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To tell or not to tell your brand origin story

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Why read this? : We explore the value of sharing your brand origin story. Learn when it works best, when it only kinda works and when you shouldn’t bother. Read this to work out whether you should be telling your brand origin story.

Brand storytelling reminds us of the hibachi grill on Masterchef. Popular, but very hit-and-miss in terms of results.

Expert use can lead to outstanding results. But, amateurs giving it a go because they think it seems 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.

Meat and vegetables on skewers over a hot coal barbecue grill

He’s not totally wrong. But he’s not totally right either. 

Storytelling should be an ingredient you 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 storytelling’s value comes from the audience feeling like they’re part of the story. When they feel connected to what happens to the story’s hero.

A bad brand origin story only talks about itself, not the customer, so you get the sort of shit story the marketing professor was moaning about.

Mans hands holding a young baby

So, this week’s article looks at when you should tell your brand origin story. And some cases when it only works in the right context. 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 amplifies 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

Woman wearing a grey sweatshirt and looking at her phone in a dark room

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.

Screengrab of the Who Gives a Crap website home page with the header banner Talking Crap - We launched a blog

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 fact other toilet paper manufacturers don’t do this. There’s a clear and simple call to action that by switching to them, customers can help resolve a shitty (!) situation for people with no access to a toilet.

Who Gives a Crap’s story “guides” (another key part of story structure) customers so they feel they can do something to help solve the global issue of poor water sanitation.

How it does it example - Netflix

A brand origin story also works well for challenger brands. You tell an Overcoming the Monster story type, as you’re small and doing something different to take on a category giant.

This story type 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.

Mobile phone on a table wth Netflix logo showing

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 renting DVDs by mail. Randolph shares many stories about their early days. 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 post office, who were known for careful handling. If it had gone to the regional sorting office, the CD might have got broken and Netflix’s idea would have ended there.

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.

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, hooks customers. Get the emotion right and 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. 

When your audience is internal, your brand origin story can be a great way to bring to life your purpose, values and essence. You can tell it to show your brand’s culture and personality

You might not tell it to customers if it’s not relevant. 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.

Woman wearing smart business suit in front of a laptop looking bored

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 how the company came 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 working for them.

Many brands launch with an idea and use stories to 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. 

Look at Nike, for example. Its 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 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, maybe your brand origin story just isn’t as interesting as other stories you could tell. 

Big brands 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. 

Amazon Japan cardboard boxes arranged to look like a small person walking

For example, in Brad Stone’s The Everything Store, he talks about how tight Amazon 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 consistency, 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.

Jack Daniels bottle close up on label

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 whisky brand Glenmorangie is another good example. They used to highlight how long they’d been making whisky and how a mere 16 men ran their Tain distillery. But now unless you’re a whisky historian, a tourist or go to one of their whisky tastings, 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 some brands, particularly brand extensions, seem to launch only because they’re not making enough money. So they launch a new flavour, a new size or jump on some other passing bandwagon. 

If your brand origin story included a bunch of marketers, agency and finance people in a workshop writing on post-its, don’t tell that story. No one’s going to care enough 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 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.

A brand origin story can also work with an internal audience to bring to life your values and culture.

Woman standing in a poorly lit street at night. She is blowing into her hands which holds a light and some sort of illuminated confetti

If what drove your brand’s birth still matters today, then share it 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.  

Check out our brand storytelling guide and how to use storytelling in marketing article for more on this. Or get in touch if you’re wondering how to best tell your brand origin story. 

* As an Amazon Affiliate, we earn with every purchase.

Photo Credits

Netflix : Photo by Kon Karampelas on Unsplash

Barbecue Grill : Photo by Jessie Beck on Unsplash

Holding baby in hands : Photo by Jill Sauve on Unsplash

Woman looking at phone in dark room : Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash 

Bored in front of computer : Photo by Magnet.me on Unsplash

Amazon boxes : Photo by Hello I’m Nik 🇬🇧 on Unsplash

Jack Daniel’s : Photo by Marcel Strauß on Unsplash

Woman blowing sprinkles : Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

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