Branding for Startups: Tell a Great Story

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Branding For Startups: Tell A Great Story

By: Sarah Hall

Storytelling is one of the oldest human ways of sharing experiences, creating emotional connections, and transferring important information.  There are countless examples of the pivotal role it’s played in almost all human systems including entertainment, education and governance. Despite this legacy, many times when we start doing branding work with clients and mention the word “story,” they immediately look skeptical.  This is in part because the art of creating and then telling a great story is deceptively simple.

Just imagine all the times you have tried to command the floor in a large group and regal everyone with some great tale.  It’s hard.  You have to have a cohesive narrative.  You have to give enough detail that it draws people in, but not so much that you induce REM sleep.  You have to captivate.  You have to make people relate to, and emotionally invest in, something that may not have happened to them.  You have to create a demand in the room to consume the content you are creating.

Creating, refining and then conveying an effective brand story is one of the most challenging things a new company has to do.  It’s difficult for anyone, but with a startup this is confounded by the fact that these companies were just born.  They say that a musician’s first album is usually better than their second because they had their entire life to write the first one and a year or two to write the second.  Startups face the same challenge of creating content and a narrative in an extremely short time.  What experiences, emotions and values are they conveying if they were just imagined into existence?

1. Stand for something

1. Stand for something 

Anchor your story in core values that you want to be the “north stars” of your company.  These values will impact everything: customer relations, social media strategy, organizational culture etc.  If you are a company that is going to have a commitment to human experience then that should be integrated into the way you treat your employees, your customers and anyone else with whom your company comes into contact.  You should have strategies for conveying this value at every touch point you have with people.  In what ways do you improve the experience of your employees? How do you ensure that customers feel positive about interacting with you and feel that you are committed to them? How do you demonstrate to this to your larger community?

Patagonia released an provocative campaign around Black Friday this year with the theme “don’t buy this coat.”  They were underscoring their commitment to sustainability and to creating a product that is durable and has an emphasis on quality.  Part of their product guarantee is the longevity of the coat, and they wanted to stand behind this by reminding you that you shouldn’t be consuming endless Patagonia coats if they are doing their job right.  It’s easy to write this off as a marketing gimmick (and one that worked as sales increased).  However, if you look at the variety of ways that Patagonia implements this core value from their manufacturing practices, to corporate philanthropy, to their employee relations, it becomes clear that this was simply another reflection of a larger brand value.

2. Find history and context

2. Find history and context 

Create a history and a context for your company/product.  This company may have just come into existence, but the people who work there, the industry, the problem you are solving and the community you are trying to engage didn’t.  Use the information and the experiences that these different groups provide to create a history and justification for your product that might not otherwise exist.  Use data and facts to tell give the history of the problem you are solving to make the company seem both relevant and less transient.  New companies are exciting but they also present a degree of uncertainty.  Particularly in the current startup environment where the money is flowing and the bulk of the companies that launch won’t make it past their second year.  Help create a feeling of permanence through the use of a rich narrative that speaks to the already existing moving parts.

3.  Get everyone involved

 3.  Get everyone involved

Part of telling a great story is having good experiences and content to draw from.  Although part of that can be solved by what was suggested above, there will still be gaps, and as a new company you will constantly evolve.  Engage your community and employees to help you grow your brand story with you.  Encourage them to contribute content as they use your product, connect with your brand, and help you grow.  Then take this content, which might be photos, anecdotes, or other pieces of media, and use it to strengthen your campaigns, your visuals and your process.

At the end of the day, don’t just tell the story, live the story and capture it as you go.  Make your values the moral to this on-going narrative about what you do, where you are going and what you believe in.  Make sure everyone that works for you knows how to say it in a way the makes them more effective at their jobs.  Then encourage and challenge your community to help you evolve and grow.

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