Author: James Hurman | Reading Time: 6-7 minutes.
If you ever watched Shark Tank, then back in August 2019 you might have seen two entrepreneurs pitching their camping tent start-up to a group of investors. Maybe you cringed and squirmed (or perhaps revelled in schadenfreude) at the sight of them hoping the ground would simply swallow them up, as the investors asked them some fairly basic questions about their business.
Who are you? What do you do? How is it different? Why do you do it? Why should people care?
Here are the investors’ faces as the entrepreneurs epically fail to deliver anything close to meaningful answers:
One of the founders says to the other, “um, can you help me out Phoebes?” Sadly, Phoebes has got nothing. Suffice to say, they didn’t get their $200,000. It’s perfect reality TV – awful and a little bit hilarious. And it’s a high-stakes example of a reality that’s actually very common: When we’re put on the spot, it can be really hard to pitch our business in a compelling and convincing way.
Telling your story is hard
As business founders and owners, we have an innate and absolute sense of the value of what we’ve created. But putting it into simple words – telling our story – conveying it to others so they get it – that can be confusingly difficult.
As a brand strategist, I’m often confronted with start-up founders or small business owners who are rightly sceptical when they hear words like ‘brand’ and ‘story’ bandied around. They associate those words with marketing fluff, with consumer ad campaigns, with the nebulous grail of creating ‘an emotional connection’ with your customer – things that seem either irrelevant at their stage of business, someone else’s job, or just plain snake oil peddled by marketing consultants and agencies.
Every business has one
Those same entrepreneurs are engaged in the important work of creating, producing and delivering a product or service that meets an actual market demand. If they execute that well, they’ve probably got a solid business. It’s a blessing that we have people who are wired this way. None of us need another sketchy product that some all too marketing-led company is baselessly dazzling us with. But every business has a story behind it and I believe that no matter what size or phase a business is in, that a ‘brand’ and some ‘storytelling’ will help that business sell more of what they make.
Pushing a story in the absence of a quality product behind that story is just fraud. I hope we can agree on that.
Pushing a story in the absence of a quality product behind that story is just fraud. I hope we can agree on that. But let’s assume you do have the quality and that you do deliver great value to your customers. Then surely that is a story worth conveying to other people in the world.
I don’t believe you need a big marketing campaign. Or a slogan. Or some fiction made up about your product that you spend money you don’t have on broadcasting to the world. That stuff isn’t what I mean when I say ‘brand story’. What I do believe is that all of us entrepreneurs need a way of pitching our business clearly and compellingly. To our staff, to potential business partners, to the media, to an interested parent at the barbecue. And yeah, to customers too.
Why should people care?
Successful businesses not only develop a product or service of value – they also have a way of explaining it that makes others ‘get it’ and see as much value in it as they do. They can tell others, quickly and in plain language, why they started their business, what problem they solve for their customers, how they solve it in a unique way, and what the ambition of their business is. They can get people to understand what they’re doing in a way that makes them want to be a part of it too. That’s what I mean when I say ‘brand story’. Is that marketing? Maybe. It’s definitely common sense. And it’s strangely difficult.
In New Zealand, where I live, we’ve earned the reputation of being people who are brilliant at inventing things, and then pretty un-brilliant at telling people about them. Some draw lines to our cultural humility. Our tall poppy syndrome. But in my experience, it doesn’t matter where an entrepreneur comes from – they all have the same challenge of knowing so much about their business and product that choosing the right things to put in their elevator pitch (and the right things to leave out) has become an intractable undertaking. (Yes, everyone is just like you.)
But when you crack it, it makes everything easier. Attracting the best staff. Creating the best partnerships. Convincing investors. Getting written about in the media. Winning customers. And the cool thing is, your story is already there. Sure, it’s so surrounded by all kinds of mental clutter that it’s barely visible. But it is there.
Developing a brand story isn’t about making up a story
It’s about clearing away all that mental clutter to reveal three really simple things:
- The problem and inspiration that led you to create your business in the first place
- The product (or service, or experience) you created and how it’s different
- Your ambition for how that product will make the world (or at least the world of your customers) a better place
We’re usually pretty good at the middle bit. Because it’s easy to see why explaining our product benefit is useful. So why bother with the rest? Because great stories don’t just explain a product – they contextualise a product in a way that makes people want it.
When you tell people why you started your business in the first place, their reaction is “Oh, this was created by someone who actually really cares about solving the problem.”
When you tell people about your ambition, their reaction is “Hey, by buying this product, or joining this company, I can help create a future that’s more like the one I want to live in.”
And yeah, that’s emotional stuff. But it’s not fluffy, irrational emotional stuff. It’s speaking to two very rational emotions – trust and hope. Trust in you that you’re genuinely motivated to make your product as good as it can be, and hope that with you they can be part of making their life and others’ better. There’s nobody who doesn’t want those things. And you’ve got those things.
This article has been reproduced here with the authors permission from a previous article published in 2019. It’s even more relevant today. If you like what you’ve read here then check out the Brand Strategy in a Day Project to be published shortly.