We see them everywhere in the advertisements we watch, in the clothes we wear and cars we drive- all sold to us with a story. We know that stories are hardwired into the human brain and represent the best way to communicate.
In 2020, most organizations understand the power of stories. But what to do with your brand stories can seem fuzzy and unclear.
The problem is, we’re still struggling to make them practical in business and nonprofit life. Aside from telling a great brand story to an investor, donor a client, using videos in ads, or including testimonials in your marketing, putting the power of story to work is still a pretty confusing proposition.
People know the difference- a brand story that is working engages customers and motivates your team. Without it, momentum is lost and growth falls flat.
The risk of operating without a well defined and fully activated brand story is big. Not only does advertising cost more, people remember it less. The cohesion that comes from rallying around a compelling story is essential to winning and keeping both customers and employees.
The real brand story for your company or nonprofit is already alive in the wild. It exists in the lives of your customers and the interactions between your staff and those you serve. It is a living, breathing experience that you and your company are working with consumers to create. It begins in your customer experience and, when captured, finds its way back into your marketing, sales and customer service.
If you can’t find the brand story in the wild, it isn’t really a story at all.
When we begin a company or nonprofit, we start with a mission statement and a list of services. We give it a name and create a logo. None of that is yet a brand story. As we serve customers and improve our offerings, paying careful attention to the customer experience, hopefully, a real story begins to emerge.
The story begins to emerge in some of the real testimonials that people share (not the ones we prompt) or it percolates up in social media posts where people spontaneously mention their experience. If the organization is living out its mission, the brand story comes to life in the customer experience.
One of the best descriptions of this process is expressed in the story by Margery Williams Bianco called The Velveteen Rabbit. In this story, a stuffed rabbit wants to be loved by a child so that it can become real. In learning about how this happens, another toy explains, "’Real isn't how you are made...It's a thing that happens to you...It doesn't happen all at once, You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.’”
Your brand story becomes real as your customers experience your services and it has positive impacts on their life or work.
When you first launch your organization, you have a brand name, brand imagery and services you plan to deliver. You may even have a story you hope to tell in the lives of your customers. That may be your “aspirational brand story” that has yet to become real. If you are paying attention to the customer experience you create, the story you hope to attach to your organization can emerge.
Often, companies slip away from their aspirational brand story, and default into industry-standard methods of portraying their brand.
Here's where your story fits in: Brands begin with a discovery or "why" story, but they have to grow beyond it to thrive.
You are always your first customer. The journey of discovery that brought you to offer what you sell carries important seeds of the brand story that will grow and take root in the wild. That is a story you should tell.
But built into that story is a fatal flaw- it's all about you. Until the story becomes about the customer, and is carried by them, it cannot lead to real growth.
Start with your discovery story, but don't leave it there. Make sure all of your communication is customer focused. It's all about them.
Telling your origin or why story is important, but it is not a brand story unless other join in also telling about their experiences with your organization. If you stop at telling your "why," you will keep your marketing internally focused- and it will never become a real brand story.
It's pretty common for companies to get stuck in the "why" phase of their brand story. It's because they really don't know how to take the next step. The normal outcome of this is marketing and websites that are primarily all about the business, and not very much about the customer.
Many companies leave their stories out in the cold and never attach them to their brand.
An intentional process of capturing and incorporating your story into your brand has to occur after you have created some real experiences with people. For some companies that are even decades old, they have never connected their story to their brand. As a result, their marketing, sales and customer service are weaker than companies who have integrated an effective brand story, but who may be much younger or even offer lower quality.
A brand story is an elevated brand status that can only be earned and not manufactured.
To move from a flat and unstoried brand to a powerful brand story, you have to find your brand in the wild where customers live and work. There you’ll find the stories that are being told and wrangle them back into your company culture. If you haven’t been listening to them before this, then you might not like some of the stories you discover and may have to change the way you serve and deliver your products before you finalize your brand story.
Some of the popular approaches to brand management only take you partway to an activated brand story. While they offer a glimpse of what might be happening, these measures alone dont' connect the brand:
Companies have to earn the right to have their story included in the customer's work or life.
You can use a Brand Platform as a quick and easy way for your team to identify themes and key elements that should exist in your brand story. It won't give you a complete picture, but it will organize ideas and concepts that can bring clarity and direction.
You can then begin the process of aligning your Brand Platform to your brand story.
Grab screen shots of customers using, or enjoying your brand. Collect notes from conversations with customers, including their questions and lifestyle comments about where your product or services fits into their work or lives.
Begin collecting all the reflections of your customer's experience. Not just the formal ones like testimonials and reviews, but the informal ones too.
George Lucas engineered a new kind of storytelling in the movies that he creates. In his movies, every detail of a shot tells its own story. Think of the famous alien cantina scene or the bazaar that characters run through. Every element of these scenes is telling a story. This makes them more authentic and immersive (more powerful).
In fact, the Lucasfilm Story Group is the gatekeeper for all Star Wars content. This story team, if you will, can define what does and does not carry the Star Wars name.
These principles can be applied to your own imagery and how you tell your brand story in visual messaging. Learn more about capturing your brand story in photography.
Brand stories don't just belong to marketing. They are formed with the collaborative effort of multiple team members who have insights into the experience of the customer and typically involve marketing, sales, customer services and strategic leaders. This team not only helps capture and activate a brand story, it also helps to monitor its authenticity and impact.
What to do now:
Identify prospective team members and begin asking them to collect reflections of customer experiences.
The Story DeckTM Workshop helps explain the process of building a brand story, and how that brand story is activated. It shows how you can go from the basics of a story brand or customer journey outline to a fully captured brand story that is being effectively implemented. The workshop is for those who are just building their brand, those who are working to scale, and for existing brands that want a refresh.
What to do now:
Plan to attend the next workshop to learn how you can capture and activate your brand story.
If you're ready to move beyond just the "why" story, and identify and put your brand story to work, this accelerator process is designed to help you get there. It allows up to 3 people in your organization to participate in an accelerator just for your company, or get the benefit of completing the process alongside other growing companies.
What to do now:
Attend the Story DeckTM Workshop first, and invitations to the accelerator are provided to those who have completed this first step.