One afternoon in December 2011, I finished my shift waving around a sign on a street corner and trudged inside.
I’d just begun my job as a human advertisement for a chain of local stores that bought gold and silver. After peeling off my sweat-stained costume and throwing out the store’s garbage, I collapsed into a love seat, facing my supervisor.
She was nearly twice my age, gorgeous, and intimidating. Especially right then, when she looked me in the eye and said, “Tell me a story.”
“Well…” I scrambled to put something together. As I stumbled through some hastily conceived yarn, I realized something: I hadn’t really thought about my own story. What was my brand?
Her four-word demand encapsulated the desperate need all your customers, employees, and investors share. You must answer this need if you want to stay in business or even get your venture off the ground.
You need a story, and not just to entertain. Stories are a doorway to your identity and the identity of your business. Millions of customers will pay large sums of money simply to be connected to a business’s identity. Think about that the next time you see someone wearing a shirt that says “Just Do It,” sporting a genuine Rolex, or accessorizing with an item from Tiffany’s.
In today’s crowded marketplace, consumers are subconsciously asking themselves, “Who do I want to identify with via the products I buy? Who is like me that I can trust? What greater culture can I associate with?”
Because these are subconscious questions, you can’t blatantly say in your advertising, “You should buy from us because we’re an awesome company with similar values to you and we’re really cool so that’ll rub off on you.” Fail.
Instead, use your company’s story to inspire your prospective customer to come to that conclusion themselves.
To craft such a story, use these four questions:
Where is my business from?
Whenever we meet a stranger, we ask where they are from. It gives us a baseline for identity and the possible spark for a relationship. For a business, location can also connect us to a culture. Think Chicago versus New York City-style pizza. Does one really get you going? These qualifiers make a difference, and automatically conjure thoughts, feelings, ideas, and preferences. Use that to your advantage.
What is our mission—past, present, and future?
By covering the past, you’re crafting your origin story. Did your business start with a generational family recipe? Were you a personal trainer suffering from life-threatening anxiety? Hint: Tie your beginnings into where your customer is in pain now, whether that’s hunger or emotional upheaval.
The present and future bring your culture to life and entice your customer to join your mission. Their spending will grow beyond a product transaction into a vote for you achieving your dreams.
Who is our shared enemy?
Want a heroic story? Then you need an enemy to vanquish. Want to be a trusted hero for your customers? Then you need a mutual enemy. For a company selling security systems, the villain can be a hardened criminal. This shifts your relationship with your customer from adversarial to allied—”us” against “them.”
Imagine someone getting victimized by a criminal break-in. As a result, this victim is driven to develop a security system that can withstand the very attack he/she endured.
Would that put her company above the competition? It’s likely—because there’s a personal origin story combined with a common enemy.
This leads to the next question:
How is my company’s mission personal?
Yes, you sell amazing widgets. Your widgets will make the world a better place. That’s your mission. But it rings hollow—and comes across as boring—without a unique driving force behind it. How did you suffer before your widgets came to be? If someone else’s suffering compelled the creation of your company, can you crystalize that moment?
Heroes don’t have vague philosophies. They have vivid memories of injustice.
Bruce Wayne didn’t don a cape and cowl just because he wanted to fight crime. He was motivated by the gruesome murder of his parents—and tortured by the guilt of not preventing it.
You don’t have to go that dark, of course (although, depending on your niche, you could). Just be sure you solidify the moment that became your call to action and the origin for your business. Then, grow it into your present-day mission. Include how you want to change the future. Give your potential customer something they can cheer on and join.
Example time. Consider these two advertising examples. Which do you think is more powerful?
Acme Switchboard—Home Security You Can Trust
In 2012, a junkie broke into my family’s home in Baltimore and ransacked the downstairs as my two daughters and I hid in the bedroom. I thought our home was safe. After that terrifying night, I discovered our security system had a fatal flaw that every other system on the market has in common. So, for the next three years, I worked to develop my own. It’s finally ready and my mission is to spare 10,000 families the fear and trauma we had to go through.
Franklin Security—Family-First Safety
Quite the difference, isn’t it?
The last chapter of the story is the delivery. Once you assemble your story, where do you share it? The short, smart*** answer is, everywhere. In every advertisement. On the front page of your website (don’t relegate it to the quant “About Us” page). In marketing campaigns. On branding. In sales pitches. On letterhead. You get the idea.
Use your story whenever someone asks about your business—including potential interviewers. You’ll be far more compelling than if you simply rattle off a two-word answer or a pat tagline.
You can even use your story with potential and current employees to inspire their role in your mission. (More on this later when Editor Craig Ballantyne shares his story on core values.)
To sum up: When you craft and share a powerful origin story, you ensure it will bring customers into the fold for more than just a product. They will become lifelong advocates of the mission at the heart of your company—not just one-off customers or uninspired might-have-been loyalists.
Before you go live with your new business idea, why not get the right routine in place?
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