as in business, it’s not all about effects.  It’s not all about the gimmicks.  It’s not about “smoke and mirrors.”  It’s all about the story. If you’ve got a compelling story to sell, you can never go wrong.

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Thanks for your letters, folks!  You may e-mail me at

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