So You Think You Have a Story
Five Must-Haves for Brand Story
In our fast-paced world of “now-more-than-ever”s, and “first-of-its-kind”s, standing out requires more than a market-defining idea or renowned investors. It requires telling a seriously compelling story; the kind of story that moves our hearts and minds to take action — whether it’s to join your company, work on your product, invest in your business or persuade others to experience what you’re offering. An engaging, repeatable story that everyone at the company can tell will deliver a stronger brand and better business outcomes. Ahead of raising money, launching a website, clicking ‘send’ on a press release, or deciding to change your product logo, you need a story that people not only listen to — but be inspired to internalize and retell. It’s central to your business strategy. At SutherlandGold, we’ve worked with hundreds of companies of all stages and sizes to come up with their story. Here’s our take on how to tackle it.
The Head & The Heart
Surprisingly, our storytelling approach doesn’t begin with creative exploration — it starts with positioning. Unlike work processes that rely on creativity in a void, we see the story as the place where the head meets the heart — a process that requires the left brain as much as the right. If positioning is the head, then story is the heart. Before jumping into a brainstorming session or pasting a rainbow of post-its on the wall, the first step is to dig into the market data and insights.
This helps to put the creative boundaries around the challenge, leading to a story that becomes your strategy.
To get started, your team should gather data and informational insights from several stakeholders, not just about your company but also the market at large. This usually includes customer interviews or surveys, media and external brand perceptions, along with competitive landscape audits. All this data will act as the base from which you can build your story up. Going deep in this process can unearth nuggets that will make your story more credible down the road, to be used as evidence of the market opportunity or industry trends. For example, the knowledge that your company “powers 75 percent of medical wearables” might be key to your competitive positioning.
Without a comprehensive understanding of the landscape around your company, you run the risk of leaving key components out, or not touching on competitive differentiators. While you’re conducting research, remember to be brutally honest with yourself. Find out what the true differentiating factors are for your company — the ones that you can truly own that nobody else can emulate. When every business claims to be “first” or “best” or “only,” focusing on other areas of expertise will differentiate you from the start.
Moving Beyond English 101
Storytelling is as old as Shakespeare and as familiar as Spiderman. If you’ve ever taken a literature course — or binge-watched pretty much any hit TV show — you’re familiar with the basics of the story. Books like Wired for Story by Lisa Cron touch on how we retain information more deeply when we recognize or empathize with familiar patterns and characters. Cron explains how stories hook us with a classic arc: they introduce a captivating setting, create a sense of urgency, fight a battle we care about, and present a resolution we cheer. While all this might sound like a school assignment at first, crisply identifying all of these elements in your own company story isn’t always an easy A.
To move beyond the English 101 basics, you need empathy to appeal to different kinds of audiences. You have to put yourself in your various audience’s shoes by internalizing what you’ve uncovered in your research and positioning phase. Once you begin to identify how each group might perceive or engage with your story, you are closer to creating something compelling, defensible, and sustainable across the board.
Setting is Key: Calling the Establishing Shots
The first shot of a movie is the “establishing shot.” In one fell swoop, the camera tells you about two key things: time and place. With the shots of the city skyline, you’ll see that you’re in New York City, but the modern architecture and recent car models let you know that it’s 2010 and not 1965. Just like on the big screen, your brand needs its own establishing shot to answer the questions “Where are we?” and “Why now?”.
Last year we worked to support the launch of Culdesac, the first car-free neighborhood built from scratch in the US. We recommend that our clients couch everything they do in the story, so we held sessions to determine launch messaging. To determine the setting we looked at the world today. Together with Culdesac, we determined that people rely less and less on cars and turn to public transportation, rideshares, or even scooters. Then, we zoomed into what this means for the real estate industry: the way developments are built has always been completely car-dependent with sidewalks, parking, and driveways dominating the landscape. This opens the door for Culdesac to reinvent what our spaces look like, focusing on people, not cars first. It may sound easy now, but getting there requires taking both a micro approach at people’s needs and a macro approach at the history of transportation and real estate. Ultimately, the concise and repeatable story reached a specific audience that drove their business forward. It was also highly compelling to media, and remains at the forefront of Culdesac’s messaging materials.
Just like Culdesac’s story was born out of a company launch, it’s important to note that your setting will depend on the specific size and stage of your company. Are you pre-launch, driving rapid growth, or just about to IPO? Depending on the moment, the context of your story will change. You need a specific narrative to meet the moment. Consider both where your company is in its long-term trajectory, as well as where it fits with the world around it. Nobody could have predicted that in the past two quarters Zoom or Bill.com would drive such high growth. Of course, most of us didn’t predict a global pandemic. It’s easy to see how time and place both play a crucial role in establishing your story. Next, you can move onto identifying your basic characters and other story essentials.
If You’re Batman, Who’s Joker?
Imagine a story that’s just…setting. Without the Wizard and all of its other inhabitants, Oz would just be poppy fields and yellow brick. A story would stop before it even begins without characters. People want someone to root for — almost as much as they crave someone to rally against. By defining who your Yoda, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are, you can start building out how these will all interact in the eyes of an audience. After all, crafting the characters in your story is one of the main ways of driving emotion with your narrative.
Something interesting we’ve noticed along the way: characters don’t have to always be executives, companies, or even people. A recent storytelling session we held developed a story for a company looking to solve climate change. In their case, the enemy wasn’t necessarily the fossil fuel industry. Instead, we landed on “time” and “over-politicizing” as their looming villains. These concepts provided to be unifying, accessible ideas that any audience can connect to and rally against. So, when considering your own characters, give yourself permission to think out of the box: what forces dominate your story that can move people?
Use a Pencil, Not a Chisel
At SutherlandGold, we’ve held long storytelling sessions with people working in an array of industries: roboticists, investors, scientists, physicians, foresters, educators, and so on. One common denominator across the board — especially with left-brainers looking for an immediate ROI — can be the tendency to seek absolutes. While building out your story, don’t feel like you have to nail it on the first try. Don’t shy away from what’s new or unconventional. Remember the basis of brainstorming: there are no bad ideas. Practice design thinking, advocating for a number of ideas first and then narrowing down later. And remember: you’re not a copywriter, and this isn’t a test. During these crucial conversations, let your mind wander and allow yourself to explore the possibility of being wrong. What’s on the other side of wrong might surprise you.
While you want to be open-minded, you should also work from the very beginning to keep your storytelling exercises to a core group of people. We recommend five stakeholders from varied corners of your company. The point is to bring in key players to pick each other’s brains. The more diversity of titles, genders, backgrounds, and experience, the more perspective your story will have. However, as a precaution, don’t get so big that you get lost. If the group keeps growing or fluctuating, this can muddle the conversation. The best results come when you both allow your core group to explore new possibilities, but stay on track to get to the larger issue at hand: story.
The Sequel: Looking Ahead
The essence of your brand probably won’t change too much five years from when you first map out your business’ story. Then again, Amazon did start out as a bookseller and is now the largest online largest retailer in the world…but they didn’t lead with that. To account for your company’s future, you'll want to think ahead to the bigger picture. Envision how your story will change over time. Your story and business goals should always match up. So, as your business moves in new directions, you'll want to adjust the story to impact your bottom line.
Revisit your story as it ebbs and flows, or as your company enters a new growth phase. Consider embarking on a new storytelling session before your company announces a big moment in time, identifying how far you’ve come and where you want to go next. All the elements of your story might change as years go by. So, don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board.