Brand storytelling is an ongoing conversation between a company and its customers. Brand backstory, on the other hand, is a foundation. It’s the tale of what came before the hit blog or product. It’s the story of why the company is what it is today.
Compelling backstories are the roots from which brand lore grows – a lesson I’ve learned as my (formerly pure SEO) team branches out into PR and content marketing projects. Some of our first non-link-building clients have been … exactly who you’d imagine first clients to be. They’re not sexy at first glance – not Coca-Cola, art galleries, or tech companies. They’re a roofing contractor, a manufacturing company, etc.
One of our biggest learnings – every company has a captivating backstory, but many aren’t making full use of it, and their brand’s content building blocks are missing a key piece.
Go back for the future
A well-told company’s backstory can shape every aspect of content marketing strategy.
It’s easy to create a story around a multimillion-dollar company curing cancer with robots, but what can you say about a roofing contractor that differentiates him from every other roofing contractor in his region? I posed the question before I talked with our client Ken Duval and understood the beauty of brand backstory.
- Differentiate your brand
A backstory tells potential customers who your key players are and why they’re different from the men and women working for the competition. It gives your brand an organic personality.
One of my favorite examples of a company that turned its backstory into a brand is New Belgium Brewing Co. Beginning with a guy on a bike in Europe, this brewery has grown into the third largest craft brewery in the United States. But New Belgium’s marketing, from its logo and social content to videos and live events, centers on bicycling, beer, and quirky road-trip-style fun. New Belgium has developed its backstory into a bigger-than-beer culture.
- Define your mission
Most entrepreneurs have more than money-making in mind when they start a new business. (If you want to be assured a great salary, founding a company may not be the way to go.) They are bothered by a problem no one has solved; they see the world from a unique perspective. This perspective is the brand’s mission, and their journey is the backstory.
Think about brands that truly own their backstories. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak working in a garage to create Apple becomes a “think-different” movement. The Clif Bar backstory shows off the founders’ adventurous beginnings and commitment to remaining a sustainable private company. Telling your own brand’s backstory can help your content and branding team better define your brand’s unique mission.
- Bring marketing appeal
Unless your founder is one of the incredibly lucky one-in-a-million entrepreneurs who’s never seen failure, your backstory has drama. It has setbacks and lessons learned that have brought the brand to where it is today, likely with a few quotes to feature along the way.
Especially for small, family businesses (or businesses that began as small family affairs), telling the story of the people, their motivations, and their journey is intrinsically interesting.
My absolute favorite dessert store is run by a woman who left it all behind to pursue a doughy dream in 2013. She and her husband outline the store’s transition from a Quiznos to a cookie boutique on their blog:
It’s one thing to put a face to a brand, but it’s even more compelling when that face has a tale to tell.
3 steps forward and 4 steps back
Learn how to define and tell your brand’s backstory.
- Interview the founder(s) with childlike, journalistic curiosity
An Olympic-worthy athlete developing the most environmentally conscious contractor business in his region is a captivating story. But the first time I interviewed Ken Duval for his backstory, he breezed over his time on the U.S. kayaking team and the advantages of his commercial property. That’s why it’s important to have someone with a journalistic sensibility listening to your backstory. Even those of us with marketer brains sometimes get too caught up in the day-to-day to accurately recall our own highlight reel.
If you’re the founder, choose your most curious employee or friend to interview you.
A few questions to get started:
- What was the inspiration behind this business?
- What job(s) have you had? How did that experience prepare you for later?
- What led you to this industry?
- What did you have to give up to get here?
- Where was the first office?
- Who was your first client or customer? What did you learn from that person or company?
- What milestones helped shape the business?
- How did you come up with the name?
Unless you’ve spent the last 10 years living in a cave, your story is more interesting than you think it is. (Actually, especially if you’ve spent the last 10 years living in a cave and somehow managed to create a company, that’s pretty interesting.)
- Condense your backstory into key brand messages and missions.
At the end of a two-hour interview, you may have enough backstory for a novella, but now it’s up to the marketing and company leadership teams to distill the backstory into brand themes, messages, and missions.
Consider how the backstory aligns with current brand tone and messaging, how it can spice up any company campaigns, or help you define a mission – beyond selling product. Thinking about where the content will go also can help your team get brainstorming.
- Work the backstory into website, blog copy, and company-wide marketing campaigns.
A company backstory can influence:
- Brand tone and character – A brand’s personality ideally is the merging of where it came from (roots and values) and where it wants to go (goals and ideals). A backstory adds details and originality to color these characteristics.
- About Us page on the website – Use a timeline or a video to make it more interactive. Tell each team member’s mini backstory in a way that contributes to the overall brand narrative.
- Blog posts or educational series – Show where you started to highlight your growth and learning through how-to or case-study posts. A great example of this effect can be found in the first season of the StartUp podcast. At key moments in the series, the founder replays his first, awkward investor pitch. Rehearing this backstory moment at different stages of the company’s growth illustrates how far the brand and its founders have come in terms of confidence, sales-pitch savvy, and brand vision.
- Social media and digital media campaigns – Like New Belgium’s posts, your social content can contribute to a greater arc or mission. Consider whether your story has sufficient mass appeal for an Ask-Me-Anything session on your industry.
- Media and guest-post pitches – A backstory can help deliver the big picture behind your pitch and make it relevant to the recipients – that’s relationship building 101. Why not arm employees with as much behind-the-scenes brand knowledge as possible?
- Nonprofit work – How does your brand’s backstory influence its charitable side? Can the brand create programs or funding to help people with similar dreams?
Not every brand initiative will directly tie back to the origin story. Backstory can serve as a foundation, not the tired tale your customers have heard 10 times before. But if the backstory is in line with a well-developed brand personality, the rest of your content will, directly or indirectly, stem from it, and hopefully the examples above will get your team brainstorming on how your brand’s roots can work for you.
Conclusion: Back that brand up
Your backstory at least should be a consideration behind on-site and social content marketing, especially if you’re looking for a way to rejuvenate or differentiate your brand’s story. For more established companies with longer histories, backstory could take a new meaning. What fresh starts or new launches have reinvigorated the brand? What’s the story behind company figureheads, employees, or teams? For every person, there’s at least one good “how-I-got-here” story to tell.
So take a few hours to play journalist and see what backstories come up – you just may have a former Olympian on your hands.
Your unique brand story is one of the five core elements for running successful, scalable content marketing operations. Read our 2016 Content Marketing Framework: 5 Building Blocks for Profitable, Scalable Operations for an overview of the full strategic blueprint.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute