March 7

Writing a Compelling Brand Story

Writing a Compelling Brand Story

Writing your brand story can seem like a daunting task. If we step back and look at why your customers buy from you or engage in your brand experience and what a brand story should look like, the task is more approachable.

First, let’s talk about what a brand story is not.

Brand stories are not marketing materials. They are not ads, and they are not sales pitches.

Remember that marketing materials —ads, brochures, websites, etc.—should be shaped by the story, not shape the story. Effective marketing materials will serve the brand, not drive it.

Then, what is a brand story?

You can get started by asking, “Why does my business exist?” and then building your story around it. Every story has a beginning, middle and an end. Brand stories are no exception. The three-part model should have a natural progression.

  • Beginning: Problem. Explain the problem that you set out to solve or niche you are trying to fill.
  • Middle: Differentiation. Describe how you differ from your competitors.
  • End: Success. How does this benefit or connect with your customers or clients?

TOMS® shoes is a good example. Founder Blake Mycoskie was inspired to start the company after doing volunteer work outside Buenos Aires and noticing how many children were without shoes. He developed a shoe based on an Argentinian design, and now the company uses its “One for One” concept to donate a pair of shoes for every pair sold to communities in need around the world. Mycoskie’s inspirational spark is clear. TOMS differentiates with its South American-inspired shoe designs and the corporate responsibility business model. The brand builds a connection with its consumers who feel good about the benefits that their purchases bestow on communities in need around the world.

How do I know if my story is good?Attributes of a Good Brand Story

Now that we have outlined what to include in a brand story, let’s talk about the attributes of a good one. Think of these as the benchmarks against which you measure your story.

  1. Succinct
    Concise is the name of the game. If it takes you longer than a sentence or two to convince someone why they should buy your experience, it’s too long.
  2. Emotional Connection
    Invite your customers along for the ride. Sharing why you started your business and what niche you are trying to fill creates an emotional connection and communicates that you understand their needs.
  3. Authentic
    Be you. Use what differentiates you; all your expertise, dreams and desires will help tell your story.
    Are you a powerboat racer? Are you multi-lingual? Did you have a different career that brought you to the point of starting your business?
  4. Rooted in Purpose
    What experience are you trying to deliver? Not the product or service but the customer experience. Being able to articulate the experience builds loyalty with your customers and clients.

What is your story?

Here’s the challenge – break down your story into the beginning/middle/end components described above, turn it into a narrative, and practice telling it to anyone who will listen. As you refine it, check it against the attributes of a good story and continue to refine. You may be surprised by how well the story comes together and the positive impact that your messaging has on your bottom line.

February 20

Honing Your Unique Selling Proposition (USP)

Honing Your Unique Selling Proposition (USP)

Every day we are bombarded with blogs, new products and social media messaging about marketing tips, what clothes to buy, decorating ideas, etc. What breaks through all the clutter and gets your attention? In marketing-speak we call it a USP. Before you think it is some disease, let me clarify: it is your Unique Selling Proposition. A USP is what differentiates you from others that sell similar or the same product.

Definition of a Unique Selling Proposition: The factor or consideration presented by a seller as the reason that one product or service is different from and better than that of the competition.

Unless you can pinpoint what makes your product, service or business unique in a world of homogenous competitors, you cannot target your sales efforts successfully. Can you identify your USP? Generally speaking, business owners find it difficult to identify their USP when asked. With a little soul searching and creative thinking, you should be able to pinpoint your key selling points.

Take these steps to help identify your USP:

Identifying Your USP

Observe Your Competition

One of the best ways to learn about how you are different from your competitors is to write down the words they us to describe their products, services or business. Do they specialize in one particular area of service offerings? Is it the shopping experience they represent? Do they use history to sell their product? Knowing what words are used to describe their product or service is key. If your competition is everyone who sells wedding gifts, then look who is in your market and make sure you are doing something different, better and distinguishable. You might even want to visit their place of business and websites.

Identify Your Target Market

Do you really know who your target market is? Go beyond the typical demographics of age, gender, race, income and geographic location to understand their psychographics. What motivates them to buy? Narrowing your focus and identifying what they read and where else they shop are keys to developing a strong and distinguishable USP. Look at your social media analytics to see whom you are attracting.

Put Yourself in Your Customers’ Shoes

A key mistake many entrepreneurs make is falling in love with a product or service and forgetting that they must satisfy the customer’s needs, not their own. Step back from your daily operations and scrutinize what your customers really want. What problem is your product or service solving for them? If you are a gift store, what will make your customer come back again and again and again? The answer might be the quality of your products, specialized gift-wrapping, or concierge customer service. An easy way to do this is to ask your customers why they shop with you. This feedback is key. What we think is a differentiator might be different than what your customers think.

List the Benefits Your Product Has Over the Competition

Now that you are armed with the above information, write down what advantages you have over your competition. Clear your mind of any preconceived ideas about your product or service and be brutally honest. This can be difficult. You can use a focus group approach with your sales associates and/or staff. Maybe invite a few of your best customers to join you for lunch to discuss. Evaluating what features jump out that that set your apart will get you closer to a dynamic USP.

Write It In A Paragraph

Take all you have learned and, first, write it in a paragraph. Does this paragraph:

  • Clearly make a proposition to your customer that is not just words, or product puffery or advertising speak? It must say to your customer “buy this product or service for this specific benefit.”
  • Offer a unique proposition that your competitor cannot or does not offer?
  • Motivate both new and repeat customers with a strong value proposition?

Cut the USP Down to a Customer-Motivating Sentence

Here is one you will all remember: M&M’s. “Melts in your mouth, not in your hands.” In 1954 M&Ms used, a patented hard sugar coating that kept chocolate from melting in ones hands, thus inventing a chocolate soldiers could carry. No other brand had that ability.

Remembering Why You’re In Business

Most of us are not solving the world’s problems with what we do but you wouldn’t be in business if you did not think you could provide a unique product or service to your client base. You will be able to hone your marketing messaging once you discover your true Unique Selling Proposition (USP).

November 29

Bringing Clarity to Chaos, Part II: Creative Problem Solving

Bringing Clarity to Chaos, Part II: Creative Problem Solving

Creative (adj): Relating to or involving the use of the imagination or original ideas to create something

I have a pet peeve about the narrow use of the word “creative” in business today. “Creatives” are the artists, graphic designers and ad copy writers. “Creative assets” refer to the images, videos, fonts and other files that are used to produce collateral for the business. While linking the word with the visual, “artsy” side of business is appropriate, creativity truly belongs everywhere from the front line to the back office. So, with all due respect to my artsy friends, I’m taking the word back!  Imagination and original ideas, a.k.a. creativity, are essential for making great organizations tick, especially in creative problem solving.

This is an introduction to the creative process we use for solving business problems. It consists of four broad stages that we will explore in more depth in future posts:

Uncover the Chaos

Embrace the Chaos

Form a Framework

Devise Your Plans & Stride Confidently

Uncover the Chaos

In a prior post, I described the tools we use to help define business problems. The common element in these tools and techniques—from SWOT analysis to competitive and comparative studies, to customer feedback—is asking questions from many angles.

Stakeholder workshops are a great way to begin the process. Depending on your situation, stakeholders might be your executive team, board members, key constituents, or members of your department. Assemble a group of people who all have a stake in the success of your endeavor, but with diverse experience. Agreement on the business problem to be solved and the urgency of the solution is important. Beyond that, wide-ranging ideas and opinions should be encouraged at this stage.

While stakeholder workshops are useful for zeroing in on the issues and potential solutions, they aren’t the only research tool we use in the discovery phase. Ideas and issues raised during these workshops lead to new inquiries, such as:

  • What do current customers think of your products or services?
  • Why do some slip away?
  • What lessons can we learn from your competition?
  • What sort of first impression does your organization present?

It is important to make sure that all perspectives are considered, not just those with experience like yours.

Uncovering chaos is messy, but there is a method to the madness! This is the best time to open the spigot and let the thoughts flow. They can be shaped and molded later.

Embrace the Chaos

Imagine a room filled with stakeholders, walls plastered with post-it lists and random thoughts, people engaged in sometimes rambling conversations, lots of open-ended questions. Do you love it or hate it? Think it’s useful or a waste of time? Chances are, there are people in that room with opposing views about the utility of the exercise, and that creative tension is a good thing.

This can be an unsettling stage in the creative process but it is well worth resisting the temptation to rush into a solution that doesn’t fit. That moment of clarity may take time, and it is unlikely to hit you without concerted effort. It’s a process, not the end-result. Roll with it and let your imaginations fly!

“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.” –Carl Jung

Form a Framework

This is where you all get on the same page, and those on your team who have been pining for a solution finally get some satisfaction. A good framework gives context to your work and guidance for your future actions. The nature of the framework depends on the situation, but the key is for it to provide a common sense of direction.

How do you choose a framework? There are as many paradigms out there as there are groups. Searching the internet, you will see innumerable examples of framework images with various shapes, arrows and grids designed to encapsulate an organization’s strategy. Some are graphically beautiful; others are very basic. The key is to provide a common basis to help individuals work more effectively and efficiently toward a common goal.

“You don’t have to be a genius or a visionary or even a college graduate to be successful. You just need a framework and a dream.” –Michael Dell

Devise Your Plans & Stride Confidently

With a solid framework in place, you can now flesh out your plans and step confidently in your new direction. We like to remind clients that we consider plans to be living, breathing documents that shouldn’t collect dust on a shelf. Conditions change, and plans can’t be static. That’s why a framework can be so powerful – it will give you that extra confidence to make mid-course corrections when necessary.

“It is a bad plan that admits to no modification.” –Publius Syrus, 85-43BC

November 8

End of Year Planning for Your Brand: A Mini Brand Audit

End of Year Planning for Your Brand: A Mini Brand Audit


This time of year, we are looking to the holidays, hoping to survive and all the while setting our sights on a successful 2018. The end-of-year pace makes it difficult to allocate the time necessary to plan for a successful new year. But it is an important time to evaluate, organize and streamline our processes to make our businesses run smoother. It is also a perfect time of year to apply these same practices to our brand stories through a brand audit. We are not talking a major overhaul but an opportunity to review how your business and customer base has evolved in the last three quarters, fine-tuning those things necessary to help your brand story stay current and authentic.

A Mini Brand Audit

One great tool for accomplishing this task is a Mini Brand Audit. Ask these six questions of yourself, staff and others to find out whether you need to refresh your brand.

  1. Is your brand messaging consistent across all platforms and does it echo the values of your company?
  2. Have you evaluated the analytics of all your branding platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest etc. to see if the demographics that you are currently marketing to are the same people coming to your social media platforms? Does your target market need adjusting?
  3. Are you still able to differentiate your brand from the competition? Can you articulate your distinctive selling points?
  4. Do your current logo and tagline reflect the current state of your business? Are they outdated?
  5. Have you added new products and/or services that are not reflected in your overall messaging? Would this change the consumer’s perspective of your brand?
  6. Have you asked for customer feedback on your brand? Knowing what works for your customer should be at the foundation of any change to your brand. What feedback are you getting from your customers on social media and your website?
  7. Do you have the time and bandwidth and/or perspective to do this on your own? Might an outsider’s perspective of your brand help get you where you need to go?


Do You Need a Full Brand Audit?

If any of the items above need to be addressed, it might be time to take your company through a full brand auditing process. Do not freak out and run through your office or store screaming, “I don’t have time for this!” It does not need to be a laborious task, though quality of input in =  quality of the end-product. Do not try to take on a full brand audit completely on your own, as you will run the risk of skewing the data with your own biased opinions of your brand. Instead, work with a team of individuals inside or outside of your company that can help you gather information, evaluate, and form an objective conclusion. If you want to take a serious look at your brand messaging and overall brand strategies, seek out a firm that specializes in that area. For the most part, you get what you pay for. True experts in this area will make your job much easier and you will end up with an actionable plan that will save you money in the long run.

Saving Time and Money

The bottom line is: if you know how to tell your story through strong and impactful brand story, you will save time and money with those you hire to do your social media, public relations, graphic designers and the like. In other words, this brand audit and messaging exercise is the conversation you must have before you attempt any new advertising, PR, or social media strategies.

Finding planning time may be difficult, but you will thank yourself as you launch into the new year with new confidence in your brand.