Why read this? : We explore the impact of telling your brand origin story. Learn when sharing it really works, when it kinda works and when it doesn’t. Read this to learn the role of your brand origin story in your brand identity and communications.
Brand storytelling in marketing reminds us of the hibachi grill on Masterchef. It’s popular but hit-and-miss in terms of results.
With expert use, it can make what you create stand out. But, amateurs giving it a go because they think it looks easy and cool tend to end up with a hot mess. One which leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
We saw a well-known marketing professor (you’ll know the one, he’s on everything these days) slating the idea of “storytellers” on LinkedIn this week.
He’s not completely wrong. But he’s not completely right either.
To keep the food theme going, storytelling is an ingredient you should have in your marketing pantry. Used in the right way and at the right time, it enhances the flavour of your brand identity and communications. But you don’t use all your pantry ingredients in every dish, and similarly, storytelling isn’t the right answer for every marketing challenge.
Your brand origin story
This is particularly gnarly when it comes to telling your brand origin story. Brand founders want to shout this from the rooftops. When they started. How they started. And god helps us, if they’re Simon Sinek fans, why they started.
But the value in storytelling comes from the audience feeling like they’re part of the story. When they feel connected to what happens to the story’s hero. When the brand origin story doesn’t hook the customer like this, then you get the sort of shit story the marketing professor was moaning about.
So, this week’s article looks at when it’s worth telling your brand origin story. And some cases where it works but only in certain situations. And of course, we’ll also look at when you shouldn’t tell your brand origin story.
When a brand origin story REALLY works
A brand origin story is best told when it helps amplify a key message you want to land with customers.
Plus, to be a compelling story, it has to mean something to the audience.
On its own, a story doesn’t mean much until it connects to something the audience values.
This meaningful connection that drives the brand’s origin story usually relates to what it does, or how it does it.
What it does example - Who Gives a Crap?
For example, toilet paper maker Who Gives a Crap started when the founders realised 2.4bn people around the world don’t have access to a toilet.
So they created their company with a purpose to help fix that.
They pass on 50% of their profits to help build toilets and improve sanitation in the developing world. This means customers who buy their toilet paper and therefore into their brand origin story can make a difference by choosing them.
It works as a story on many levels. For example, they set up a problem (or inciting incident in story terms) for new customers by sharing the realisation other toilet paper manufacturers don’t do this. There’s a clear and simple call to action that by switching to them, the customer can help resolve a shitty (!) situation for people with no access to a toilet.
Who Gives a Crap’s story guides customers so they feel they can do something to help solve the global issue of poor water sanitation.
How it does it example - Netflix
This type of story brings that sort of brand personality to life. For example, there’s a well-known story that Netflix was created after co-founder Reed Hastings was charged a $40 late fee when returning a video to Blockbuster. He set up Netflix in competition to get back at them.
It’s a particularly interesting brand origin story because if you read the other co-founder Marc Randolph’s That’ll Never Work the actual brand origin story is much more complicated.
They’d bounced around many start-up business ideas (e.g. customised baseball bats) before landing on the idea of renting DVDs by mail. Randolph shares many different stories about how it all started, For example, there’s a great one about the first test CD they sent in the post to see if it’d arrive in one piece. It arrived OK, but they later found it’d been handled by the local postal service. And if it had needed to travel further, it would have gone to a regional sorting office where it may not have been handled so carefully.
However, this isn’t the Netflix brand origin story story which stuck. It was the giving the finger to the Blockbuster behemoth by setting up a service that did away with late fees. And of course, one which eventually put them out of business.
A simple, relevant, memorable and easy-to-share brand origin story
Randolph’s book makes interesting points about how you craft a great brand origin story. As he puts it, “When trying to take down a juggernaut, the story of your founding can’t be a 320-page book”. The brand origin story you tell can’t be everything that happened as the company came together.
He suggests a great brand origin story can be summed up in a paragraph. Simple, relevant, memorable and easy to share. That’s what the press, investors and business partners really want. A version of the story that’s “neat, clean with a bow on it”.
That should be your goal for telling a brand origin story that goes out to customers. It has to be something so clear and compelling, that it makes sense to tell it in your advertising campaigns, on your website and via your social posts.
You go beyond a list of historical facts. A great brand origin story has some emotion. Showing how your brand was driven by fear or surprise, anger or joy, will hook in customers. Get the emotion right and your your brand origin story will transcend culture, time and location.
When a brand origin story KINDA works
Customers and others outside your business aren’t the only audience for a brand origin story, however.
You might not tell it to customers it’s not relevant for them. But for your employees and agencies who live with your brand every day, it’s a more engaging and memorable way for them to understand your brand.
To understand what it’s about, and what that means for them. For example, many companies tell their brand origin story when they induct new employees. It shows the key to what drives their success now comes from what made the company come to exist in the first place.
Example - Hewlett Packard
For example, Hewlett Packard used to give away copies of The HP Way by David Packard* to all new starters. One of the stories it shares is how it was industry practice when they started to lock up tools at the end of the day so employees weren’t tempted to steal them.
But that wasn’t the culture they wanted.
They wanted to show they trusted staff because they felt that would drive better performance. So they made no locked cupboards a policy. Which led to happier, more engaged staff and became a symbol of the culture the company wanted to have.
Again, it’s a simple, relevant, memorable and easy-to-share story that makes a clear point. Maybe not one relevant for a customer looking to buy a new printer cartridge. But very relevant for someone about to start with the business.
Many brands launch with an idea and use stories to help keep that idea part of their culture. For example, some of the big brands in our recent logo evaluation article have brand origin stories that still relate to how they operate today.
For example, Nike’s focus on speed and motion was driven by founder Phil Knight’s passion for running. Starbucks was founded by people passionate about great coffee. And Apple, if you believe the stories, started in the garage of Steve Jobs’s childhood home with a very simple idea about making computers more accessible for everyone.
When a brand origin story DOESN’T work
While these are all good examples of when and how you can make a brand origin story work, there are times when it really doesn’t work.
The brand has more interesting stories to tell
For example, if your brand origin story isn’t very interesting to tell.
Some of today’s biggest brands today like Microsoft and Amazon were started by already rich people taking a gamble on a new area, being successful and becoming even richer.
Those aren’t particularly inspiring stories, as most of the audience can’t associate with already being rich. Instead, those companies tend to tell stories about more interesting and relatable events that happened along the way.
For example, in Brad Stone’s The Everything Store about the rise of Amazon, he talks about how tight they were with money in the early days. Locating in areas with low rents and making desks out of old wooden doors, for example. That’s a more relatable hook for Amazon’s brand origin story than already rich Jeff Bezos starting up a business selling books online.
The story is no longer relevant
Brands with a strong brand origin story sometimes tell it so often, that it starts to go a little stale.
While there’s clear value in being consistent, sometimes the origin story runs out of steam as a vehicle to lead the brand’s messaging.
For example, look at the alcohol category. For a long time, Jack Daniel’s advertising was driven by stories about the founder and the distillery. Why he started making Tennessee whiskey. How he liked to work. Stories from his life and how he saw the world.
But these have now faded into the background. Recent advertising has taken a more contemporary approach of encouraging customers to make it count and live life to the fullest.
Scotch malt whisky brand Glenmorangie is another good example of this. They used to highlight how long they’d been making whisky and how a mere 16 men ran the distillery in Tain. But now unless you’re a whisky historian, a tourist or go to a whisky tasting run by the company, you’ll never hear that story. Instead, they focus on their key message that it’s kind of delicious and wonderful.
The brand origin story is boring
And finally, a brand origin story isn’t worth sharing if the way the brand came about was boring. A good story needs a compelling spark of energy to drive it. A problem or conflict to overcome.
But you look at some brands, particularly brand extensions, and their main problem seemed to be the brand wasn’t making enough money. So it launched a new flavour, a new size or jumped on some bandwagon around health claims.
If your brand origin story included a bunch of marketers, agency and finance people in a workshop putting up ideas on post-its, don’t tell that story. No one’s going to care or want to hear it. It’s not compelling because many of us have been there, and know how energy-sapping that process is.
Conclusion - To tell or not to tell your brand origin story
For your brand origin story to work, it has to have some sort of extra “magic” to it. An energy and a purpose that makes it a story worth telling.
The stories that grab customers the most bring them unique and different perspectives. They can see your purpose and personality in your brand origin story. And it’s told in a way that’s simple, relevant, memorable and easy to share.
If what drove the birth of your brand is still relevant to how you work today, then share that story with your new employees and agencies.
But brand origin stories don’t always work. Sometimes you’ve got more interesting stories about something else. Or the story’s no longer relevant. Or sometimes, there’s not much of a story to tell in the first place. In those cases, you leave brand storytelling in your marketing pantry and use different marketing ingredients to add flavour to your brand.
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