Brand Backstory: Turn Your Story Into Marketing Gold
Updated: Jan 14
A Man in a Hole Story
Speaking to a group of writing students, Kurt Vonnegut said, "Nobody ever lost money telling the story of a man in a hole."
You likely know that story: A fella is doing OK, taking care of business, when suddenly his world is turned upside-down. A pandemic strikes, or the economy tanks, or he loses his job, or gets divorced. He has fallen into a hole. And although he can fall into one, he can never fall out of one. He must climb out.
Is Your Brand Backstory Worth Telling?
Your brand backstory—some refer to it as a Founder's Journey or memoir—is about why and how you created and established your business. It pulls no punches. It’s the whole story, with all the ups and downs, troubles, mistakes, and unexpected turns. Yours might be a man-in-a-hole story. Or, it could be a rags-to-riches story. Maybe even a voyage-and-return story. There are many variations, but most are some version of this plot: a reader follows your path from a comfortable place to a setback, through crisis and recovery, to a better place.
Your story proves that you have paid your dues and know what you're talking about. It's the story of you, your mission, and how your brand fulfills your mission. It's the story that links you to your brand. At its essence, a brand story isn't about your company. Your company is the construct, but the story's goal is to create a connection with your customers.
A brand backstory allows a reader to experience your journey while promoting your brand, building brand loyalty, and creating trust. It explains why your brand exists. It creates a sense of identity, purpose, and mission that your product—by itself—cannot. And when your listeners believe your story, you also give them a reason to believe in your brand.
A Brand Backstory Is Not a Brag Rag; It Is a Hero's Journey
Look up a few so-called "brand stories" on YouTube, and you'll see that most of them are blatant sales pitches. Copywriters call these "brag rags." No one likes a braggart. No one connects emotionally to a sales pitch.
So, however you use your brand story, make sure it's fact, not fiction. Tell it like it was. Spitting out a highlight reel, as most other brands do, won't resonate with people. Instead, you must tell the truth about your company's adversity and how you have dealt with it. Because unending prosperity isn't what people relate to and are inspired by. They are inspired by the tough process of chasing an objective, failing, and ultimately finding a path to success. Readers don't want a dull story of great accomplishment. They want to engage emotionally with a story by comparing a founder's experience to their own flawed histories. Stories work because the listener doesn't just hear the story; they are transported into the story. They are memorable because not only can the listener identify with the hero, they can also experience the story as it unfolds.
Why Does a Brand Backstory Work So Well In Content Marketing?
When we're invested in a good story, our brains biologically respond to it. Emotion triggers our brains to release either cortisol (the stress chemical) or oxytocin (the feel-good chemical). That's why we feel anxious while watching the Wicked Witch of the West and happy when Dorothy and Toto finally return home from Oz.
These chemical reactions can't be avoided, and they shouldn't be underestimated. It's often said that people buy emotionally and justify their purchases intellectually. As we shop, our minds compare and contrast product benefits. But, at the same time, oxytocin is pumping around our brains, causing an emotional reaction to what we see. In our age of overwhelming consumer choices, it's sometimes hard to make buying decisions intellectually because products often have similar practical benefits. If the problem you need to solve is commuting to work, for example, a Chevrolet Spark will get the job done affordably. But in 21st century America, a car is still very much part of one's self-image. So even though a Spark might solve the transportation problem, it will not impress your friends. When you're shopping, wanting to impress your friends will carry a lot of emotional weight. So, you might decide on a more impressive car, like a BMW 3-Series. Both cars would solve your basic problem, but only one provides you with the emotional reward you crave.
So, your marketing materials should convey emotional as well as practical benefits to your customers. Your brand stories connect your emotional journey with your customer's emotional needs. Without that connection, all you offer are product details.
It's important to understand, though, that brand narratives are not marketing materials. They can be used to frame marketing materials, but they are not ads or sales pitches.
Suppose you create a brand story for your company. What do you do with it? It won’t do you any good sitting in a computer file. So, here are—
Seven Marketing Uses for Your Brand Story
1. Generate testimonials. When people feel like they know you, believe in your mission and see themselves in your story, they want to share those feeling with others. That’s what drives “Likes” on social media. So talk to the people who follow you. Ask for user-generated written and video testimonials. Don't be afraid to ask your clients for real stories about how your brand inspired or helped them. When you help other people, they will help you back. Make this process a habit, and you will soon have pages of effective testimonials.
2. Transform your website's "About" page. Trust me; you are the only one who cares about where you went to school, how many degrees you have, how many awards you've won, or how big your company is. Your customers want a reason to trust you. Show your customers that you're a real person with real problems. Then show them how you developed solutions to those problems. Customers will relate to that, and be willing to follow your lead.
3. Perfect your "elevator pitch." Your best elevator pitch will tell—in two sentences—about you, your mission, and how your brand fulfills your mission. Does that sound like a tall order? It's not. You see such short descriptions attached to all streaming movies and TV shows; they are called “loglines” and tell you what the movie/episode is about. A good brand story is built by distilling your stories into a two-sentence premise that captures your essence—your personal logline. Best of all, it's repeatable: your employees can also use it.
Teach your “elevator pitch” to your employees. Your staff can be strong ambassadors of your brand. How often have you been asked, “what kind of work do you do?” Your employees are asked as well. So make the stories they relate consistent. Teach new hires to remember the brand's origin narrative so they can tell it to friends and customers. Make your brand story part of your onboarding and training materials. Let new hires understand—from day one— what your company values are and how you expect them to behave.
4. Create a relevant mission statement. Your mission statement is born of your struggle to create your business. At the risk of waxing poetic, your mission begins as a lump of coal, and the heat and pressure of formation creates the diamond that becomes your mission statement. You want more than words; there must be emotion. When someone reads it, they must know you mean it. Platitudes and buzzwords just don’t cut it. Why would anyone else believe your mission statement if it doesn't induce an emotional reaction in you (the one who lived the story)?
5. Preserve your legacy. A Founder’s Journey enables family businesses (as well as the family as a whole) to reflect on their history and use it as a basis for creating a shared vision for the future. Stories of sacrifice, challenges overcome, and lessons learned, enable heirs and managers to understand a founder’s formula for success. Company and family cultures are based on a shared understanding of values and ethical practices. These are best transmitted through stories that inform, uplift, soothe, inspire, mentor, and entertain.
The book Shoe Dog, by Nike founder and CEO Phil Knight, tells the captivating story of how he went from a startup selling shoes out of the back of his car—$8,000 first year revenue—to annual sales of over $30 billion. His story captures his struggles, obstacles, backstabbers, haters, and hard times. Many of his stories had never been told until now but offer valuable lessons. Imagine what would have been lost if they hadn’t been written. Which of your stories will be lost forever if left untold?
6. Expand your influence. The rooms we live and work in have a lingering odor. I'm sure you've noticed: some smell fresh and clean while others stink. Our influence permeates the world in a similar fashion: its effects linger even when we are no longer around. For instance, my grandmother kept a lavender potpourri in her living room. After she died, whenever I smelled lavender, I thought of her. Influence works the same way. It moves people to action long after the initial interaction is over.
To expand your influence, you must get those you directly influence (family, friends, employees) to share your story. Such word-of-mouth is powerful.
7. Increase revenue. Consumers buy from people they know, like, and trust. A compelling brand story—backed by action—fulfills this cycle. A research project from co:collective of 42 publicly-traded companies from retail, consumer electronics, entertainment, airlines, food and beverage, electronic payments, and IT services/products explored the financial impact of brand storytelling. The results were impressive. Customers were more engaged and bought more. The increase in customer engagement led to:
⦁ From 2007-2011, revenue increased by 70%
⦁ Share price grew by 227% (annualized)
Why such dramatic increases? Because such stories foster trust, and consumers prefer to buy from brands they trust.
How To Maintain Your Brand Story To Stay Relevant
Your Founder’s Journey story is an asset that keeps generating opportunities. Like your car, it must be regularly maintained to keep providing benefits. Here are some tips for doing that:
Publish regularly. Regular posting—on blogs, social sites, and article sites—will create an expectation in your followers. They will begin to anticipate your updates. A devoted audience is a worthwhile audience. Develop a publication routine and resist the urge to get complacent.
Publicize. Publicity persuades. Tell your brand's story through the PR efforts of your business.
Offer feedback channels. Too many companies make it hard for customers to leave positive feedback because there is no convenient way to do so. Make sure your customers always have a chance to comment on your blog, leave a star rating, or fill out a comment card. You will be surprised how many people use them. Folks are naturally inclined to help, and if given a chance, they will seize it.
Maximize Social Media. Use backstory extracts, anecdotes, or customer successes in your comments and what you share. You can tell your story just as easily through a series of tweets as you can by talking to people at a tradeshow.
Learn how to break up your brand backstory into small pieces that can be used in various situations. Tell your brand story everywhere: on your blog, in company biographies, in customer profiles, or in your newsletter
For the best results, use the "stories" feature on Facebook and Instagram to share your story on social. This feature enables you to “go live” with your story, and your audience can see your brand in action.
Interact with people in your field by adding value to online conversations on sites like Reddit and Quora, where you can give helpful information instead of a sales pitch.
Don't Underestimate Your Stories
Each of us has a story to tell. A lifetime of dreams, schemes, loves, losses, and triumphs combine to form your unique legacy. Your memoir preserves your story and allows your influence to linger.
Your story is unique. It's what separates your business from all others. Ignore it, and you are just another forgettable brand in a noisy marketplace. Craft it carefully, and you can create a powerful narrative that touches and inspires people.
If you want to be revered by your descendants and respected by your colleagues, you must share your story. Write it down, or record it, or make videos—whichever suits you. But do it. An unwritten legacy fades quickly. A written or recorded memoir lingers. It enables generations of your descendants to build an emotional connection to you. Your values are passed on, and your legacy may become their anchor.