Storytelling

How to Find Your Brand’s Story

Charlie Jones, president and founder of Brand Intersection Group, has spent his career combating a widespread, fundamental misunderstanding of brand stories.

“People will say, ‘we need branding work,’ and then they begin the conversation talking about color schemes. That’s a mistake,” he said. “Your logo, your slug-line, your color scheme, your graphic standards, those are vestiges of your brand. They’re outward facing articulations of your brand, but they’re far from brand architecture.”

You’re not going to pick out drapes and cutlery before you build the foundation of your house. As for what makes up a brand’s basic architecture, that must come directly from leadership. “A brand is how a company protects its pillars,” Jones said. In other words, it’s what they stand for. Finding and confirming the right pillars is not something that should just be delegated solely to marketers. It requires input from senior leadership.

In 2017, Jones helped Contently with its own rebrand. He worked closely with Kelly Wenzel, our former CMO who is now the director of global marketing at Amazon Pay. (I joined Contently shortly after she left.) Wenzel told me the effects of Contently’s brand clarification were obvious within a quarter of her start date. “Contently already had high brand awareness within its target demographic,” she said, “but what it hadn’t decided on yet was a consistent voice and story. Brand is about defining your purpose and aligning your distinct competencies around it.”

Contently’s rebrand wasn’t a complete overhaul, but the changes made an immediate impact in the market. “Our work didn’t have anything to do with the product, and we weren’t rolling out any updates,” Wenzel said. “The important part was clarifying our purpose and aligning all our messaging around it.”

After a few months of research and brainstorming, Wenzel, Jones, executives, and the marketing team decided on six thematic “pillars” to rally around”

1. Tell Great Stories

2. Accountable Content

3. Fusion of Art & Science

4. Smart Content Strategy

5. Engagement Fuels Growth

6. Choice of Marketing Leaders

More than a year later, company leaders still check presentation decks, articles, demos, and more against these ideas.

All of this is to say that setting the right company pillars is complicated. Here’s what Jones had to say about finding the right brand story that will impact your bottom line.

Embrace uncertainty

Entrepeneur estimates that the average startup can expect to wait at least three years before reaching profitability. Wil Schroter, the CEO of Startups.co, agrees. “By year three,” Schroter writes on his blog, “the pixie dust has worn off. The excitement you once felt for starting something has transformed into anxiety about whether or not you have made the right career decision.”

Of course, anxiety over making a tough choice always makes for great rising action in a story. A period of uncertainty might sound like an unpleasant time to be an entrepreneur, but it’s an extremely valuable plot point for the marketers trying to tell those entrepreneurs’ stories, years later.

You should begin with the events and values that led your company’s founders to start the business. Interview your C-suite one by one and find the narrative through-line when they explain why they came to the company. Ask about the first decisions they made as a team, and follow up on those—talk to the company’s first few employees, even if they’ve since moved on. Ask your company leaders where they hoped the company would go in those early days. Ask them how things have changed.

A well-crafted story will inspire employees to join your team as effectively as it inspires customers to sign contracts or make purchases.

“Leaders need compelling visions worth following, and they need to align their teams around that vision,” Jones said. “Have your leaders all thought about why you’re here, doing what you do? One baby step toward finding your brand’s story is working to ensure your most senior team feels purposeful in their work.”

Start with the basics

So, what happens if your C-suite doesn’t feel purposeful about their work? What if their purpose is just…profit? “What is our brand’s purpose?” can sometimes frighten or paralyze professionals because many of us simply put in work without asking ourselves why we’re doing it. To avoid tripping people up, Jones advises marketers to start with simpler questions.

“I’ll often say, tell me your favorite customer stories instead,” he said. “Give me maybe six to ten examples from your leaders’ experience that showcase the company at its best. When have you acted heroic for a customer? When did you feel best about your job? When did you delight people, and how can we unpack those moments for the right ingredients?” Once a leadership team has compiled a collection these memorable, impassioned stories, they can hand the materials over to marketing for brainstorming.

SoulCycle, one of Jones’ clients, is the perfect example of a brand whose identity hinges on going above-and-beyond for customers. When the indoor cycling studio went public in 2015, a baffled reporter from The New York Times interviewed brand evangelists about SoulCycle. It was clear from their quotes that SoulCycle’s brand messaging and services were about more than just exercise classes.

“It’s the surest, and sometimes only, way to clear my mind after a long day spent in front of a computer,” one woman said. “It’s sold convincingly and addictively as personal growth and therapeutic progress through fitness,” another man said.

A well-crafted story will inspire employees to join your team as effectively as it inspires customers to sign contracts or make purchases.

By centering your brand on the moments in which you’ve connect deeply with your customer base, you’re nudging your experts and leaders into giving you the pieces you need to finish the branding puzzle. They probably have all the pieces on hand, but no one’s asked for them yet.

“I’ve done a major rebrand at every software company I’ve worked at,” Wenzel said, “and sometimes it was just a matter of refreshing our image. Often, though, the branding process took us down to the studs to truly build out a new foundation for ourselves. Having done it so many times, I know it can sound like common sense, but there’s an alchemy to branding that’s hard to explain. It’s very challenging to get this formula right.”

Learn from predecessors

Jones’s most successful clients “aren’t trying to boil the ocean.” They’re not, in other words, attempting to appeal to every single potential consumer by pitching themselves as universal. Clients like Sweetgreen, SoulCycle, and WeWork approached his firm hoping to design their branding around “the things that light them up” personally, and it just so happened that their customers felt equally as excited about salads, spin class, and cold brew on tap, respectively.

Clarifying your brand messaging can pay off almost immediately, especially if your competitors have similar business plans. If you can’t set yourself apart through products and services alone, you can use messaging to get ahead.

“Why the hell, for example, are there always thirty people in line for Sweetgreen?” Jones asked. “Surely, they walked past four other salad places on their way to Sweetgreen. They’re there because they feel something for the brand. It’s because these customers can say, ‘This is so me. I’m a part of this tribe and engaging with this specific brand makes me feel like the person I want to be.'”

In Soho alone, salad fiends can pick up their lunch at the nearby Just Salad, Chopt, Whole Foods, Hale and Hearty, or Fresh&Co, but Sweetgreen is the only brand run like a technology startup. From experiential marketing to the brand’s Tumblr blog, Sweetgreen’s focus on a youthful, hip audience is obvious.

In 2014, Sweetgreen raised $18.5 million in venture capital financing and the year after, it raised $35 million more. The brand is noticeably health-conscious, sure, but also edgier and more youthful—all the result of purposeful, smart branding. Sweetgreen, in addition to being one of the highest earning fast casual salad chains in the U.S., is also the only conceivable salad brand that could convince Kendrick Lamar at the height of his career to headline a salad-branded music festival and collaborate on a recipe called “Beets Don’t Kale My Vibe.” That’s power.

Gather evidence to prove ROI

Proving a marketing ROI to people in other departments has been the subject of many, many conversations It has layers to it. Evidence supporting the success of a brand story has to convince customers, investors, employees simultaneously, and those audiences will have definitions of success.

Too many people believe the strength of a brand is measured in its social engagement. When discussing companies on social media, for instance, marketers and consumers alike often say, “Well, the Wendy’s account is really funny,” as if that were enough. To Jones, it’s more complicated than that.

“A brand is so often confused with marketing communications that face outward,” he said. “How we communicate to the world about who we are is certainly a piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the whole thing. A brand is ultimately the experience you deliver to customers, not the beautiful articulation of an idea.”

Take Wendy’s, which isn’t solely renown for its Twitter feed. It’s also the fast food chain that hands out Frosty “Boo Book” passes and pokes fun at other chains for thawing out frozen burgers for sale. The perception of the product matches the sass they dole out online.

So a brand’s story does have to refer back to the company’s bottom line in the end, but there’s a lot of connective tissue in between. And according to Jones, crafting a corporate brand is not unlike the process of clarifying one’s personal life.

“It’s so easy to become distracted and reactive,” he said. “If you don’t articulate where you’re aiming with your brand and then proactively drive toward that goal, then the market will pull you off-course like you’re a boat at sea. If you keep your hand on the rudder, then even in a stormy sea, you’re still in control of where your brand shows up in the market.”

Image by Clem Onojeghuo / Unsplash
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