StoryBrand is a popular program where business owners sit in a workshop and think about their brand. Specifically, they think about the “story” of their brand. For a thousand dollars, you can pay to have someone talk to you about yourself.
I suspect the real power of a StoryBrand session is that it gets people to turn off their phones for a minute and think deeply about their business. There’s value in that, but it sure seems like a strange use of a thousand dollars when you could just think quietly under a tree.
To be fair, most story branding workshops also offer a sales funnel process, coaching, and probably some kind of magic bean that will make your revenue grow. That’s all fine, but that’s a lot to put on a few web pages and an email campaign. A bad product is still a bad product, after all. And no customer cares about the story of your brand. In fact, no one cares at all about your brand.
Still, I’m surprised at how often Story Branding comes up. Anytime I start to work with a client, it doesn’t take long for them to bring up their notes from Story Brand or some knock-off seminar.
Questions from a Story Brand sheet
The note sheet they show me is usually some fill-in-the-blank page that gets people thinking about their business. Like:
- What are your attitudes and business beliefs?
- Describe your personality. What are your strengths and weaknesses?
- What motivates you?
These and questions like them are fine to ask. They’ve been used for years as part of SWOT analyses and similar idea maps. The whole point is to get at what your customers think about you, what you think about you, and what you’d like your customers to think about you.
I try to take these notes seriously when people present them to me if only to see how they ended up thinking about their business. But if you’re like me, you might struggle with things typically asked, like, “What feelings define your brand?” and “Does each element of your business reflect the truth and relevance of your brand to your audience?”
Questions like that make me uncomfortable. And the answers are some riff on a very corporate, safe, response. “My clients should feel they can trust us!” is common.
And questions like “What are people already saying about you” can usually be summed up as, “Nothing”. For most small businesses you might get a customer to say something like, “Nice lady”, or, “I like those guys a lot.”
Plus, many of the brand stories people end up writing about themselves are insular and puffy in ways customers just don’t care about.
Take laundry detergent as one example. Have you ever stood in the detergent aisle or browsed an online selection of laundry detergent and thought, “Tide’s on sale, but I really resonate with the brand story of Arm and Hammer.” No you have not.
At best you might think about broader characteristics of the people behind a brand, like, “They’re a religious group” or “They support Black Lives Matter”. And maybe you decide based on that, but given national polling and research data, it factors into very few buying decisions. Most “boycotts” are anything but a sales blip for a day or two. I don’t eat at Chic-Fil-A because I think they’re hateful toward LGBT+ people. But there are so few people like me it barely registers to them.
But that’s them. You’re you — the tiny entrepreneur or business with a few hundred or a thousand customers. The truth is your brand is often just you.
Most small businesses owe their brand, goodwill, and what people think about them entirely to the people interacting with customers. If you’re a car wash your brand is probably the kid who writes the squiggles on the windshield. If you’re a law firm, your brand is often the owner and how she interacts with the customers. Success and failure are tied to the success or failures of the operator. In most cases, it’s impossible to separate them from the larger organization.
And in every case, success depends on writing about the results of a product or service.
A better way to think about your brand story
There are two elements at work. And you shouldn’t think about these as three acts and a story arc, either.
- Stories to persuade people aren’t new. Lawyers craft narratives that will persuade juries and psychologists use storytelling in therapy to help people understand a situation.
- Story branding isn’t new, either. The classics come from TV commercials. Guinness and “Good things come to those who wait”, Got Milk’s Aaron Burr ad, and perhaps the most famous: the Marlboro Man.
A big business can get away with the Marlboro Man given enough money and advertising dollars. But in order to do story branding right for a small business, you have to intersect both of these elements.
The Marlboro Man is story branding done right. You see him and can imagine all sorts of things about him.
He’s a cowboy!
I bet he slept on the prairie grass last night!
I’m sure he smells bad!
I bet he can shoot!
I bet he gets all the attention!
You can really make up just about anything you want in your head about him depending on your views about smoking. This is why he’s so dangerous for kids, and also why the image is so embedded in our culture despite the fact he’s hardly seen anymore. He’s whatever you want him to be!
This is not to say all mascots are automatically great story branding ambassadors. Tony the Tiger is a good mascot, and he also carries with him a personality, voice, and character you can sort of imagine in your head.
But the divergence is Tony the Tiger tells you all sorts of things about himself — he’s a tiger, he’s into sports, now he’s an academic, and later still he’s affable. Tony the Tiger is more like Homer Simpson — a character you know. The Marlboro Man is a character you make up a story about yourself because he doesn’t say as much. That’s why this also doesn’t work well for small businesses because unlike Marlboro, you actually have to say something.
Your brand should be able to create a narrative based on results
Your brand is probably not Marlboro. You can’t throw zillions of dollars at ad campaigns. You’ve got a blog and an email list and maybe a storefront. You’re also not laundry detergent or some other inherently boring commodity.
Instead, you have to create a narrative around a series of narrowly defined problems and solutions.
For a consulting firm: “We get your project back on track”. The idea here is a story customers are familiar with: we had a project, it got delayed or off-budget, and now we don’t know what to do. But you do.
For a baker: “We specialize in wedding cakes”. That’s a boring tag line, but specific, and the idea is you’re not just making doughnuts. You’re making cakes for someone’s most stressful, most-visible life event.
For a school: “Every one of our kids graduates to college.” A lofty goal and also very specific because it’s not 90% or 99%, it’s 100%.
You can see how other companies do this, too, like Wal-Mart’s “Always low prices”. They live that and we know that because we can plainly see the results. And I know if I go there I get the best price.
If you’re a consulting firm and your story is you always get or keep projects on track, I can imagine the story in my head with my project. “We’ve had bad results on past projects and with past consultants. Let’s try these people and see if they can stick to their promise.”
Same with being a school where every graduate goes to college. If you’re a parent or a student, you can write that story in your head. “I’m not sure I can go to college, but if everyone there goes I can, too.”
Kroger, the nation’s third-largest grocer, has a new “Fresh for everybody” campaign. But I still see lots of people not able to afford or do much with fresh fruits and vegetables.
And that’s where this all breaks down.
If you’re going to have a story brand, you can’t lie, or even do it half-heartedly. You have to live and breathe what you do. Once you commit to a single storyline, like, “We specialize in wedding cakes”, absolutely everything you do from then on must be about that story. If you’re the consultant that gets projects back-on-track you’d damn well better do it every time.
This is why Kroger’s “Fresh for everybody” campaign falls flat. They’re not really doing anything differently than five or ten years ago. In Indianapolis, some Krogers stock little to no fresh produce because “customers don’t buy it”. That may be true, but that’s a narrative lie.
Ask yourself these 10 questions instead for a better story brand
If all the “how does this make you feel” kinds of questions suit you, there are plenty of those on the Internet. I have a handful I ask every client that helps me help them scratch at what they’re here for.
I find these questions pull together a lot more specific responses:
- Who are your competitors?
- What do your competitors do better than you?
- What do your competitors do worse than you?
- Who or what’s the competitor you love to hate, and why?
- Who are your best staff or team members? Why? What are their names?
- Where did the idea for this business come from?
- What’s the project or customer that went sideways the most? What did you do to cause that? To fix it?
- What product or project has been surprisingly successful to you that you didn’t expect? Any idea why?
- What do you imagine you or your business doing in two years? What’s better? What’s worse? What’s just different?
- What’s something you wish customers knew or understood they don’t or rarely do?
The answer to that last question is likely to be the answer to what your brand story should be.
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