This article appeared in Entrepreneur Magazine’s April 2016 print issue.
You’ve got a great product. Or service. Or both. Your packaging, website and tagline are cohesive. That’s not enough. To be a brand, you need to have a story. As a ’trep, you may feel your founding tale, the one that literally gets you out of bed in the middle of the night, is unique. It may be. But your brand’s story needs to take that personal background and combine it with your company mission to make customers and investors listen. We deconstructed five of the most universal stories brands tell, with some advice on how to use them to write your brand’s next chapter.
Story 1: “The old way had to change.”
It used to be enough to be the fastest, the cheapest, some kind of -est. Now companies talk in terms of disruption — an overused buzzword, without question, but there’s a reason this story is so sticky. “To be a disruptor, you have to maintain driving speed of the process and get the formula right,” says Clark Howard, best-selling author of Living Large in Lean Times. You’re saying that your way of doing things is so spot-on, it changed the competition. That’s a powerful endorsement. Consumers always like a leader.
As a disruptor, you’re willing to launch a business that others thought was crazy. Uber sounded nuts — people jumping in stranger’s cars instead of hailing a cab? So did Casper — selling a mattress without a showroom? But Howard offers a word of caution: Don’t frame yourself as a disruptor until you’ve really disrupted something. That’s the difference between empty hype and, as he says, the “fresh and exciting” company you want to be.
The story in action: Like nearly everyone on the planet, Ernie Garcia was not a fan of the way used cars are sold. So he created the Phoenix-based Carvana, a used-car-buying website that allows consumers to search for, finance, purchase and take delivery of their car without dealing with a salesperson. “We decided to build something that’s better by creating a better truth — and then tell that story,” he says. “People regularly complain about buying a car, yet the industry has, strangely, been immune to change for 75-plus years. There has been technology to improve the car industry for a while, but the transaction process is complicated.”
Consumers like seeing the old way knocked down. And that’s why, since launching in 2013, Carvana has raised $300 million from investors and is on its way to ringing up annual revenues of $200 million.
Story 2: “Nothing else like this existed, so we made it.”
This is perhaps the most common of all the brand stories: I wanted it, I couldn’t find it, so I made it. It’s compelling because it’s so simple and relatable: The CEO was once like you, dear customer. “Building successful brands today requires a mix of business smarts and being clever,” says Chadwick Boyd, a brand marketing executive. “Consumers want that. They want to be offered something that fulfills a need in their lives.”
And there’s a trick to this kind of story: You can tell it even if, well, a product like yours did already exist before you came along. Why? Because it wasn’t your product, hitting your niche. Look at how Harry’s, the subscription razor company, describes its origin: “Like most of you, we’ve long had to choose between over-priced, over-marketed razors that disrespect your intelligence, and low-quality, cheap razors that disrespect your face.” Is that true of every razor that came before them? Maybe not — but if Harry’s can convince customers of its story, the company just convinced them of its value.
The story in action: “If you go in a Whole Foods, you’re going to see 48 mustards and 57 salad dressings,” says Reggie Milligan. He traces the explosion of options back to the recession, when foodies began launching small-batch food products out of their homes. Now there’s amazing stuff out there, but Milligan figured consumers were all thinking, I need someone to make a choice for me, and I need a brand I can trust. So he created that brand: Mantry, a monthly delivery of small-batch foods for men, which has spent $1.5 million buying such products since 2012. (Why just for men? Because it gives him a filter — a specific customer to serve. “If you’re talking to everybody,” he says, “you’re talking to nobody.”)
Now “too many choices” is his brand’s story. It does all the searching, so his customers can just focus on the eating.
Story 3: “We know your problem and have a solution.”
If your business doesn’t solve someone’s problem somewhere, it’s obviously going to be a short-lived enterprise. But this story is more specific than problem solving: It’s about identifying a problem that your customer may not even be thinking about. “Speak to specific needs,” says Heather Stephenson, who heads up brand strategy at Super, a home-repair subscription service that raised $3.6 million in seed capital. “You really have to know your customers. ”
This story shouldn’t take long to tell. Sometimes it takes just a few words. Here’s how The Grizzly Labs pitches its product, a smartphone app that scans documents: “Equip your employees with Genius Scan and you won’t need them to be back in the office to access their documents.” The story isn’t really about the product; it’s about the worker on the go. For the right kind of user, it’s totally relatable.
The story in action: HoneyBook offers a whole lot of complex services — bookkeeping, purchasing, invoicing, contracting and more. It’s the stuff that overwhelms people in the events industry, who are HoneyBook’s target customers. But go to HoneyBook.com, and the first thing you see is a big line that says get your life back. That’s the company’s story: “It’s around benefits, not the features,” says Shadiah Sigala, its cofounder. And quite frankly, the features can sound daunting at first. That’s why Sigala keeps the focus on simplicity. “We solve the problem by alleviating personal pain points,” she says.
How many people want to relieve that pain? The company has raised more than $32 million, and sales grew 25-fold in the past year.
Story 4: “We give back.”
What could be more warm, fuzzy and human than a socially responsible business model? This: A socially responsible business model that customers feel is done right, and for the right reasons. Companies like Toms used to get great attention by telling their philanthropic story — but then hordes of other businesses followed, and questions started being raised about just how helpful some of these companies were being. A consensus has since emerged: A program that changes lives is far better than one that merely gives out free stuff. “Helping people by allowing them to utilize their talents and strengths to become employed or get out of poverty improves their economic, psychological and sociological state,” says Laura Ullrich, Winthrop University’s assistant dean for innovation and productivity.
The story in action: Susty Party makes eco-friendly tableware that’s sold in Whole Foods. And the tale it tells borrows from two types of stories. There’s the “nothing like this existed” part: Emily Doubilet was hosting events in Brooklyn to raise awareness about environmental issues but couldn’t find nice, festive but compostable silverware and more. So she and cofounder Jessica Holsey made them. But wait, there’s more! Most of their wares are manufactured by nonprofit factories in the U.S. that employ the visually impaired. Together, that enables Doubilet to pitch her company this way: “Want to change the world? Change the system.” Susty Party has made changes at every step of its system; now it’s inviting consumers to do the same (starting, of course, by using its tableware).
Story 5: “Trust us; we have nothing to hide.”
“My inbox is flooded daily from people who want me to buy their products and services,” says Kim Gorsuch, founder of Weeva, an Austin-based startup that designs personalized books. So how do people decide whom to do business with? Gorsuch says they ask two related questions: “Whom shall I trust? Whom shall I believe in?”
For some brands, the answer becomes the core of their story. These brands aren’t just reliable — as all brands should be — but also promise to reveal things about their business that competitors never do. That’s how, say, T-Mobile got back in the game: It kept calling out the phone industry’s pricing tricks, earning great press. Transparency can be a powerful statement. Just be sure to back it up.
The story in action: The online apparel company Everlane ran a thought-provoking sale this winter: For many products, shoppers could pick among three prices — but each came with information. The cheapest “covers our cost of production and shipping,” the company said. Go up, and you help cover overhead, investment in growth, and so on. It’s part of the company’s “radical transparency,” as it calls it — which extends to offering details on its manufacturing, pricing and more. Its tagline: “Know your factories. Know your costs. Always ask why.”
The story resonates with users: The 6-year-old company’s annual sales are now estimated at north of $35 million (though, ahem, it won’t confirm that). But perhaps more important, the story Everlane tells becomes the story others tell about Everlane. Press — like this article right here! — is almost always about its transparency and prices, reinforcing Everlane’s message. It’s a storytelling cycle.
—Kirsten Ott Palladino