Storytelling for Start-ups · Brand Strategy

How Important is Brand storytelling In What you Do?

Ulli Appelbaum Strategist, Problem-solver, Contrarian

May 25th, 2016

Brand storytelling is all the rage in the marketing and communication world. Brand stories are perceived as a very effective mean to really connect and engage people as opposed to "hard-selling" to them (i.e. just listing the benefits and reasons why someone would buy your product or service). Or to quote Antoine de Saint-Exupery, "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

Also, in the spirit of full disclosure, I am a positioning expert and professional strategic storyteller (mainly to large corporation with fully staffed marketing departments) but I am not here to sell anything or to hear from other experts about the importance of brand storytelling is. Rather please understand my question as an attempt to learn from founders, my own discovery phase so to say.

So, I am curious to understand whether this is a relevant issue for start-up founders and entrepreneurs? Do founders think about their brand story? How do they go about developing it? What kind of challenges do they face? Where do they go for input? Or at what stage in their start-up development do they start to think about it? Or maybe it is not a relevant issue at all? Maybe getting the prototype of MVP right first is the highest priority?

Anyway, any thoughts from founders and start-up owners would be very welcome. 

Rob G

May 25th, 2016

1. it is relevant, If i understand correctly what you mean by 'brand' story. Marketing is not our top priority so we did not spend a great deal of energy on our brand story up front.  I suppose the more commoditized your product the greater the importance of marketing and branding.  I can't imagine marketing toothpaste or toilet paper!  That being said, I strongly believe that given limited resources, the minimally viable company needs to have 2 skills:  you must have a product and you must be able to sell it.  At the earliest stages nothing else matters.  The 'brand story' is an important part of selling so, while not central, it is a necessary component and we do spend time early on to develop at least the skeleton of the story.  Our (speaking for my company) priorities tend to be: 1: Business model: market research, competitive analysis, financial modeling (make a bunch of assumptions on pricing, sales, adoption, expenses, etc. and model to see if/how we can make the numbers work.   2:  If the numbers make sense then focus on product/market fit.  Build a mockup in PowerPoint that functions as a focal point for conversations around what we think we should build.  Our "story" starts to come into play here so we spend some time to put a little flesh on the skeleton.  Sales is as much or more about the "why" than the "what".  Go out and talk to prospects.  Our conversations with prospective customers starts with the 'what' but is wrapped in or tightly coupled with the "why" - our 'story'.   These initial conversations with prospects are critical.  We don't expect or try to have all the answers at this point as we expect the market to influence the 'what' and to validate the 'why'.  We iterate a bit to be sure we clearly understand the 'what' and that customers resonate with the 'why'.  For my current startup we built a 2 min. video to help with the 'what' early on, but we didn't feel like we had the need or budget to spend more on our story at this stage - we relied more on in-person conversations to convey the 'why'.   3:  then we went and built (are building) a MVP/rev 1.0 product. We are building a SaaS product so developing our website is closely coupled, but still a secondary priority.  obviously it needs to be 'good enough' by beta launch.  we just this week got around to rev 2.0 of the "about us" page which forced us to sit down and put more thought into "our story" which in turn forced us to put more thought into the 'voice' behind our story - voice, tone, color, etc... all those warm fuzzy things that marketing people get paid to think about :) .   It's good enough for now. 

2. do we think about it? yes. see above. 

3. how do we develop it: seat of the pants.  Collaborate with a writer/marketing friend to come up with the basics - enough to be able to develop some efficient pitches (used for market validation meetings, partner discussions, website development, etc.).  Is this the 'right' way?  probably not, but it's good enough for now. 
4. Challenges: we are focused on product dev and sales so we don't have marketing skills on the team yet. This presents some challenges - the 'voice' (and colors, and fonts and... ) across our website and presentation and materials tend to be inconsistent, but on the other hand we don't feel 'locked in' yet by having spent a lot of time and money on 'brand' development that might get changed as we approach launch. 
5. where do we go for input?: the nearest person we know who speaks 'marketing'. 

6. at what stage did we start to think about it?:  pretty early - see above.

7. Priority:  product/market validation is the earliest priority.  if that looks good Then the top 2 priorities quickly become: building the product and selling it.  Having at least the basics of our story is an important part of selling so while we started to put energy into developing our story early, we did just enough to get by. I can't over emphasize the importance of product/market validation prior to building a product so we made some sales early on before we started building.  This forced us to spend some time on 'brand story' development early on, but we are not pros at it.  We did just enough to get by.  Just prior to beta launch we are now putting more thought/effort into our story and i suspect just prior to GA we will put in more effort.  

Catherine Spurway-Hepler Co-Founder & CMO, The Roadmap

May 25th, 2016

You have your story; it's why you started a company. Brand story telling is simply packaging it into a narrative that relays all of the passion and purpose of why you do what you do, and crafting it in a relatable manner for each audience -- your customers, media, and most importantly, your employees (current and future). The most successful brand stories encompass the same components that you labor over in creating a pitch deck or business plan, it's just refining it to focus on the 'you' in that equation; where the idea/problem originated, and what inspired you to solve it. One of the best brand stories (and evolutions) is that of UBER (yeah, yeah, i know...). It started out attempting to be a luxury brand but became less to do with ridesharing and more to do with the future of logistics. 

Abdi Guleed-Purvis Veterans Resources Aid at Foothill College

May 25th, 2016

In my opinion, brand narrative awareness depends on industry. Living in silicon valley, I have observed that most, if not all, "startup" tech companies realize the importance of a narrative; some good, most bad. In the tech world its becoming more apparent that a "design thinking" approach to development = greater consumer satisfaction! :)...However, sadly, other industries are absent minded when it comes to brand narrative, instead consumers are assaulted with cheesy pick-up lines similar to late night infomercials. I've noticed that storytelling engages customers on a empathetic level. Observing this,me and my partneras newstartup founders realize wecan create products and services that solve a known and unknown problem for "real people",and not "THE-Consumers-$$". Storytelling isthe bestvehicle for us to communicate to people who we are and what our purpose is.The crazy thing is I just learn this approach (no expert). As a "brand-newbie", discovering storytellingchange my approach to business and life. So, for meits just as important as mvp, business plan/strategy etc..because it helps mecapture experiences, and communicate better to "people"....IMO

Shel Horowitz I help organizations thrive by building social transformation into your products, your services, and your marketing

May 25th, 2016

Big believer in a brand story--one that can evolve over time, if necessary. I do a lot of storytelling for my marketing clients, for my own brand, and for exemplary companies I use as case studies in my speeches, articles, and books. Interestingly enough, Rob Gropper, one of those exemplars is a toilet paper company: one that went recycled all the way back in 1950, but never used it as a branding/marketing asset until 2008-09! I think they've got a great story to tell.

Michael Forney Strategic Management, Business Intel and Marketing Expert & Consultant

May 25th, 2016

Story telling is important, very much so in today's market. Much like writing a book, or making a movie, your story is very important, but equally so is how you tell the story.  Bad writing, poor choice of medium, not understanding your market and not having developed personas for your business and your clients all kill the effectiveness of the message and turn away clients or customers.  Consumers today, whether a business or individual, understand this and reward/punish companies and brands for their efforts.  Poor story telling, an undeveloped story or a poorly executed story are seen as evidence of a badly managed business or a poorly conceived business idea.

Joanan Hernandez CEO & Founder at Mollejuo

May 25th, 2016

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

Having a ship is essential, without it, people won't even imagine how they can cross the sea, thus no story to tell. Or, if La Niña, La Pinta y La Santa Maria didn't exist, it would have been very difficult for Columbus to sell his idea to the monarchs of Spain.