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How I turned $80 into over $6 million in free publicity thanks to a good story

This is a true story.

A story about how an historic, family-owned doll manufacturer from a tiny village in the mountains of eastern Spain created a huge splash across the U.S., got me featured on Good Morning America and turned $80 into over $6 million in earned publicity.

And it wasn't a fluke.

I know this because we repeated the same process a couple of years later and it did even better!

It is also a very true example of the amazing power of a compelling story.

Introduction

So, what gives?

Well, it all started with a phone call.

Joaquin, a buddy of mine, called up and said, "hey Dennis, I've got a client I'd like for you to talk to. They've got a really cool product, but are struggling to know how to take it to market."

And boy was he right!

The client was a small, family-owned doll manufacturer with decades of experience making baby dolls. Unlike much of their competition, they continue to make their dolls in Spain instead of outsourcing to factories in China. Their main competitive advantages were the quality of their products and their ability to turn around orders faster than their competitors.

One day Cesar, their CEO, received a visit from the president of a well-established nonprofit organization, who asked him a simple question, "why do you always include plastic baby bottles with your dolls?"

"Because little girls love to play like their feeding their babies," he responded.

"But you do know that by far the healthiest way to feed a baby is by breastfeeding, no? Why are you teaching future mommies that the normal way of feeding a baby is with a bottle, when it isn't?"

Cesar didn't know what to respond.

"Our organization promotes breastfeeding and we'd love for you to work with us to create a new baby doll that actually promotes the healthy way to feed a baby."

The Product

And this is what they did.

Cesar brought together a group of experts. He talked with child psychologists. He hired experts in child development and called in his best designers.

And they created a truly innovative new product: the world's first breastfeeding baby doll.

Here's how it worked.

The dolls came with a cute little flowery halter top that the little girls could put on over their clothes. Then, when they held the baby up to their chest it would suckle. When it was full you could then burp the baby!

Not only was it done in a perfectly classy way, but they were just plain adorable!

"Dennis, I know we have a truly special product. No one has ever done this before, and not only are these amazing toys but they serve a great cause too!" Cesar told me. "I'd love to take these dolls to America, can you help me?"

What a question.

Sitting in their modest showroom, upstairs from the factory floor, this tiny little doll manufacturer was asking me to take on some of the biggest brands in toys and introduce a new, revolutionary concept into a market dominated by low margins and huge, corporate buyers.

Rocking the Boat

"What's your budget?" I asked.

"Budget? What's that?" he replied with a straight face.

My response?

"Are you willing to rock the boat?"

And boy o boy did we rock the boat.

You see, what I saw that day was an amazing story. A wholesome, positive story wrapped in a controversial, almost taboo liner.

My job was to tell the story.

That was the day we gave birth to "The Breast Milk Baby".

Birth of The Breast Milk Baby

From the very beginning we recognized that a significant part of the American society was going to be against us. Despite babies being breastfed since the dawn of humanity, we knew that the conservative, puritanical side of American culture would be aghast at the mere thought of little girls learning (as if they hadn't already experienced breastfeeding firsthand in many cases) about breastfeeding.

But we also knew that the other side of the coin would likely support us.

And so, we decided to stir the pot and make some noise.

How? It all started with one simple press release. A press release with a juicy headline, that told a truly interesting and compelling story.

And the phone started ringing.

In fact, just hours after hitting the wires, I was receiving interview requests from TV stations, radio stations and bloggers all across the nation. The New York Times wrote a story about us. CNN interviewed me. ABC, CBS, even the BBC.

And yes, I was invited on to Good Morning America.

But that wasn't all.

As expected we were called all sorts of names. Pedophiles, enemies of childhood innocence - we were even trashed on prime time by Bill O'Reilly (yeah, the irony of it!)

An independent agency reported that we had earned over $6 million in free publicity. Even more importantly, we sold out the entire stock of dolls in our warehouse.

The awesome power of a compelling story

This is a true and personal example of the awesome power of a good story.

Stories have played a role in how humans behave since the dawn of history. Our ancestors sat around the campfire and told stories - and we continue to do the same. Movies are stories. The TV series that we binge on Netflix are stories. And yes, brands are born and die depending on how they tell their stories.

Stories are the building blocks of human culture.

But what does this have to do with me? You might be asking yourself.

My products and services aren't controversial. I don't even want to be at the center of a big media circus. I don't have a flashy new world-shattering product to introduce.

And this may very well be the case.

But here's what's so important to remember.

Your story doesn't have to be on Good Morning America. You don't have to be called out on Fox News to be successful. Your story just needs to attract and resonate with those few thousand true fans that are out there waiting to hear from you.

And regardless of whether you want to reach a thousand fans or a billion fans, the power of storytelling is still your single most important and critical marketing task.

Why?

Because it's your story that connects with that audience - that moves them to want to be a part of your tribe.

No amount of paid traffic or clever ad copy can substitute this deep meaningful connection. If you want to cultivate a tribe of true fans, you absolutely must tell a compelling story.

But how is this done? Let's dig in to the nuts and bolts of how to do this in your business.

First of all, I want to explain to you the two levels of storytelling that you must master. First, and most importantly you must paint a picture that aligns on an emotional level with the key audience you want to reach. Second, you must correctly apply the mechanics of good storytelling.

Start with your brand manifesto

Warning. Do not try and fake this.

What you are about to learn is essential for your business. It is very powerful. But if you try and fake it, most likely you will do significantly more harm than good to your business.

People have very acute BS detectors. They pick up the whiff of insincerity almost instantly, and nothing smells worse than a business putting on a righteous face while living a putrid life behind the curtains.

This course is all about meaningful marketing and this is where it all comes from.

You cannot expect people to feel a connection with your brand if it doesn't have meaning. You cannot expect people to bond with a bland, stands-for-nothing, corporate message. Even the big brands know this! Look at Nike or Ben & Jerry's.

But this doesn't mean that you have to be on the cutting edge of controversy. You don't have to be political and you don't have to have a super exciting product or service.

What you must do is stand for something meaningful.

What you must do is stand for something meaningful. People are hungry for meaning. Make your marketing stand for something.

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And this starts with your manifesto.

A well thought out manifesto condenses down "the why" behind your brand. What are the values you will not waver on? What motivates you to do business the way you do? What is it about your company that sets you apart from all the others?

When writing your manifesto, don't rush it. Remember, this is of critical importance. Values and principles are not something you should swap around on the fly. Whatever you promise in your manifesto, your fans will expect you to comply with, so it's important to get it right.

Also think about this.

Sometimes meaning can be found in surprising places. Your business doesn't have to save all the whales on the planet. It doesn't have to end poverty or open the gates of heaven.

You can find meaning in taking a stand against industry practices that you don't agree with. You can take a stand in favor of fair pricing or more expedient service. Heck, maybe your meaning is all about golf balls that fly straighter and faster! That's cool too. Or maybe what sets you apart is your unwavering support for local little league teams or the most authentic Mexican food.

The point is that this is uniquely relevant to your business. Nobody else can share your why, but without clearly expressing it you cannot hope to bond with your audience.

The final benefit of writing and publishing your manifesto is that it will now serve as the foundation for your entire messaging strategy. Every video, blog post and press release should clearly fit in with the guiding light of your manifesto.

This is an awesome advantage.

Believe me, so many businesses struggle to maintain coherent messaging not for lack of talent, but for lack of clarity. If you don't know what you stand for, how can you consistently put forth a coherent message? No amount of marketing will be meaningful, if you lack true meaning.

So, go out now and craft your brand manifesto.

The mechanics of powerful storytelling

Storytelling is more than just having something to say.

The way in which you tell your story is equally important. Since the beginnings of time, storytellers have learned to craft their words so that the listener is pulled in to the story. That's why you can get lost in a good book or not even realize you've been sitting for two hours in a movie theater.

And while there's obviously an artistic part to this, there is also a very well known structure that can help keep you o track.

First of all, I'd like for you to think about your content strategy more as an ongoing series than as a single movie. What makes a Netflix series successful? Almost always its the attachment we feel towards the characters in the story. Each episode tells its own story within an ongoing story arc that can literally go on for years.

You need to the same with your brand storytelling.

Who's the Hero?

Who are the heroes of your story? You might think that you are the main hero of your story, but you'd be wrong!

Do you want to be the starry-eyed Luke Skywalker who fails repeatedly to use the force? Do you want to worry about kissing your sister or killing your father? The fact is that most heroes are flawed. In fact, it's their journey to redemption that makes the story powerful.

That's why you need to be the guide.

Instead of Luke, you should be Obi-Wan Kenobi. It is the respected guide who helps the hero transform from caterpillar to butterfly that inspires all of the confidence.

So who is the hero of your brand story? Your customers.

Think about the difficulties you can help them overcome. Think about the problems and obstacles they face and how your products and services can help transform their reality. Finally, think about the individual journeys both you and your customers have made and why they are so important.

You see, great stories are always about conflict. They are about overcoming pain and growing into stronger versions of ourselves. These are all very important elements to be incorporated into your ongoing story arc.

Don't forget the villains!

Perhaps even more important than the heroes are the villains. Who are the bad guys? Maybe they are bad actors in your industry. Maybe they are ingrained business practices that adversely affect your market? Maybe government regulations or lack of access to capital?

The villains in your stories do not have to be actual people or organizations. They can also be the fears and pains that your products and services are designed to cure. For example, if you run an all night diner, you could write about the terrible post-party hunger pangs that unexpectedly attack in the wee hours of the morning.

You need to develop an entire "rogues gallery" of villains that you can use to add emotion to your stories. By feeling a shared animosity towards these enemies you will be promoting a strong sense of community within your audience. And as we've discussed, that sense of belonging in your tribe is a key component of a true fan.

Step on Some Toes!

Finally, you should consider incorporating contrarian ideas into your marketing stories.

What are the unquestionable truths in your industry that you can bravely question? For example, when I talked to you about The 7 Myths of Modern Marketing, I was sharing with you contrarian ideas that I believe are holding back many business owners.

The idea that you need a big audience, or the idea that you can strike it rich on social media or that you can just tweak and optimize yourself to success. These are widely held beliefs that just don't hold up under scrutiny for most businesses in the real world.

You should also compile a list of contrarian ideas that you can use to capture your audience's attention and move them towards sharing your viewpoint. Why? Because just like having a common enemy, sharing a contrarian idea is a form of bonding with your fans.

Meaningful Marketing Lessons

Top-of-Funnel Marketing

When I launched The Breast Milk Baby I didn't have any of the resources most businesses think are necessities. We didn't have a marketing budget. We didn't have celebrities or influencers. We didn't have a big email list. We didn't even have followers on social media.

So we used what we did have - a truly compelling story.

Our top-of-funnel marketing was a couple of $40 press releases and a youtube video we put together.

Now, I'm not saying that that's always going to work, and if you have more going for you, then by all means take advantage.

My point is that we knew we were right.

Breast feeding is the best way to feed a baby and teaching children this important lesson is not only important, but it's wholesome and healthy.

That conviction was all the top-of-funnel marketing we needed.

Tribe Building

At the time, social media was not quite as big of a phenomena as it is now. However, we did create a fairly large Facebook community around our product.

Here we found our enthusiastic tribe of pro-breastfeeding believers.

They not only loved our diverse collection of beautiful breastfeeding baby dolls, but they loved the message we were spreading.

With every external attack from the conservative press, our community grew - and so did sales.

If we were to do this again, I would undoubtedly spend more effort on this part of the equation. We would foster the tribe while creating a true sense of David versus Goliath.

Super Fan Cultivation

This essential ingredient was missing from our marketing strategy. With hindsight I can definitely see the opportunity we should have grasped.

We should have cultivated an elite group of evangelists who could have helped us spread our message. They would have carried our mission into circles we couldn't reach by ourselves.

This would also have allowed us to create a sustainable momentum instead of just periods in the spotlight.

Conclusions

With all of this in mind, start thinking about your unique story and then roll up your sleeves and get to work. Write your manifesto. Write your brand story. Plan out your longterm story arch and then put together a Meaningful Marketing Strategy.

If you'd like more guidance on this process check out my recent blog post, Create a Meaningful Marketing Strategy for 2021.

Not only will it help you define a powerful story arc, but it will guide you through the process of leveraging it in way that actually promotes business growth.

You don't have to be Steven Spielberg or Charles Dickens to craft a story that will help you attract true fans. But you do have to put in the effort!

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