By Debbie Williams published June 19, 2013

Find the Heart of Your Brand Storytelling with These 6 Questions

What’s the first thing you do when meeting someone new? You ask them questions to unveil their story: Where are you from? What kind of work do you do? Do you have children? Do you come here often? Questioning a stranger is more than a polite way to pass time — it’s the core of trying to connect.

Stories make life interesting and give people a way to connect. People crave them, which creates a big opportunity for brand storytelling.

Unfortunately, a lot of companies don’t think of themselves as a brand, let alone consider whether they have a story to tell. But the problem is not that they don’t have a story — they just don’t understand how to find it, or how they should be sharing it.

A brand story is made up of all that you are and all that you do. From the company’s history, mission, inspiration, goals, audience, and raison d’être, it’s why you exist. Your story is the people, places, and ideas that your company thrives on. It’s the foundation that keeps a brand going and growing. It’s a blend of those vital little core pieces of information about your business — how you came to be, why your products or services are special, what you’re passionate about, your company culture, how you make people’s lives better, and why you would do business with your company.

Brand stories can be told in many different forms, with an evolving story line and cast of characters, but content creators must be vigilant about continuity and consistency, avoiding any holes. Your brand’s story has to resonate with people at a level that goes way beyond what’s tangible — the functionality, features, and benefits of your products or services — to create a deep, emotional connection with your audience. You have to create something that they want to be a part of and show that you really “get” who they are and what they need.

Here are a few basic questions to answer to help you pull your story out of its box:

1. What’s your reason for being?

To tell your story, you have to know your reason for being in business and be able to articulate it clearly. What is your purpose? What is important to you? What makes your product different from the competition?

Business leaders must understand the essence of their own company’s mission — and get real with themselves as to how durable and realistic that mission is. Businesses also must have clear corporate positioning that identifies who they are at their core, and is based on a deep understanding of why they are in business and who they are in business for. The strategy, mission, and vision are part of the true essence of a brand story, and are essential to aligning that story with truth and reality. If you are building upon a weak foundation, there will always be cracks in your story.

Answering fundamental questions about why you’re in business often reveals those vital nuggets of information about what makes you different, compelling, and interesting to others. Knowing where you’ve been will help you know where you’re going.

Example: Splenda: When Splenda launched onto the scene with its sunny, yellow packets, it quickly captured market share by introducing Sucralose, a new zero calorie sweetener “made from real sugar.” Early on, the folks at Splenda were committed to telling their story. In fact, Splenda takes storytelling so seriously that an entire section of its website is dedicated to telling its brand story. Splenda doesn’t assume brand loyalty will be enough to lure consumers; it gives consumers a brand story to be loyal to.

Splenda’s story.

Telling your brand story helps you distinguish yourself from the overload of information out there. It’s why some brands, like Apple and Starbucks, give some people the warm fuzzies — and create an irrational teenage-like crush in others.

2. What’s your history?

From shampoo to chocolate to logistics companies, people want to know the history of your products or services and how they came to be. Has anyone else owned your company? How did it come to be? Was there a creative or historical event behind the origin of your business? If you’re stuck for inspiration, consider that the luxury notebook company Moleskine created a fictional history around its notebooks, describing them as “The legendary notebook used by artists and thinkers over the past two centuries: among them Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and Bruce Chatwin.”

Example: Oren International: Think your business isn’t that exciting? Paper converting likely doesn’t sound thrilling either. In fact, the folks at Oren International once had a dry, boring website focused on numbers, weights and measurements, and type of paper they convert — it certainly didn’t tell the story of a fun, creative group with an amazing paper facility that services major clients — including restaurants, pharmaceutical companies and advertising agencies — worldwide.

Once we got to know the real story behind Oren’s operations, we found gems of information to bring out its personality and enhance its custom services through more fitting words and visuals.

Oren’s new content explains how it partners with companies to bring their visions to life and conveys its passion for the possibilities of paper. It has a voice and perspective and effectively communicates what Oren can do for clients, from developing innovative alternatives for product parts to make them more green and economical, to collaborating with project engineers to execute ideas.

Within the first three months of its new site launch, Oren International saw a 69 percent conversion rate for its eBook, which targeted restaurants, and an 86 percent conversion rate on an eBook about the environment. Both of these pieces show Oren’s expertise and commitment to quality through interesting storytelling.

Oren International’s website (before)

Oren International’s website (after)

3. Who are your main characters?

Every brand story has main characters that helped it take shape. Was your business inspired by a book? Did your founders have a chance meeting with someone on a subway? Was there an aha moment while jogging? To find the heart of your story, start by identifying all of the people (real or fictional) who make your business thrive, and use them as your cast of characters.

4. What’s your corporate mission?

This is your business’ ultimate reason for being. Why are you in business? What call are you responding to? What problems are you trying to solve? Method Products founders Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry set out to turn the consumer goods industry on its head by creating products that “inspire a happy and healthy home revolution” with ingredients that “come from plants, not chemical plants” and will be “role models in bottles.” Method’s annual revenue now exceeds $100 million.

5. How have you failed?

Failure often breeds success. Showing people how you failed along the way and transparently embracing those pitfalls demonstrates the humanity of your business and will help them feel more connected to you on a personal level. Even Henry Ford failed in his early businesses and lost his fortune five times before founding the Ford Motor Company.

6. Where are your gaps?

As you dive into the Q&A, pay attention to topics or subjects that you see people being hesitant to share. It’s common practice to try and fill every month and year of your working life when creating a resume. You aren’t “supposed” to have any gaps in your professional life.  From our experience, those gaps are usually where the most interesting stories take place.  Whether a year of work is missing from traveling the world, starting a family, or simply being unemployed, the best stories often come from those empty spaces.

A simple way to look for those intriguing gaps is to create a timeline for your company. Don’t try to sugar coat a slow year by blaming it on economic downturns or “transitions.” Be honest with yourself and acknowledge the good and the bad.  What you’ll likely find is that during those times you normally wouldn’t highlight, the most interesting part of your story will emerge.

A slow year may have forced your company to invent a new product or service. A rebranding campaign may have resulted from bringing on a new partner or letting someone go.  The times where everything seemed status quo or even boring may have been when your next big idea was actually brewing underneath the surface.   The gaps often hold the key to why you have a story in the first place.  Whether you are a new or old brand, taking some time to remember why you started or how an idea came to you can be the essence of your story.

Conclusion

You have to know who you are before you can explain it to someone else. Brands that don’t have their core value propositions in place, or have internal discrepancies about what they are even trying to say, will never be able to share their story with the world in an honest and engaging way.

Learn more about brand content creation from Debbie Williams when she takes the stage at Content Marketing World 2013. Debbie’s book, with co-author Dechay Watts, “Brands in Glass Houses: How to Embrace Transparency and Grow Your Business Through Content Marketing,” will be released by Content Marketing Institute in September, 2013.

Cover image via Bigstock.

Author: Debbie Williams

As co-founder of SPROUT Content, Debbie Williams is passionate about developing strategic, creative content that eloquently captures the spirit and emotion of brands through words. After more than 10 years of copywriting and creative marketing experience for global beauty brands and consumer goods companies, she now knows that content marketing is what she’s been doing all along. Follow her on Twitter @sproutcontent.

Other posts by Debbie Williams

  • Katherine Kotaw

    Great questions, Debbie. It’s hard to get clients to answer such queries. Alarmingly, many just want to check the “I don’t know” box and move on. But every brand does have a story and your tips on extracting it provide a gentle-probing method of finding it.

    • http://www.sproutcontent.com/ Debbie Williams

      Thanks Katherine. Exactly! Every brand does have a story, and every company , no matter what type of business or size, is a brand. Thanks!

  • Mark from WebinaROI

    Good article Debbie. To this I would add “Why should I (the audience) care?”

    • http://www.sproutcontent.com/ Debbie Williams

      Thanks Mark. What companies need to focus on is not themselves, but their audience. So that’s the main purpose of great content and brand storytelling – explaining what your products/services can do to improve the lives of your customers. So hopefully, with great communication, the audience will care because the story resonates with them so much.

      • http://www.showyourexpertise.com Carl Friesen

        Debbie, I think that the “WIIFM” (What’s In It For Me?) angle you’ve mentioned is important. In telling a company’s history, It’s important to point out how this benefits the customer. For example, one of the driving forces behind the founder of what is now Unilever was the desire to make soap that would help keep people clean, a big step to defeating the bubonic plague that was devastating England in Victorian times. Do you agree that it’s important to at least try to insert a WIIFM message into getting-to-know-you content?

  • http://www.octarine.co.za/ Ann Druce

    It’s the classic case of those who want to maintain a “professional” distance and avoid getting too personal with their stories, who fail to make a human connection. And the same goes for our businesses and our brands.

    • http://www.sproutcontent.com/ Debbie Williams

      Exactly Ann. So many businesses talk like “organizations” and not as people to people. They are afraid to reveal too much which is what creates the disconnect. Thanks for your input!

  • http://acooze.co/ Cameron Upshall

    Great Article Debbie. Cannot wait for your book to be released.

    • http://www.sproutcontent.com/ Debbie Williams

      Thanks so much Cameron! It will be out by CMWorld this year.

  • amitknagpal

    Simply loved it Debbie. :)

  • Chris Amorosino

    Debbie, people don’t buy from companies; they buy from other people. If that’s true, and it is, then your questions are extremely important. Thanks for the good info.

  • @EdInOakland

    Debbie, I really appreciate your point about sharing your failures. That’s one few people consider. It’s difficult to convince clients or the company you work for that some of those moments are worth sharing. Do you have any strategies for how to show them the benefits and make the case?