Sep 27, 2015
Storytelling has been around since humans have been in existence. Ancient hunters used storytelling, depicted through drawings on cave walls, to share information about food opportunities to their neighbors. Fast forward approximately 10,000 years, and storytelling takes on a new form – poets reciting stories through spoken word. At the turn of the 5th Century, stories began appearing in the form of small-batch books. In the 1500s, William Shakespeare figured out how to use storytelling to appeal to the head and the heart by tapping into intellect and emotion.
It’s no surprise this ancient form of communication is also extremely valuable in marketing and branding. Robert Wallace, partner and executive VP of marketing at Tallwave, says it’s one of the only way brands, particularly those operating in commoditized markets, can capture the hearts and minds of customers.
Robert, who also serves as the president of the Phoenix chapter of TiE, has more than 15 years’ experience working with fast-growth companies and startups on building their marketing and branding strategies. In the late 1990s he worked with Airwalk International, which he labeled as a very large startup, developing new media marketing strategies. So the art of storytelling has reigned king throughout his career.
Though storytelling has been a big component of marketing and branding for decades, Robert says it’s one of the things many startup founders and even established businesses overlook.
Not Just a Pretty Face
Branding is more than great logo and polished look. While those elements are important, they’re a small sliver of the overall brand.
“If that’s your view of what branding is, then you probably think it’s a little superfluous to worry about it early on in your startup,” Robert said. “Instead you’re focused on your product, and there’s value to that. You should focus on your product. But we’re going to see more, as various product categories become more commoditized, you no longer have to be novel to be successful.”
As a result, companies need to shift their focus to developing a solid brand, but that brand needs go deeper than nice visuals, it needs to win over the minds and hearts of customers.
“The biggest mistake a lot of startups make is they think branding is just a logo, or pretty pictures, or a tagline,” Robert said. “It’s really about communicating your position in the marketplace, and that is incredibly important for any business.”
This is particularly true for different categories of business in which competition is high – there will always be leadership company in peoples’ minds. To be in that position or at least be in the running for holding that position in the minds of your customers, the branding and marketing needs to be thought of from the beginning.
“Take a company like Slack. At the end of the day, it’s a messaging app…not necessarily a terribly novel concept,” he said. “They have, however, injected personality, a great look and feel, great messaging and micro-copy throughout the site. Not to mention the Slackbot. Those were all conscious decisions that the Slack team made before or while they developed the product.”
“Only certain companies are going to win, and win the hearts and minds of people and hold that position whether they have the best product or not. Those things aren’t often considered early on with a lot of startups.”
Robert also cautioned not to decouple branding and product, and marketing and product. They need to be developed in tandem and should be a company-wide function, not just a function of the marketing team.
Developing Your Brand
As Simon Sinek says, “It starts with why.” Why does your company exist? Knowing your purpose and communicating that to not just potential customers, but also your employees and other company stakeholders is incredibly important. They need to know why you exist.
“With the internet, and this nearly infinite amount of information about companies now…it’s no longer just about a valuable product,” Robert said. “A lot of people want to know what a company stands for and why they’re doing what they’re doing. That is starting to factor more and more into the buying decision.”
Don’t get stuck on figuring out how to tell the perfect story. Instead Robert suggests focusing on the process of understanding who you serve, what pain points they have that you are trying to solve, who else is trying to solve the problem, and why you’re better and different. This, in essence, is why your company exists, and these things need to be thought about from the beginning.
Of course voice and tone also needs to be consistent throughout the product experience too.
To nail this, Robert suggests voiceandtone.com and playing “Apples to Apples” – something he leads startups through in his storytelling workshops.
“Sort through the word cards and get down to eight, at the most, voice and tone words," he said. “This should be based on the value of your company and what you think your value proposition is and what your purpose is. Once you’ve got those eight, the really difficult part is to create ‘but not’ statements.”
For example, if one of your voice and tone words is “intelligent”, you might say something like “we want to sound intelligent, but not arrogant. From there you can sketch out the words you should and shouldn’t use in your marketing copy.
“The brand isn’t just a marketing function, it’s the entire promise you are making to your customers,” Robert said.
The Art of Storytelling
To further integrate storytelling into your brand, think back to the basic story structure taught in grade school. It has a protagonist or hero, an antagonist (the person trying to get in the way of the hero), and a challenge or series of challenges that protagonist has to overcome. There’s a turning point and finally the resolution or outcome.
“You have a customer with a certain pain point, and there are reasons why they have that, and that’s why your is going company exists – to help that hero achieve their end outcome. It’s basic storytelling 101,” Robert said.
For startups, particularly tech startups, trying to differentiate themselves, the art of storytelling will prove more and more imperative. And this needs to be thought about from the beginning. This is in essence why your company exists.
“This should be at the core of your business strategy not just your product or marketing strategy,” he said.
Several years ago MailChimp made public its Voice and Tone guide. The guide helps MailChimp employees write in a consistent voice, and provides a roadmap for adapting their tone based on various situations. It covers how certain emails, landing pages, Twitter and Facebook posts, and even press releases should convey messages. It’s a great tool for determining your brand’s voice, tone and overall personality.
Next week I’m in The Lab with Jerrod Bailey, partner and vice president of business development at Tallwave. We talk all things acquisition and how entrepreneurs can start building their sales and marketing stack even before they launch. Be sure to tune in! Until then, have a prosperous week.